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This post was prepared by Christie Chang Ching Wilson, an intern of the Constitutional Reform Unit.

In 2017, almost two decades after the unsuccessful republic referendum of 1999, Australia remains a constitutional monarchy. Despite the great support behind the nation’s republican movement in the 1990s from many politicians and members of the public, some perceive Australia as being no closer to changing its constitutional arrangements. This blog-post seeks to evaluate the likelihood of another republic referendum being proposed in the next decade and the issues that must be faced.

Australia’s current constitutional arrangements

Contrary to common misconceptions, Australia has already achieved complete autonomy from the United Kingdom. Although it is not entirely clear when this constitutional independence was attained, the High Court of Australia in Sue v Hill held that it was no later than the passage of the Australia Acts 1986.

Despite our nation’s colonial ties having already been severed, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remains Australia’s Head of State, with the Governor-General acting as her representative. The Head of State is the highest-ranking constitutional office in Australia. The Queen appoints the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. For this reason, the office of Governor-General can be described as being entirely Australian in character; the Governor-General, an Australian, is chosen by the Australian Head of Government and appointed by the Head of State of Australia.

Under s 61 of the Constitution, the Commonwealth’s executive power is vested in the Queen and made exercisable by the Governor-General. In relation to Australian national affairs, the Queen and her vice-regal representative, the Governor-General, act upon the advice of the Prime Minister. However, the Governor-General also possesses certain reserve powers. These powers are not codified and are underpinned by constitutional conventions. Reserve powers include the ability to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister.

As Australia has already achieved complete autonomy from the United Kingdom, the Queen’s role as Australian Head of State is largely reflective of a bygone era. When Australia does become a republic, it will not necessarily affect its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. It is no longer the case that Commonwealth Realms have to apply for readmission to the Commonwealth when they become a republic.

The 1999 referendum

As the twentieth century came to a close, the republic issue was propelled to the fore, influenced by factors such as a burgeoning national pride and a growing recognition of Australia’s place in the Asian region. As Australia has a rigid Constitution, a referendum is required to make any constitutional amendments. For a proposed law to be successful at referendum, it needs to be approved by a majority of electors in the majority of States, in conjunction with a majority of the electors overall.

On 6 November 1999, Australian electors were asked in a referendum whether they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Under the proposed law, the President, who was to become the nation’s Head of State, was largely to assume the same powers that the Queen and Governor-General had enjoyed.

This proposed law was rejected in all Australian States. A total of 55% of electors nationally responded with a “no” vote. Only in the Australian Capital Territory did the proposal succeed with 63% of electors voting “yes”. This outcome was in direct contrast to the findings of public polls conducted between 1998 and 1999, where a large portion of the participants had indicated that Australia should become a republic. A number of factors can be identified as leading to the rejection of the proposed law; however, for the present purposes, the focus will be on the issue of a directly elected President.

Directly elected President

Under the proposed law, the President was to be elected by a two-thirds majority of the members of Parliament. Interestingly, in studies conducted after the 1999 referendum, a significant percentage of electors who had voted against Australia becoming a republic indicated that they would have voted “yes” had the appointment of the President been decided by a direct election. These findings suggest that electors who voted “no” may still have supported Australia becoming a republic, but just desired a more democratic form of choosing the President. A directly elected President had been suggested in the debates leading up to the referendum. However, it was ultimately rejected at the 1998 Constitutional Convention in favour of the parliamentary election model.

As such, it can be suggested that if a republic referendum is proposed once more, it would be more likely to succeed if it provided for a directly elected President. However, a more democratic model brings several problematic issues. For example, where the President is directly elected by the nation, it may lead to both the public and the President believing that the President holds a direct popular mandate, unlike the Prime Minister. This may lead to the President overstepping the traditional boundaries of the role. To safeguard against this, the President’s powers, including the reserve powers, could be more clearly defined and limited in the Constitution. Nevertheless, there are significant risks in codifying the President’s reserve powers. It is important to leave a level of flexibility to allow the President to respond to varying circumstances.

A direct election of the Head of State would involve a national vote; this would require a nationwide election campaign. As such, to be a successful Presidential candidate, an individual would need the financial means to launch this widespread campaign. This may restrict the Presidential candidates to individuals of sizeable wealth, such as celebrities, or those who have the backing of a political party.

Some academics have raised the concern that politicians may be incapable of maintaining the impartiality needed of a President. While this has not proved the case when politicians have fulfilled the vice-regal role of representing the Queen, it may be different if they are directly elected and are not someone else’s representative. These are all issues that will need to be given consideration when proposing a structure for an Australian republic.

Likelihood of a republic referendum in the near future

Academics have noted that over the course of the last eighteen years, advocacy for an Australian republic has diminished. However, in recent months, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has promised that as Prime Minister he will hold a republic vote during his first term. This plebiscite will ask: “Do you support an Australian Republic with an Australian Head of State?” If it receives a majority ‘yes’ vote, a referendum will then follow.

Shorten’s proposal has been met with criticism, especially from monarchist politicians, such as Tony Abbott. The Australian public itself may also not be entirely receptive to the government carrying out another plebiscite, so close to the same-sex marriage postal survey, which cost the public approximately $122 million. The holding of a referendum – necessary to alter Australia’s constitutional arrangements – would also involve an additional cost (the 1999 republic referendum cost $66 million). As such, it is possible that even if Shorten is elected as Prime Minister, the lack of public support for a republic plebiscite may discourage the Labor Party from fulfilling this promise.

Turning away from Shorten’s proposal, whether or not another republic referendum will be put to the public in the near future rests on several factors. Given the current lack of public interest in Australia’s constitutional arrangements, the occurrence of a major event may be necessary to revive discussions on whether or not Australia should have an Australian Head of State. An example of such an event would be the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It is possible that the Queen’s death may prompt nostalgic sentiments for the British monarchy amongst the Australian populace, diminishing support for a republic. However, the prospect of the still fairly unpopular Prince Charles – who surveys say that only 34% of the British populace would like to succeed the Queen – becoming King of Australia may be sufficient to dampen such sentiments and provide the needed impetus for a republic referendum.

Before such an event occurs, other matters are likely to continue to dominate public discussion about constitutional reform. For example, the issue of amending the Constitution to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a more direct voice in Parliament has stimulated greater public attention than the republic in recent times.

Finally, the 1999 referendum’s lack of success may discourage politicians from pursuing another republic referendum if there is not a sufficiently strong public movement for such change. The failure of a referendum is neither conducive to the republican cause nor helpful for the political standing of a government.

Conclusion

While Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull all supported a republic, none was prepared to spend the necessary political capital on pursuing a referendum. While Bill Shorten may buck the trend by keeping his commitment to hold a republic referendum if he becomes Prime Minister, the greater likelihood is that a republic referendum will be spurred by a major event, such as the death of Queen Elizabeth II. When another referendum is proposed, it will be important to analyse the reasons behind the 1999 referendum’s failure in order to help ensure its success.

SUGGESTED CITATION: Christie Chang Ching Wilson, 'God save the President: The Likelihood of an Australian Republic in the Twenty-First Century', Constitutional Critique, 7 November 2017, (Constitutional Reform Unit Blog, University of Sydney, http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/cru/).