It’s been 17 years, give or take, since the people of Australia voted in the Constitutional referendum put to them regarding the continuation or termination of the Australian monarchy. Pushed by the Liberal-National Coalition Government under John Howard, it had the full backing of many MPs within Parliament, strong support from many Australian citizens, and polls indicated that the odds of a new republican constitution were good. The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) and other republicans across the Commonwealth were convinced that Queen Elizabeth II would soon become “Queen Elizabeth the Last”.
They were to be disappointed. With 55% to 45%, the Australian Republic was rejected by the 1999 Referendum, and the monarch was saved for another few decades at least. The ARM was flabbergasted by this result, blaming in equal parts the Australian PM John Howard for his lacklustre approach to the Republican cause, the model of republic chosen — many Australian republicans wished a directly elected president, but Parliament presented an appointed president — and “unpatriotic” Australian monarchists. While many hoped that the republic may be revisited later, subsequent governments declined to revisit the issue at least until after the reign of the current Queen.
Since then the taste for a republic among Australians has waned. Following the Golden and Diamond Jubilees, and especially since the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the birth of Prince George and Princess Charlotte, support for the monarchy has been climbing and support for a republic declining. The very demographics have also switched, with millennial Australians more likely to be monarchists than more republican Baby Boomer Australians.
Now, however, it seems that the ARM has started to mobilise once more. With the current Prime Minister, Malcom Turnball, being an open republican, all Australian state and territory leaders voicing their support, and with 81 members of the House of Representatives and 40 of the Senate also declaring for a republic, the Movement has claimed that it enjoys that support of both Houses of Parliament.
Their spokesperson, Peter FitzSimons, commented that Turnball has “the unique chance to put the republican cause firmly back on the centre of the national agenda”.
FitzSimons further claimed that: “The majority of the public want it. Every premier and chief minister wants it. Now it turns out that our federal representatives agree as well.”
The support, of course, is not unanimous. 51 MPS remain neutral in the debate, while at least 15 favour the current constitution. In the Senate, the numbers are 21 and 15. Support even from those in favour of a republic is also conditional. While the Greens and Labour MPs are enthusiastic about the prospect, most Liberals are more cautious. Many representatives, such as conservative MP George Christensen, had clarified that their consent to a republic depends entirely on the sort of republic being proposed, an echo of one of the main downfalls of the 1999 referendum. Mr Turnball himself is also reluctant to put the question to the Australian republic, having already led the Republican Movement into defeat once before during the last referendum on the issue.
“I have led a yes case for a republic into a heroic defeat once – I have no desire to do so again,” as he said back in January.
The Australian Monarchist League is naturally unimpressed. In response to the agitations for a republic within Parliament, the ALM posted a statement on their Facebook page in which they expressed their disappointment in Mr Turnball for “revisiting his project…that was rejected by the referendum seventeen years ago”.
In the words of Philip Benwell, the AML’s National Chair, “The fact is, the majority of Australians do not want a republic. The latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll conducted in February found that 47 per cent are opposed to a republic with 42 per cent supporting, but that 42 per cent itself is divided into various republican models and even then will greatly diminish once the detail of any constitutional change is put to them in a referendum. We estimate that if there was a referendum today, over 60% of voters would reject a republic.”
As for the opinion of the Queen of Australia herself, she is keeping characteristically neutral. A spokesperson for Buckingham Palace has said before in January that the matter of an Australian republic is one for the Australian people to decide upon.