Australia's Deadlock over a Republic

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Australia's Deadlock over a Republic

Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review

QUEEN Elizabeth won her first election on November 6, 1999. 54 per cent of Australians voted 'no' in a referendum on whether the country should become a republic. But the result should not be misinterpreted. Australians did not vote for the Queen -- they voted against Australian politicians.

This article deals with three matters. First, it examines what the vote says about Australia's bitter political culture. Second, somewhat paradoxically it examines the slow slide towards a republic. Third, it examines the Australian deadlock over the republic.

Explaining the Vote

The November 6 referendum was whether to change the Constitution so that a president would be elected by two-thirds of the national parliament. The people would not have had any direct say in the selection of the president.

The monarchists were jubilant about the November 6 result. But it is important not to misread it. The monarchy could not be defended on its merits. The Queen has little support in Australia and there is even less for her children. According to opinion polls, only about 10 per cent of Australians want the Queen to stay on as the head of state. There is no spiteful antagonism, simply a sense of indifference.

The vote is explained in domestic Australian terms. First, the vote is the most recent example of Australia's politics of anger. The monarchists did not speak in favour of the Queen; they simply tapped into the loathing that many people have for politicians, ruling elites and the urban rich.

Second, there is always suspicion of authority figures. This comes from Australia's convict past. It resonates in various ways across the community. The country's indigenous peoples were dispossessed by the 18th-century British invasion. They may not be keen on the Queen but some voted against the referendum because it was seen as a proposal coming from the white elite.

Australia's immense post-war immigration intake (making the country one of the top three most cosmopolitan countries, along with Canada and Israel) was done by often taking in people fleeing from authoritarian regimes. They may have little intrinsic love for the Queen but they do not like ruling elites.

Many ordinary people saw the issue as irrelevant to the country's main problems, such as the high level of foreign debt, unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, divorce and family breakdown. The voters rejected the referendum because they did not like the people who advocated it. There was no broadly based campaign for it; there were no large demonstrations; there was no passion. Australians were far more passionate over the need to help the East Timorese.

Third, there is a conservatism among Australian voters in most referenda. It is easier to stay with the status quo. They generally vote 'no' in referenda. Only about 20 per cent of referenda since 1901 have resulted in a 'yes' victory.

Australians are not conservative in all things. For example, they have a great love for all forms of new technology and they are innovative. It is just on politics they have a suspicion of rapid change being foisted upon them by politicians. The November 6 'no' vote enabled them to keep their options open. They can return to the issue in the future.

Finally, the republican groups were divided among themselves. Some supported the vote and others did not. Among the opponents were republicans who claimed that it would be better to have a directly elected president, rather than one decided on by the politicians. These people voted 'no' in the hope of getting a popularly elected president later on in a more ambitious campaign. This lack of agreement among republican groups added to the worry of some voters, who voted 'no' because the issue seemed so complicated. Success in a referendum requires political unanimity.

An interesting aspect of the result was the split in voting patterns. …

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