World

Royal challenge

Voters will decide whether to get rid of the Queen

TOM FENNELL February 23 1998
World

Royal challenge

Voters will decide whether to get rid of the Queen

TOM FENNELL February 23 1998

Royal challenge

Voters will decide whether to get rid of the Queen

TOM FENNELL

LINDSEY ARKLEY

When Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard rose from a green leather bench in Canberra’s Old Parliament House to open a constitutional convention, he was surrounded by ghosts of the country’s British past. Even the Speaker’s chair is carved from oak taken from Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. But the strongest historical link—the connection with British royalty—could disappear following a vote last week that moves the country closer to becoming a republic. The 152 convention delegates spent 10 days hammering out a deal that could replace the Queen as the ceremonial head of Australia with a president chosen by parliament. A referendum will be held on the issue in 1999, but supporters of the crown have already vowed to fight every inch of the way. ‘We will never give up,” said monarchist delegate Bruce Ruxton. ‘This ridiculous proposal will be defeated.”

Howard—himself a strong supporter of the Queen—promised to hold the convention during the 1996 election amid mounting support for the republican option. According to recent polls, just over half of Australians favor a figurehead president, while 40 per cent want to keep the Queen.

But from the outset, the republicans were badly divided over how to replace the Queen’s representative, the Canadian-style governor general. Some factions wanted a small constitutional council to elect the president, while others felt he or she should be voted in by the people. Finally, just as it appeared that the republicans were hopelessly deadlocked, a compromise was hammered out over a five-hour session in a café in the parliament building. Under the deal, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2001, the public would be asked to nominate potential presidential candidates, a “community committee” would make up a shortlist, the prime minister and the opposition leader would agree on a final nominee, and both houses of parliament would have to endorse the candidate by a twothirds majority. Despite his opposition, Howard said he had no choice but to proceed with a referendum. “It would be a travesty of democracy,” he said, “for the proposition not to be put to the Australian people.” Howard may also have had an eye to voting patterns. In the past, only eight of 44 proposals to change the Australian Constitution have passed in referendums. Monarchists also believe the republicans made a fatal error by ignoring opinion polls that

showed about two-thirds of voters would be willing to accept a president who was directly elected. “I suspect there’s going to be quite a backlash,” said Lloyd Waddy, co-founder of Australians For A Constitutional Monarchy. More neutral observers agreed. “If Howard and one or two of the state premiers campaign against it,” said political scientist John Warhurst of Australian National University in Canberra, “the odds are, at the moment, that it wouldn’t pass.”

The traditionalists argued that the present system, adopted when the six states formed the Commonwealth of Australia on Jan. 1,1901, had brought almost a century of stability—so why change it? After all, they noted, the only power the Queen has is to approve nominations for governor general. Many held up Canada as an example of how well the British system had worked. Republicans, however, contended that it was anachronistic for a foreign monarch to be head of state as the country approaches the 21st century. They noted that 14 per cent of the population is now non-British in origin. “I have a sense that as a nation we are now starting to think about creating a uniquely Australian identity, and not just simply accepting what was handed down,” said youth delegate Mia Handshin, 19. Republicans, too, cited Canada, although in a less flattering way. Victoria state governor Richard McGarvie said constitutional issues could not be left to fester. “It tears apart a federal democracy,” he warned. “We should all learn from what has happened in Canada since they started their unresolved constitutional debates in the

late 1970s.” The republicans also pledged that native rights would be enshrined for the first time in the proposed revision, although monarchist Neville Bonner, the only Aboriginal to serve as a federal politician, contended that native rights to land could be undermined if the links to the crown are cut.

Despite the parallels, Australian analysts shared the view of many Canadian commentators that republicanism seems to be a nonstarter in Canada. Aside from the constitutional preoccupation with Quebec, said Cheryl Saunders, director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies, “Canada’s desire to distinguish itself from the United States makes it less likely than Australia to abandon the monarchy.” For Australians—and the Queen—next year will be decisive.