World Australia

A battle over the Queen

Ean Higgins November 8 1999
World Australia

A battle over the Queen

Ean Higgins November 8 1999

A battle over the Queen

World Australia

After a highly charged campaign, Australians prepare to vote on getting rid of the monarch as head of state and switching to a republic

Ean Higgins

It is 2005, and Australia is hosting a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders. The president proudly opens proceedings heralding Australia’s seamless transition from constitutional monarchy to republic. It is, she declares, a triumph of multicultural endeavour with a stable parliamentary democracy, a booming economy, a self-confident people and increasing influence in regional and world affairs.

That’s scenario 1. In scenario 2, Australia is in political and economic turmoil. Its attempt to stay in the Commonwealth failed when Malaysia blocked Australia’s seemingly routine

request to continue membership after it became a republic. A close election has left both the prime minister and leader of the Opposition demanding appointment by the president. The president decides on a change in government, but before he can act, he is sacked by the prime minister. In the ensuing power vacuum, the head of Australia’s defence forces ponders a military takeover.

Both scenarios, put forward by opposing camps in the nation’s batde over switching to a republic, are absurdly overdrawn and hody debated (the government disputes the Commonwealth spectre, for instance, but the Commonwealth Secretariat in London confirms that Australia would have to reapply). These are politically dramatic times in Australia as it gets ready to make its biggest constitutional decision in a century. On Nov. 6, Australian voters will go to the polls to decide whether to get rid of the Queen as head of state. The referendum proposes that an Australian

president elected by a two-thirds majority vote of parliament take over the powers now held by the governor general. Australia would become a republic on Jan. 1, 2001, 100 years after its six states voted, following a stormy series of referendums, to form a federation in 1901.

The struggle has powerful echoes in Canada. The two countries currently have the same arrangement for their head of state: a governor general representing the monarch is nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the Queen, who is the ultimate symbol of the nations people. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has repeatedly said he does see getting rid of the monarchy as a major issue in Canada, and a recent poll seems

to bear him out. But the Gallup Canada survey still shows a deep ambivalence. It reported in midOctober that 48 per cent of respondents wanted to retain the Queen as head of state—the highest since 1991—while 43 per cent favoured breaking the link, down from 53 per cent two years ago. That hasn’t stopped Australian republicans from warning that if they lose the referendum, Australia may succumb to the “Canadian disease” of endless discussions of alternative constitutional models.

For Australians, the referendum marks an epochal turning point. If the Yes case wins, it will end a connection that goes back to 1788, when Britain sent the first fleet of ships filled with convicts to setde the great southern continent. As late as 1947,81 per cent of Australia’s overseas-born population came from the English-speaking countries,

mainly Britain and Ireland. But by 1997, this proportion had declined to 39 per cent, and almost one in 20 Australians was born in Asia. Paul Keating, the former Labor party prime minister who launched the republican push in 1995, said at the time: “We can’t succeed without the world knowing who we are and, much as we like and acknowledge the British and the institutions we have inherited, we are not British now.” Other Australians, while they may welcome immigration, value the old association as part of Australia’s identity. One is 87-year-old Sydney barrister John Ramsay Partridge, who remembers, as an eight-year-old, meeting the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, when he visited Australia in 1920. Partridge, who founded the Australian Royalist Party, says the Queen embodies a system of government that has served Australia well throughout its history. “She’s above politics, she’s that sort of lady,” he says.

The anti-republic camp is not, however, restricted to the Anglo community. Some other ethnic leaders point out that many immigrants to Australia were fleeing tyranny in foreign republics, including Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia and Chile. Sophie Panopoulos, a 30-year-old Melbourne lawyer of Greek descent who is campaigning for a No vote, told Macleans-. “We have got an independent constitution, and it has provided us with the sort of stability that has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to this country.”

In a laid-back country more used to talking about beer and surfing, the republic debate has become uncharacteristically divisive, even provoking a split in the ruling Liberal party. Prime Minister John Howard is a staunch monarchist, while Treasurer Peter Costello is

campaigning hard for the republic. Initially, opinion polls showed Australians fairly evenly divided, but as the campaign entered its final leg, they seemed to be leaning towards keeping the Queen. A poll in the national newspaper The Australian found the No side ahead by 56 per cent to 41 per cent. A poll published the same day in The Sydney Morning Herald was closer, but still showed 41 per cent opposed to a republic and only 33 per cent supporting it, with 26 per cent undecided.

Under the Australian constitution, the Yes side of a referendum must gain an overall majority of the national vote, plus a majority in at least four out of the six states to win. For this reason, referendums rarely succeed—of the 42 proposals put up since federation, only eight passed. Most analysts believe the republicans have so far failed to provide a sufficiently compelling case for change. “I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for them from here,” says

Murray Goot, a politics professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University. “The only hope for the republicans is the high don’t-knows.”

The Yes campaign has tried to inculcate a sense of feel-good patriotism while portraying the link with Britain as anachronistic. Over a stirring patriotic background song, the voice-over in a typical television commercial intones: “Let’s show the world we have come of age as a nation with a head of state who is a proud Australian.” As its campaign struggled, however, the Yes camp made a more desperate attack on the monarchy. It distributed pamphlets showing Prince Charles and his girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles, with crowns— implying that rejecting the republic would see them become king and queen of Australia.

Backing the Yes camp is a who’s who of corporate Australia, including Lachlan Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his Australian operations chief. But, paradoxically, such firepower is part of the republicans’ problem: they have been portrayed by the No camp as a trendy, rich, chardonnay set not representative of the

average Aussie. The monarchist camp has even managed to shift the debate away from the monarchy, playing on the fear of instability. Kerry Jones, executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, warns of “civil unrest or even civil war” if Australians abandon the constitution they have.

Another No weapon is widespread dislike of the proposed model, under which the president would be chosen by politicians rather than by popular election, and could be fired by the prime minister. So the monarchists have formed what their opponents describe as an “unholy alliance” with a group known as the “direct electionists,” who want a republic in which the president is elected by popular vote; both groups call for a No vote. Opinion polls show the strategy has struck a chord, particularly among workingclass and rural Australians. Terry Tusón, a nurse from Wondai in outback Queensland, put the view to a reporter with traditional Australian directness:

“Everyone in the cities is missing the vital point. We want to vote the schnook in ourselves.” On such sentiments may hang the future shape of a nation. E3]