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To Be or Not to Be a Republic? Australians Ask

After a convention in February, Australia is deciding whether to break from the British monarchy.

Anne Witheford is the face of the new Australia - a walking argument for why her country should jettison its ties to the British monarchy and become a republic.

"My grandma is a staunch monarchist - she grew up in the days when Australia was an English outpost on the edge of Asia. And we have some great discussions. But my mother is Korean. Over 50 percent of my generation have a non-Anglo parent," says Ms. Witheford, a law student at the Australian National University who served as a delegate to Australia's constitutional convention in February.

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The British monarchy, Witheford argues, is an institution that is sectarian (only Protestants need apply) and sexist (daughters get the top job only in the absence of sons). "Nothing against the queen," she says, but the monarchy is "anathema to the Australian way of life. Having one of our own at the top of our country is a matter of expressing ourselves as a mature democracy."

Australians, who waltzed into national federation at the beginning of the 20th century - Jan. 1, 1901 - may be on the verge of reinventing themselves as a republic in time for the new millennium. Or maybe not.

Popular sentiment runs strongly in favor of replacing Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's head of state. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has promised a referendum on the proposal that emerged from the constitutional convention.

The sticking point is how to choose a head of state. The proposal calls for a president chosen not by the people, but by Parliament. The same polls that show Australians eager to replace Queen Elizabeth show them even keener to replace her with an elected president. "The view of the populace is that if you have a president, 'we want to elect him - not have someone foisted on us by the politicians,' " says Harry Evans, clerk of the Australian Senate.

The referendum may therefore founder, many analysts predict, as a result of being too radical a change for monarchists but not radical enough for those who want a real republic. But republicans of many different stripes worry that a directly elected president would become an alternative power center to the prime minister, who is elected indirectly by the majority party in Parliament.

Paul Keating brought the republican issue to the center stage as prime minister in 1993. For Malcolm Turnbull, head of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), a defining moment came at the 1988 celebration of the bicentennial of Australia's founding as a penal colony: Mr. Turnbull realized that Australia's major events were all presided over by members of the British royal family. "Our own national leaders were just warm-up acts for the Prince of Wales," he wrote in his book, "The Reluctant Republic."

Since the convention, "I think it's pretty clear there's majority support for the change [to a republic]." He expects the promised referendum "not before November 1999."

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Adam Johnston, a self-described monarchist who served as a youth delegate to the constitutional convention, is sharply critical of Mr. Turnbull and the ARM on the grounds that "they haven't begun to have a serious intellectual debate" on a change to a republic.

Mr. Johnston is also critical of the American system, which he calls "not a republic but an oligarchy" because of the vast amounts of money that can be required to win elections. "The ideals of the American political system have been hopelessly corrupted," he says.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That, in essence, is the position of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. "We believe that the model they have come up with is unworkable," says executive director Kerry Jones. She acknowledges popular support for "a republic" but maintains that when any particular model of a republic is set against the current system, the status quo wins.

The constitutionalists emphasize the need for stability . "We inherited the Crown as the essence of power above politics," Ms. Jones says. Having one's head of state in London, at the other end of the earth, may be "anomalous," but Australia is "the most stable country" in the world, Jones says. "A nation rewrites its constitution because of civil war or civil unrest," she notes, and warns that "if you start rewriting it [the Constitution], everything is up for grabs."

But a Sydney cabdriver, weaving his way through morning traffic, is sure that Australia should be a republic. "Absolutely. The way I see it, when an English migrant comes here, he should have to stand in the queue like anyone else," he says.

He is skeptical, however, about a president appointed by politicians. "Politics is a dirty word in just about every language, I reckon," the cabbie observes as he changes lanes.

Has your thinking on the issue evolved over time? he is asked. "No, I really never thought about it much until recently," he says.

That's exactly the point, says Mr. Evans, the Senate clerk. "The Keating government posed the question [of a republic]. The political elites having brought it forward, they then lost control."

Indeed, many Australians would like to see broader constitutional reform. A constitution can and should, experts say, give voice to certain broad aspirations - as the US Constitution does with its references to "justice," "the general welfare," and "the common defense."

"In a way, becoming a republic is an easy thing," says John Freeland, executive director of the Evatt Foundation, a left-leaning think tank in Sydney. The bigger questions, he suggests, have to do with "what notions of citizenship we entertain, or how inclusively do we define the Australian community?"

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