Australia: The Politics of Becoming a Republic
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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 136-150



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Australia:
The Politics of Becoming a Republic

John Higley and Rhonda Evans Case *


In recent years several parliamentary democracies have considered replacing hereditary monarchs--the most visible remnant of the predemocratic era--with popularly chosen presidents and a republican form of government. This democratic reform is not easy to make, however, because it involves combining the well-established sovereignty of parliaments with presidents who may stake their own claim to sovereignty and popular support in clashes with prime ministers and their cabinets. Selecting presidents, limiting their power, and ensuring that they remain above the political fray are tricky matters. There is a risk that constitutional and power balances will be upset. Groups favoring or opposing the adoption of a presidential office often have more sweeping agendas that are not easily compromised. A constitutional referendum on the change confronts voters with complex issues about which they have little knowledge and interest, so that campaigns for and against such a referendum may readily degenerate into crude shouting matches.

These difficulties were abundantly evident in the struggle to transform Australia into a republic, which culminated on 6 November 1999 in a constitutional referendum on the adoption of a republican form of government. The proposed change would have replaced the British Queen and her representative, the governor-general, with a president appointed by two-thirds of Australia's bicameral Commonwealth [End Page 136] Parliament sitting as one body. Australians, however, voted 55 to 45 percent against this proposal, with majorities in all six states and the Northern Territory rejecting it (only the Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, registered a majority in favor). A second referendum proposal, to add a preamble to the Constitution, was even more soundly defeated. Yet opinion polls showed that less than 10 percent of those who voted against the referendum liked having the Queen as Australia's head of state, and that between a third and a half of those who voted "No" (depending on how polling questions were worded) would have voted "Yes" if the referendum had proposed a directly elected president instead of one chosen by parliament. In other words, for an electorally decisive number of voters, the proposed republic did not seem sufficiently democratic.

Several other parliamentary democracies headed by the British Queen are also debating whether to become republics. In Britain itself, there has long been significant sentiment for replacing the constitutional monarchy with a republic, and some observers regard the Blair government's elimination of more than 600 hereditary peers in the House of Lords as a step in this direction. In Canada, a September 1999 poll recorded 48 percent supporting and 43 percent opposing retention of ties to the Queen, with the rest undecided. 1 In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jim Bolger endorsed republicanism in 1994, and in the 1999 election campaign, Helen Clark, the Labour Party leader who subsequently became prime minister, proposed holding a constitutional convention in 2000 to consider changing to a republican form of government. 2

In both Canada and New Zealand, the republic option confronts major difficulties--in particular, it is unclear how it would affect the situations of their respective indigenous peoples and whether it would fuel Quebec's secession--so a vote on changing the form of government must be judged unlikely for some time to come. 3 Republicanism is high on the political agenda, however, in three of Britain's former Caribbean colonies--Barbados, Belize, and Jamaica. In Barbados, a governor-general's controversial decision in June 1994 to dissolve parliament prematurely led to the formation of a government commission charged with reexamining the country's links to the Crown. In December 1999, paralleling the proposal put to Australian voters a month earlier, this commission recommended replacing the Queen with a ceremonial president who would be nominated jointly by the prime minister and the opposition leader or, if they failed to agree, elected by a two-thirds majority in an electoral college consisting of both houses of parliament. 4 In 1999, the Barbadian prime minister...