Australia's connection with the British Crown is an artefact of history; there is a clear majority for a republic. But the referendum has revealed the growing gulf between the elite and ordinary Australiaby Nicolas Rothwell / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
In one of those strange half-echoes that resound through Australian history, the prime minister, John Howard, a conservative populist and staunch supporter of retaining the British monarch as his nation’s head of state, has chosen 6th November, the day after Guy Fawkes’ night, as the date for the long-awaited referendum on Australia’s constitutional future. Republic or no? That would seem to be the question, but as always in this country’s placid-surfaced public life, further unasked questions glint in the background.
As the campaign reaches its low-key climax, it appears that the referendum has yet to engage the passions. Other events have proved more captivating: the Sydney 2000 Olympics; the 100th anniversary of federation-the formal attainment of independence-on the first day of 2001; and, most immediately, the East Timor intervention. Opinion polls show one third of voters still undecided as to whether they should opt for a president or remain with the Crown, that surprisingly serviceable abstraction at the apex of Australian life. Do you agree, the referendum will ask them, to an Act “to alter the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and governor-general being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth parliament”-and there is the rub. Ever since the constitutional convention held last year in Canberra, it has been evident that the republican movement’s preferred model for selecting a president-a vote by the federal parliament-is unpopular. Australians have always had a vivid, well-advertised disrespect for authority. To this has now been added a mistrust, even a dislike, of their political class unmatched anywhere in the English-speaking world. There is a widespread view that if Queen Elizabeth II is to be replaced, then the new figurehead should be chosen by direct popular election: “Let the people decide.” On the face of it, it is a difficult argument for the “mainstream” republicans to oppose, especially when the objection to the constitutional monarchy is that the continuing, if purely formal, role of the Crown in Australian life is anachronistic and undemocratic.
High sensitivities surround the question of the role and ultimate authority of the head of state-largely because of the scars left by the constitutional crisis of 1975, when the Queen’s governor-general, John Kerr, removed the reformist Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, from office. This gave birth to the present republican movement, and its ghost lies behind…