Who Wants A Republic?

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The visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Australia coincides with the 12th anniversary of the 1999 referendum when Australians rejected a proposal to replace the Queen and Governor-General with a President who would play a similar role in Australian politics.

At the time, polling suggested that a majority of Australians generally supported the principle of a republic, but the referendum was defeated with a comfortable majority, with a majority of voters in all six states voting "no". This contradiction was partly explained by disagreement over the model proposed for the republic, under which the President would be appointed by Parliament with the agreement of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.

Since 1999, the issue has largely fallen off the national agenda. While the Labor Party and the Greens are solidly republican in sentiment, and the Liberal Party has been led by republicans, no party has made the question of a republic a priority or engaged in any significant public debate about the issue.

Recent polling suggests that republican sentiment has dropped to its lowest levels in many years, although the level varies between polling companies.

The most recent Newspoll on the topic, in April, had 41 per cent in favour and 39 per cent against. This has dropped from a peak of 52 per cent in favour and 35 per cent against in 2000 and 2001. A Roy Morgan poll conducted earlier this week showed 51 per cent supporting the monarchy and 39 per cent supporting a republic.

Most interestingly in these figures is the level of support for the republic among young voters. According to Newspoll, support for the republic peaks at 52 per cent among the 35-49 age group, while only 43 per cent support it among those between 18 and 34.

Most of those in this age group were not eligible to vote at the 1999 referendum. There are now voters who were only six when the country last voted on whether to become a republic. The republican debate has not been a prominent political issue for most of the last 12 years.

This raises the question of the reliability of any polling on support for a republic. Voting intention polls are produced in an environment of constant political debate and discussion. The republican debate, on the other hand, has slipped away from the public debate. It’s difficult to know how opinions will be shaped by a more prominent debate if the issue gains traction and moves toward another referendum.

Despite the current government being overwhelmingly dominated by republicans, the issue seems set to stay on the shelf for the foreseeable future, without much prospect of any change while Queen Elizabeth II remains on the throne. Polling suggests that support for a monarchy* would decline under a future King Charles. This polling should be taken with a grain of salt: voters are notoriously unreliable in predicting their own opinions in future hypothetical scenarios.

So the issue will likely remain on the backburner in the near future, and polling has limited value as long as the issue has a low profile. Yet Australia’s constitutional history suggests that, even if the issue returns, our constitutional structure will make it difficult for a referendum to pass.

Most referendums in Australia follow a similar path: they start with high levels of support, and as the referendum gets closer, the undecided vote swings towards the "no" case, resulting in the referendum being defeated. In 1999, a majority of Australians supported a referendum, but doubt about the proposal resulted in pro-republic voters splitting off and voting "no". Any future referendum will be vulnerable to the same trap.

In all eight successful referendums, both major parties supported the "yes" case. Any republic referendum in the near future would have a large proportion (probably a majority) of the Coalition on the "no" side, which will usually be enough to raise doubts and defeat a proposal.

Australia’s constitutional structure makes it very difficult to make change. The 1999 republican referendum was a relatively modest change that would have largely left Australia’s political system unchanged. The difficulty in getting such an issue achieved while it enjoys plurality support across the country suggests that any more radical constitutional change, such as reform of our federal structure, is completely impossible. It seems Australia is stuck with our constitution largely as it is.

* Correction: The article originally stated that support for a republic would decline under a future King Charles.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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