Case study: 1999 republic referendum

republic referendum
Former Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, campaigning during the referendum

The 1999 republic referendum was a significant attempt to reform Australia’s political system. Australia is a constitutional monarchy which has the British monarch as its head of state. By and large, it is a political and legal system that has functioned smoothly and served our nation well. Yet there are good arguments for replacing our constitutional monarchy with a republic and the British monarch with an elected head of state. A significant portion of Australia’s population is no longer of British heritage, so have no ethnic or cultural ties to England. Some believe we have moved away from Britain politically and culturally and that a republican system would better reflect our national maturity and independence. Some highlight the unjust aspects of hereditary monarchy: while any Australian can become our governor or governor-general, only members of an aristocratic British family can become Australia’s head of state.

Since Federation in 1901, Australia has always been a constitutional monarchy. Australia’s head of state is the reigning monarch of Great Britain. While the British monarch does not interfere or involve herself in our government, many Australians believe that our nation should be a republic. They consider it inappropriate that our head of state is neither Australian by birth or chosen by the Australian people. Some also believe that moving to a republican system would be a sign of national and political maturity. Those opposed to an Australian republic either support the retention of the monarchy or take the view that the current system has served us well so should not be changed.

The modern push for an Australian republic peaked in the 1990s. In 1995 prime minister Paul Keating announced preparations for a constitutional convention to discuss what form an Australian republic might take and how this transition might be managed. Keating, himself a fervent republican, hoped it would be achieved by 2001, the centenary of Australian federation. The constitutional convention was held in Canberra in February 1998, however by this time Keating had been replaced by John Howard, a conservative monarchist. The 1998 convention was attended by more than 150 prominent Australians, including Federal and State politicians, businesspeople, academics and indigenous representatives. They reached a majority consensus that Australia should adopt a republican system, removing the monarchy from Australian constitutions, political processes and law.

Much of the convention’s deliberations was which type of republican model should be proposed at a referendum. Probably the main issue at stake was how an Australian president might be selected. The convention debated three options:

By direct election. In this system, the president would be popularly elected by Australian voters at a general election, in a similar fashion to the election of the United States president. Candidates would be ‘shortlisted’ by some undetermined process.

By parliamentary majority. In this proposed system, presidential candidates would be nominated by the government of the day then endorsed by the parliament, though this endorsement would require a ‘special majority’ (such as two-thirds of both Houses of Parliament).

Appointment by special council. In this third system, presidential candidates would be nominated by the government of the day then endorsed or ‘ratified’ by a special council, in a similar fashion to US ministers being endorsed by the Congress.

The convention eventually endorsed a bipartisan parliamentary majority model. Under this model, nominations for the presidency would be open to all Australians. From these nominations, the Prime Minister would shortlist a candidate by negotiating with the leader of the opposition. Their selection would be ratified by a joint sitting of parliament, which must produce a two-thirds majority in support of the appointment. The constitutional powers of the president would otherwise be similar to those of the governor-general.

The Constitution Alteration (Establishment of a Republic) Bill was introduced into the Federal Parliament in June 1999. Both major parties allowed a conscience vote on the matter, which allowed MPs to speak freely for or against the reform. This revealed a measure of opposition to the proposal within the parliament. Some of this opposition was based on support for the monarchy and some on political conservatism, while a smaller level as opposed to the model being proposed. Most notable was the lack of support from incumbent prime minister John Howard, a self-declared monarchist who announced his intention to vote against the proposal. The bill was passed by both houses of Federal parliament but the likelihood of the republic proposal being accepted already seemed slim.

The referendum was held on November 6th 1999. Voters were asked to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to two proposals: one on the formation of a republic, another on inserting a preamble into the Commonwealth Constitution. The republic proposal read as follows:

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.

The results showed the Australian people had comprehensively rejected the republican model proposed at the referendum. The proposal was defeated in all States, most comprehensively in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. Support for the proposal was strongest in Victoria, while the only jurisdiction to support the republic proposal was the Australian Capital Territory:

State Enrolled YES votes YES % NO votes NO % Informal
NSW 4,146,653 1,817,380 46.43 2,096,562 53.57 34,772
Victoria 3,164,843 1,489,536 49.84 1,499,138 50.16 28,063
Queensland 2,228,377 784,060 37.44 1,309,992 62.56 14,642
Western Australia 1,176,311 458,306 41.48 646,520 58.52 9,500
South Australia 1,027,392 425,869 43.57 551,575 56.43 8,950
Tasmania 327,729 126,271 40.37 186,513 59.63 2,857
ACT 212,586 127,211 63.27 73,850 36.73 1,553
Northern Territory 108,149 44,391 48.77 46,637 51.23 852

Commentators were divided about why the proposal had failed. Many believed that John Howard’s strong monarchist stance had been important. Others pointed to the effectiveness of the competing interest groups: monarchist organisations were small, well-organised and campaigned prominently – while republican groups failed to clearly articulate why and how a republic would benefit Australia. Other pundits also expressed the view that the wrong model for selecting a president had been put before the Australian people; they suggested that the direct election model – where the president is elected by the people rather than the parliament – would have had more success.

The republican movement has cooled since the proposal was defeated in 1999. It was not raised again during the prime ministership of John Howard (1996-2007). The election of Kevin Rudd in 2007 saw the matter raised again at the 20-20 summit, which expressed general support for a republic. Both Rudd and his replacement, Julia Gillard, have expressed a personal view that Australia should adopt a republican system. Other policy priorities, the election of conservative royalist Tony Abbott, visits to Australia by the Queen and other royals and the weddings of Prince William and Prince Harry have seen republicanism taken off the agenda, at least for the time being.

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