After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, talk of an Australian republic has reentered national discourse in a way not seen since the 1990s. Discussion of breaking with the royal family has returned to the mainstream, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised a referendum on the republican question in his second term in government.
For former prime minister Paul Keating, once a figurehead of the republican movement in the run-up to the 1999 referendum, republican zeal among Australians is lacking. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if King Charles III, the king of Australia, volunteers to renounce his claim on Australia,” he stated in a recent public lecture, while also expressing his disinterest in rejoining the long-dormant campaign for a republic. “If Australians have so little pride in themselves, so little pride that they are happy to be represented by the monarch of Great Britain, why would somebody like me want to shift their miserable view of themselves?”
Putting aside the disdainful rhetoric toward a populace he once led, Keating’s assessment of Australia’s priorities might not be far off. A recent Guardian Essential poll shows that only 43 percent of respondents back a republic. The response from Australian politicians has been even weaker. While Queen Elizabeth was still alive, ex–prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, another leader of the republican movement during the 1999 referendum campaign, declared that he was an “Elizabethan.” He then asserted that it wouldn’t be appropriate to pursue independence during her reign.
Now that the queen is dead, the current prime minister, Anthony Albanese, doesn’t want to discuss the issue of the republic again until the “time of national mourning” has finished, whenever that may be. Given the choice, it seems that Australia’s political elite would prefer to wait for the House of Windsor to extinguish itself without external interference, through inbreeding and polo accidents.
How did it get to this point? Are Australians just moronically conservative, as Keating believes, or is it the political leadership of the republican movement that has failed?
Rise and Fall
It’s worth remembering here that Australian republicanism has experienced various dramatically different incarnations throughout its history. In the late nineteenth century, during the first major wave of republican agitation in Australia, many of the movement’s most radical advocates, such as the poet Henry Lawson, were also exuberantly racist. They envisioned a white republic that would reject the British monarchy and expel Asian workers.
More recently, apartheid South Africa offers an example of a former British colony that successfully became a republic, in 1961, while retaining a deeply oppressive political structure dominated by a white elite.
The republicanism that emerged in Australia in the 1960s, however, was different: as Guy Rundle notes, it was led by organizations such as the Maoist Australian Independence Movement, and put forward an anti-colonial, left nationalist argument for cutting ties to the monarchy.
The fact that the radical republican movement declined after the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in 1975 is all the more noteworthy, given that our current king was directly involved in this dramatic event. As the historian Jenny Hocking’s research revealed, Charles explicitly supported Governor-General John Kerr’s constitutional coup against Whitlam. In a subsequent letter to Kerr, Charles referred to public opposition to the dismissal as “demonstrations and stupidities.”
The dismissal, more than any other event, disproves the claim made by constitutional monarchists that the British crown holds a purely neutral and symbolic position in Australian politics. In moments of crisis, in fact, it is still possible for the royal family of a tiny, damp islet on the other side of the planet to meddle in Australian affairs.
When Australian republicanism experienced a second revival in the 1990s, it now sported the dull neoliberal features that were characteristic of that decade. Shorn of its unruly socialist past, it was promoted by politicians from both the Labor Party and the moderate wing of the Liberal Party.
Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum, this bipartisan support enabled monarchists to claim that the republican campaign was dominated by an arrogant political elite. Notwithstanding the fact that key monarchists such as Tony Abbott and then prime minister John Howard were also part of that elite, the argument had some merits.
Figures like Keating and Turnbull, the two most famous republicans of the 1990s, effectively represented the left and right wings of a socially progressive, neoliberal political movement that promoted the gradual dismemberment of the welfare state and the victory of finance capital in Australia.
Turnbull was a merchant banker and venture capitalist before entering politics, while Keating ushered in the deregulation of Australia’s markets and the privatization of major institutions such as the Commonwealth Bank. These politicians envisioned an independent (if not particularly inspiring) future for Australia as an investment hub and resource-extraction site within the broader Asian economy.
Despite the lackluster leadership of the yes campaign, the republican movement still had majority support from the Australian public in polls in the lead-up to the referendum. It took a monumental blunder before the referendum to destroy the campaign. During the 1998 Constitutional Convention on the republic, the movement split between those who wanted a president selected by a two-thirds majority of Parliament and those who wanted a president elected by a popular vote.
Howard, who had replaced Keating as prime minister in 1996, astutely encouraged the division. Any change to the Australian constitution by referendum requires over 50 percent of the popular vote plus support from four of the six Australian states. Only eight out of forty-four referendums have been successful since federation in 1901.
Even so, based on polling at the time, if Australians had been asked a simple yes-or-no question on whether they wanted a republic in the 1999 referendum, the republican option would have won. If a second choice had then been offered between the bipartisan parliamentary and popular-vote models, the popular-vote model would have probably won.
In a phenomenally shortsighted tactical maneuver, convention participants who supported the popular-vote model, such as the left independent MP Phil Cleary, stepped back to let the parliamentary model win at the convention, then campaigned against it in the referendum, under the impression that they could then present their preferred model at a subsequent referendum. That referendum has still yet to occur.
The Coming Referendum
In the two decades since, as Australian society has become more atomized and the left-nationalist project has declined, support for a republic has dropped below the 50 percent mark. While Keating bewails this trend, he fails to recognize his own role in helping to create it.
Deregulation in the media and other fields has fragmented the social base for a republican movement, with local Australian newspapers such as the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald now on their deathbeds. Ironically, Australian republicanism is now predominantly being promoted on media platforms such as the Guardian, based in the UK.
While there are signs that the federal Labor government will reopen the question of a republic in coming years, further challenges await. The recent Chilean plebiscite, in which a majority of voters rejected a radical new constitution, demonstrates the capacity of well-funded, right-wing misinformation campaigns to rapidly influence public opinion. Similar online stirrings can already be seen against Albanese’s planned referendum on an Aboriginal voice to Parliament.
In the age of 8chan, the debate won’t be polite and rational. Campaigners who want to discuss the relative merits of the Bi-partisan appointment republican model and the McGarvie model should bear in mind that a significant proportion of the population think that Queen Elizabeth was a shape-shifting lizard.
There is also a significant split on the Left between republicans and critics of settler colonialism, many of whom question the legitimacy of the Australian state as an entity premised on the theft of Aboriginal land. But the abolition of the Australian state won’t be coming anytime soon.
Radical anti–settler colonialists don’t need to agree with every single point in the left-nationalist manifesto for a future Australian republic. Instead, they could take their lead from Nestor Makhno, the most well-known anarchist figure to emerge from the Russian Revolution.
Makhno’s movement conceived of the struggle in Russia as a sequence of three consecutive revolutions: the first, in February, abolished the monarchy; the second, in October, ostensibly abolished capitalism; and the third, they argued, would abolish the state. At a bare minimum, the Australian left could agree on abolishing the monarchy, then move on to knocking off capitalism and the state.
The failure of the republican movement in the 1990s was not an inevitable by-product of Australian apathy; it was caused by poor leadership, smart opposition tactics, and internal squabbling. Public support for a republic is now in a similar position to where it was in the early 1990s, before the referendum campaign. Once people engaged more deeply with the issue in the mid-1990s, enthusiasm for a republic rose.
There’s nothing stopping Australian voters from rallying around a republican movement again. But the movement will need more inspiration than the grumbling of jaded, faded ex–prime ministers.