What comes next for the Australian Republican Movement?
The ARM’s core problem is not a question of support, but a question of what replaces the monarchy
It is too early to say what impact the death of Prince Phillip and the Harry and Meghan interview will have on public support for an Australian republic; the last poll on the matter was conducted in January 2021 – well before the events. Yet the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) has been quick to announce a renewed push to cut ties with the monarchy, with Peter Fitzsimmons, Chair of the ARM, insisting that the “time is right” to reopen public debate on the matter. Fitzsimmons argues that “the Rock of Gibraltar” image that the monarchy projects has now been subverted by “extreme dysfunction and possible racism”. Yet the unanswered question at the heart of the ARM remains the same as it did during the failed 1999 referendum: what do we actually replace the monarchy with?
How to Appoint a President
In the 1999 referendum, voters were given a choice between no change at all, and a specific model of an Australian republic that had the Governor-General being replaced by a president elected by two-thirds of parliament – the so-called “Bipartisan Appointment of the President Model”. The referendum failed because the pro-republic vote ended up being split – with those who supported this specific model voting ‘yes’ and those who supported an Australian republic, but under a different model, voting 'no’.
The Bipartisan Appointment Model was essentially a compromise at the midpoint of a spectrum ranging from a more democratic appointment system to a more technocratic appointment system. At the democratic end, the president is elected by direct popular vote. Proponents of this model argue that it is the only way to ensure public faith in an Australian republic and the only viable alternative to the current system. Phil Cleary – a prominent direct-election republican – argues that voters did not have enough faith in parliament to elect a president in 1999 and public faith has only decreased over time, especially given the recent allegations of sexual violence in parliament.
On the other hand, critics argue that a direct-election model defeats the entire purpose of the Westminster system, which is supposed to have a non-partisan head of state that provides a check on parliamentary power. In a direct-election model, the major parties can simply endorse their preferred candidates for president, resulting in a president with clear loyalties to a specific party.
At the technocratic end of the spectrum is the “McGarvie model”, where a president is selected by a “Constitutional Council”. This Council would be made up of the last three presidents or governors-general in order of seniority, or with retired state governors or federal judges if any places remain. The Constitutional Council would then select a candidate for president based on the advice of the prime minister. Proponents of this model argue that it entails the least disruption to the current system, with the appointment of a president being largely non-partisan. Critics of the McGarvie model decry it as elitist and lacking in popular appeal.
As a result, the 1998 Constitutional Convention arrived at the Bipartisan Appointment Model as a compromise; a model that was summarily rejected by the electorate the following year.
A New Hope
Since that defeat, the ARM has been unclear on what model of an Australian republic it supports. It therefore came as a surprise when – in the wake of the Harry and Meghan interview – Fitzsimmons announced that the ARM would propose a new model in the second half of 2021, devised at a national convention inspired by the Federal Conventions of the 1890s.
The momentum does seem to be on the ARM’s side again. The Harry and Meghan interview is only the latest bombshell in a recent string of bad press for the royals . First there was Prince Andrew’s bungled BBC interview in response to child sex allegations in 2019, where the Prince’s defence against the allegations was to insist “I have a peculiar medical condition which is that I don't sweat or I didn't sweat at the time”.
Furthermore, just this February, it was revealed that the Queen had lobbied the UK government in 1973 to change a draft law that would have revealed her “embarrassing” private wealth to the public. Such actions suggest a rather loose (perhaps overly so) interpretation of the Queen’s reserve powers, famously summarised by Walter Bagehot as “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”
Remembering the Dismissal
However, perhaps the biggest blow to Australian monarchism was the release of the ‘Palace Letters’ last year. These letters detailed the correspondence between then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen's private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, before and after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. The letters revealed that Charteris had affirmed Kerr’s power to dismiss Whitlam after the latter failed to guarantee supply. The situation was inappropriate given that the Queen’s private secretary had provided an opinion on a situation that had no precedent in the Westminster system. In both Australia and the UK, the prime minister can be dismissed if they fail to guarantee supply. However, the Australian Senate, unlike the UK House of Lords, reserves the power to block supply. In 1975, Labor had a majority in the lower house but not in the Senate. This outcome was a unique oversight of the Australian Constitution – according to the Australian Government Solicitor’s own notes to the Constitution – and the rules governing the Governor-General’s powers in such a situation are unclear. The situation, therefore, did not warrant advice from Buckingham Palace.
The Leader of the Opposition and avowed republican, Anthony Albanese, in response to the revelations, referred to the episode as a “blight” on our nation’s character. Albanese claimed that the incident demonstrated the need for an Australian head of state, accountable to the Australian people, rather than a governor-general who is only accountable to the monarch.
The Road Ahead
Despite a monarchy steeped in controversy, a January poll showed flagging support for republicanism – with barely a third of respondents saying they supported Australia becoming a republic. Fitzsimons insists this poll was an outlier, pointing to a YouGov poll last year where 62 per cent of respondents said they wanted an Australian head of state. This disparity is likely due to the fact that respondents were unclear on the connection between an “Australian Republic” and “an Australian head of state”. According to a 2018 poll in the Guardian, only 34 per cent of Australians could actually identify the Queen as our head of state, with the remainder answering either the governor-general or the prime minister.
If a future referendum was to have hope of succeeding, the question would need to clearly delineate that the Queen is being replaced as the head of state by an Australian president. Both former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Anthony Albanese also insist the referendum would need to have two rounds. First, a question establishing whether Australia should become a republic, and second, a question over what specific model would replace the current system. Yet given the heated division over the current proposed models – and given what happened in 1999 – is a consensus on any single model even possible? It remains to be seen what the ARM can come up with later this year.
Oscar Eggleton holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies (Honours Class I) from the University of Sydney. He is interested in political theory, environmental and digital governance, international political economy and security studies.