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Factors Contributing to the Failure

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How to Lose a Referendum: The Lesson of 1999

The failed republican referendum of 1999 has been subject to a plethora of academic autopsies. A conservative, monarchist prime minister sank the republic, it is often claimed. Alternate theories argue that the time was not right or that the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) was a cabal of ‘chardonnay-sipping’ Sydney elites who isolated other states and rural voters. All of these were perhaps factors, and others besides. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the most crucial reason, which is simply that many republicans voted No. Support for a republic in principle was as high as 76 per cent leading into the referendum and yet it did not pass.1 Voters who claimed to support a republic – who wanted to see the Queen replaced by an Australian, and who wanted Australia to have a self-sufficient constitution – decided to join the official No camp and campaign against ‘this republic’. The lesson of 1999 is clear: republicans must unite.

Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, and the way it was celebrated, provided an opportunity to measure attitudes to identity and nationalism. The Queen visited Canberra in May of that year to open the new Parliament House. During her speech, she emphasised the royal connection. She noted that her father, George VI, had opened the original Canberra Parliament House in 1927 and her grandfather, George V, had opened the inaugural Melbourne Parliament House in 1901. The climax of the Sydney celebrations in January 1988 was a speech by Prince Charles, delivered outside the Opera House. Although the prime minister, governor-general and state premiers were present, the focus of the morning’s celebrations was Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Sydney Morning Herald succinctly underlined this point in its headline: ‘Royalty tops distinguished guest list’.2

Many Australians were dissatisfied with the nature of the 1988 celebrations. Oodgeroo Noonuccal urged ‘European Australians [to] let go of England’.3 Donald Horne argued during the bicentenary lead-up that Australia’s dependency on Britain was culturally and even economically debilitating.4 Malcolm Turnbull cited 1988 as the year that inspired him to begin agitating for republican reform.5 On 7 July 1991, Turnbull, along with Neville Wran, Franca Arena and other public figures, launched the Australian Republican Movement at The Rocks in Sydney.6 Author Tom Keneally declared their intentions: ‘That by the first of January, 2001 – the first day of the twenty-first century and the centenary of the proclamation of the federation – Australia shall become an independent republic.’7 The upcoming centenary and Sydney Olympics gave the republican movement a sense of destiny.

The Role of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM)

Although the Hawke government had taken steps to minimise the role of the monarchy in

Australia, it was the prime ministership of Paul Keating that staunchly placed republicanism on the political agenda. In February 1992, just six weeks after he was sworn in, Keating called for the Australian flag to be altered, noting that ‘Australians would be better served if they were not draped in a somewhat ambivalent garb with a national emblem that contained the flag of another country’.8 Later that month, Keating hosted the Queen. The 1992 royal visit is remembered for Keating’s faux pas when he placed a gentlemanly arm around the Queen as he ushered her through a sea of guests. The prime minister’s domestic enemies leaped on this breach of protocol, which was compounded by his wife Anita’s refusal to curtsey. The apoplectic reaction of the British media, which dubbed Keating the ‘Lizard of Oz’, was telling. The Daily Star repudiated the ‘loathsome Labour leaders’ who enjoyed ‘mocking her majesty’. The Star informed their readers that ‘Keating slapped his arm around the Queen’s waist as if she was a Shelia by the sheep dip’.9 The Queen was, and remains, the Queen of Australia, and yet the Sun newspaper saw no contradiction in its angry headline, ‘Hands Off Our Queen’.10 The vitriol of the British media establishment revealed an obvious truth that is still relevant today: Australia and the United Kingdom are separate nations, and the Queen belongs symbolically, culturally and emotionally to the latter. All that remains is for Australia to sever its outdated legal bond to this British institution.

Keating recognised this in 1992, and used his speech to inform the Queen that Australia was indeed independent and its future was in Asia. ‘Just as Great Britain some time ago sought to make her future secure in the European community, so Australia now vigorously seeks partnerships with countries in our own region,’ he commented. ‘Our outlook is necessarily independent.’11 Labor senator Chris Schacht has cited this as the ‘first pro-republican speech by an Australian Prime Minister in our history’.12

Keating began to take concrete steps towards the creation of an Australian republic when he established the Republic Advisory Committee (RAC) on 28 April 1993, with Turnbull as chair. Other members included politicians, academics and distinguished citizens. The committee presented its findings on 5 October 1993. It concluded that the only constitutional change needed to create an Australian republic was the removal of the monarchy and the institution of an Australian as head of state.13 Nothing has changed: Australia still only needs to take one small, final step to become, at last, fully independent.

Lessons Learned

It is easy enough to say that Australia should have an Australian head of state but more complex to determine how the position should be filled. The RAC proposed that references to the monarch should simply be replaced by references to an Australian head of state, known as the president. This was seen as the path of least resistance. The ARM supported a republic with minimal change, arguing this would be the most likely model to be carried in a referendum. In June 1992, opponents of a republic formed Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), which immediately retaliated against what they called the ‘tippex’ solution.14

ACM’s arguments were articulated by its executive director, Tony Abbott, who left the group in 1994, when he was elected to the federal seat of Warringah in a by-election. (A point of controversy for some time, it has now been established that Abbott renounced his British

citizenship the previous year.) Abbott argued passionately against the creation of an Australian republic in his 1995 book, The Minimal Monarchy. Its primary theme was that the proposed constitutional amendments would drastically alter the balance of power in favour of Canberra. Abbott did not engage in an argument against republicanism per se, but merely against what he called ‘Keating’s republic’.15 Throughout the 1990s, ACM consistently maintained that a republican government would throw into disarray the symbiosis of governmental power and constitutional checks and balances that had served the country since Federation.

The enormous influence and importance of prime ministerial support is an important lesson from the 1990s. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and, of course, Malcolm Turnbull are all republicans, but each insisted that a groundswell of public support was needed before parliamentary action. But who sparks these movements? Who are the instigators of change? Leaders matter. The plight of Australian republicanism changed dramatically between 1995 and 1996. Back in 1995, Keating offered his strongest support yet to the cause of an Australian republic. On 7 June he delivered a speech to parliament outlining the reasons and method for creating a republic. He noted that constitutional monarchy was a ‘historical accident’ and not a system Australians would choose if the country were beginning today.16 ‘It is not a radical undertaking that we propose,’ Keating continued. ‘In proposing that our Head of State should be an Australian we are proposing nothing more than the obvious.’17

The same year saw a powerful republican coalition working in unison. The prime minister, the RAC, the ARM and various academics and journalists were not only collectively agitating for a republic but essentially arguing for the same kind of minimalist republic, preferring the head of state to be chosen by parliament. It was at this stage that many started invoking the dangerous term ‘inevitable’ to describe the march towards a republic. Like the commentator’s curse in sport, it takes a fool’s confidence to make such predictions in Australian politics. The following year saw the election of John Howard’s Liberal/National government; in hindsight, it’s clear that this was the moment the republic ceased to be inevitable.

Bicentenary Celebrations of 1988

The impact of Howard’s 1996 election victory on the republican campaign can hardly be overstated. Up until 1995, the Australian prime minister vocally endorsed the position of the ARM. Keating had insisted, along with the ARM, that the constitutional amendments were safe, minimal and yet highly important from a symbolic and patriotic standpoint. In a nationally televised speech, he stated:

The meaning is simple and, we believe, irresistible – as simple and irresistible as the idea of a Commonwealth of Australia was to the Australians of a century ago. The meaning now is still a product of that founding sentiment it is that we are all Australians. We share a continent. We share a past, a present and a future. And our Head of State should be one of us.18

The emotive, nationalistic rhetoric and the emphasis on the safety and simplicity of the changes were consistent with the ARM’s position.

After the 1996 election, the prime ministerial position reversed. Howard began to publicly echo the sentiments of ACM. While acknowledging the symbolic potency of the republican case, he stressed that the Constitution provided an effective system of government. He

suggested that the proposed changes were not simple and minor, but had the capacity to severely and negatively distort the present system. He commented in January 1997: ‘I don’t cop this view that you can just have a direct swap of the reserve powers from a monarch to a president. It’s not as simple as that.’19

One key policy difference as a result of the change in government was that a plebiscite never took place. In the lead-up to the 1996 election, Keating had promised a republican plebiscite that would ask simply: ‘Do you want an Australian to be Australia’s head of state?’20 As noted earlier, an AGB McNair Age poll suggested that 76 per cent of Australians would answer yes.21 Significantly, the poll also indicated that while nearly nine out of ten Labor voters supported the motion, an overwhelming majority of Coalition voters (68 per cent) were also in favour.22 Keating saw the plebiscite, and indeed the whole republican movement, as a unique opportunity that called for urgent and enthusiastic agitation. ‘The truth is we either grasp the opportunity now, or fail,’ he commented in 1996. ‘The pace and momentum must not be lost: for if the fire goes out, not only is it unlikely to be relit, but the opportunity will be lost and we will repent in leisure.’23

Calls for Republican Reform

By contrast, Howard warned: ‘You face the absurd possibility that you could have a referendum or a plebiscite carried overwhelmingly in favour of an Australian head of state and then if the Prime Minister [Paul Keating] was to put his preferred option for a republic, that could be defeated.’24 Howard’s opposition was also motivated by a desire to deny republicans the popular mandate a successful plebiscite would have provided.

Despite the landslide Coalition victory in 1996, the government still lacked a ruling majority in the Senate. Labor and the Australian Democrats attempted to revive the plebiscite question by jointly proposing legislation in June 1997 for a national vote on a republican constitution and an Australian head of state. In a bizarre twist, the Tasmanian Greens senator, Bob Brown, sided with the government to defeat the proposal.25 The unusual Greens–Coalition alliance effectively ended the possibility of a republican plebiscite before the Constitutional Convention.

The Howard government’s refusal to hold a republican plebiscite added to the burden of the ARM, which found itself having to convince the Australian public of two things rather than one. Its members had first to make the case for Australia becoming a republic in principle, and then that Turnbull’s minimalist model was the best option. It is significant that Bill Shorten promised in 2017 that a new Labor government would hold a plebiscite in its first term. If carried, this would change the complexion of the debate. The will of the people would be clear, and the onus would be on the politicians to consult widely and devise a model acceptable to most Australians and likely to pass a referendum. Without this popular mandate, republicans in 1998 were left with twin tasks and a tight deadline.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention met at Old Parliament House between 2 and 13 February 1998. They were asked to consider three questions: should Australia become a republic, what model of republic, and when? Of the 152 delegates, eighty-nine supported the republic in principle (fifty-two were against, and there were eleven abstentions). This in itself reveals the flawed and confused nature of the ‘Con-Con’. If its main task was to choose a

republican model that would be put to a referendum, why include sixty-three people who were against a republic? It is hardly cynical to be concerned that opponents of an Australian republic would not be constructive or, worse, might fight for a model they suspected would lose. Half the delegates were chosen by governments, and the other half through a voluntary postal vote. Actually wanting a republic was not a criterion for membership, and so ACM was well represented. It was like a coach inviting opposing players to discuss team tactics before a grand final. The third question was less contentious: 133 supported holding a referendum in 1999 so that the republic could be in place by 1 January 2001.

Launch of Australian Republican Movement

The main debate was over which republican model should be offered in a referendum. Along with the ARM’s minimalist model, three variations were considered. The McGarvie model, proposed by former Victorian governor Richard McGarvie, was the most minimalist. It proposed that even the title of governor-general be retained. Under the McGarvie model, the Queen would be replaced by a ‘Constitutional Council of three experienced Australians designated automatically by formula under its Constitution’.26 Two reformist models offered a directly elected president. The Gallop model, named for West Australian Labor opposition leader Dr Geoff Gallop, was a direct-election system by which a joint sitting of parliament would offer at least three candidates to the Australian people. A former governor-general, Bill Hayden, proposed another direct-election system, in which candidates required at least 1 per cent of a national vote to be eligible.

The Con-Con employed an elimination-style voting system. In the first round the Hayden model was discarded, receiving just four votes.27 One of its backers, Phil Cleary, predicted that ‘the ARM model at a referendum is highly likely to lose’.28 This ultimately proved a self- fulfilling prophecy, helped in no small part by Cleary’s active campaign against it. The other three supporters of the Hayden model were the appointed New South Wales delegate Adam Johnston, the Victorian Shooters Party delegate Eric Bullmore and, of course, Bill Hayden.

In the second round, the Gallop model was narrowly defeated by the McGarvie model, thirty votes to thirty-one.29 Had the four Hayden supporters made the Gallop model the only other direct-election model their second choice, it would have beaten McGarvie. Instead, Hayden sided with the majority of the ACM delegates, voting for no model. Curiously, Johnston reverted from supporting the most radical of the reformist models to the most conservative of the minimalist models and voted for McGarvie. Johnston’s single, unpredictable vote proved decisive. This power was used to defeat not only Gallop but also the prospect of a reformist model being presented to the Australian people. Ultimately, the choice was between the McGarvie and ARM models. The McGarvie model received artificial votes from monarchists such as John Howard and the historian Geoffrey Blainey, but still was soundly defeated, seventy-three votes to thirty-two.30

Howard declared the ARM model the winner and agreed to put it to the Australian people in a referendum.31 Sydney Morning Herald columnist Tony Wright noted astutely that the convention had been as much a victory for Howard and the monarchists as the ARM.32 Had the convention failed to produce a winning model, Howard’s election promise would have obliged him to hold a plebiscite, which would likely have produced a strong Yes vote. Howard’s

Author's Intentions

request for a consensus, rather than majority, proved important, as it allowed him to go straight to a referendum. Furthermore, the convention had revealed a deep rift between reformist and minimalist republicans. Much to the dismay of Turnbull and his supporters, many non-ARM republicans chose to side with the monarchists, opposing the referendum rather than cede to a rival republican model.

While the reformist republicans’ decision to support the monarchists may appear a volte- face, it was rooted in a belief that the republican pull was irresistible and that a subsequent direct-election referendum would soon follow, should the Turnbull model be defeated. Tony Abbott certainly supported this view. He stressed to reformists that if the referendum passed, a direct-election system would be impossible to salvage.33 Few contemplated that a No vote, even if supplemented by republicans, would be seen as a vindication of the present system and an excuse to abandon this vital piece of nation-building. The language of the No republicans reveals an unshakable belief that the question had already been answered in principle. Today, as we close in on two unnecessary decades of Australia under the British monarchy, I wonder how many republicans who voted No in 1999 regret their choice.

The prominent reformist republican Ted Mack also felt that the republican question had been definitively answered. ‘The question as to whether Australia is to become a republic is over,’ he declared on the first day of the Constitutional Convention. ‘Even monarchists must recognise that.’34 It was his confidence in a second referendum, should the first one fail, that led Mack to join the No campaign. Along with fellow reformist delegates Clem Jones, Phil Cleary, Ed Haber, David Muir and Patrick O’Brien, Mack began a protest group known as the Real Republic.35

The Real Republic campaigned against the referendum, urging voters to reject ‘this republic’. They raised funds for a television advertisement, which claimed:

Of course Australia will become a republic. But in November we certainly don’t want a pretend republic like the one the politicians and big business are trying to sell. A republic that concentrates more power in Canberra and takes away our right to vote for our President … Tell them we want a Real Republic by voting NO!36

Today, the opening line is laughable. Swept up in the excitement of the debate, many people did feel that ‘of course’ Australia would one day sever its connection to Britain. The Real Republic assured voters that the battle was over and they had the luxury of voting No in a historic referendum, as another would quickly follow.

The republic referendum was held on Saturday, 6 November 1999. At 8.07 pm, the leader of the No campaign, Kerry Jones, broke out the champagne with Howard and other monarchists.37 With 60 per cent of the vote counted, the No camp had won an unassailable 53.5 per cent. The following morning, 80 per cent of the vote had been counted and the result was clear.38 In Victoria, the state John Dunmore Lang had predicted in 1857

Factors Contributing to the Failure

The republican referendum of 1999 failed because majority of the people voted in the negative and said NO. During the bicentenary celebrations of Australia in 1988, the Queen visited Canberra in May of that year to open the new Parliament House. While addressing the people , the Queen drew on the royal connection, saying that her father, George VI, had opened the original Canberra Parliament House in 1927 and her grandfather George V had opened the inaugural the Melbourne Parliament House in 1901. (Qvortrup, 2001, p. 1)

The nature of the Sydney celebrations of 1988 drew the wrath from a lot of Australians wherein they wanted European Australians to let go of England and Australia to be an independent republic (Qvortrup, 2001, p. 1). The Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating played a very important role in this regard, wherein he proposed that the Australian flag should be modified. Majority of the people in Australia felt that Australia and the United Kingdom were separate nations and that Australia should sever all bonds with the United Kingdom and be truly independent and that the Queen belonged to the United Kingdom in every facet. Keating established the Republic Advisory Committee on the 28th of April 1993 which was a concrete step in making Australia an independent republic. The committee proposed that the only way in making Australia a Republic nation was to remove the  Queen and introduce an Australian as the head of state.

There was a lot of debate over which republican model should be instituted, until ARM’s minimalist model was chosen as the winner and put as a referendum in Australia. (Qvortrup, 2001, p. 5) However, the republican campaign in Australia failed and the republic was said to be an elitist initiative.

The lesson learnt was republicans should want more change from the heart. They should truly want Australia to be an independent nation, rather than voting for their personal preferences. The people who propagated and promoted the No vote, used the policy of divide and rule to their own advantage. Everybody was convinced that the person at fault was John Howard and there was a lot of hostility and wrath directed at him.

Even after Malcolm Turnbull became the prime minister of Australia, he did not revive the republican issue. For the republican model to succeed, people in Australia must put principles above politics in Australia. (Qvortrup, 2001, p. 10)

Reference list:

Qvortrup, M. H. (2001). How to lose a referendum: The Danish plebiscite on the euro. The Political Quarterly, 72(2), 190-196.

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