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An Australian head of state

By John Warhurst - posted Friday, 9 November 2007

Australians should have our own head of state. It is no longer good enough for us to share the British monarchy with Britain and a number of other countries. We need constitutional reform, that is, a successful constitutional referendum, to make Australia into a republic.

The republic issue should be on the agenda because this election is a contest about Australia’s future. The republic is first and foremost about the future of our democracy. Clinging to the monarchy is about the past. The monarchy was appropriate for Australia when our Australian constitution came into being in 1901, but it is no longer. We should move on.

The republic also should be on the election agenda because it is clearly what people want. All the serious social surveys demonstrate this.  Politicians have a duty to respond. The Australian Election Survey has tracked this question at each election since 1993 and the republican majority has always been about two-thirds of the electorate. Even in 2004, after eight years of a monarchist prime minister dampening enthusiasm for the cause, and following the disappointment of the loss of the 1999 referendum, 62 per cent of Australians either favoured or strongly favoured a republic. Analysis of the Newspoll annual Australia Day survey shows, too, that in each generation republicans clearly out number monarchists. Among young Australians only a tiny percentage (10 per cent) strongly oppose moving towards a republic. By comparison 23 per cent of 18-34 year olds are strongly in favour of a republic. Our political parties should get with it and recognise the direction of majority public opinion.


The republic is an issue about being Australian and about being modern. It is a substantive issue about being a democratic people. It is no longer good enough to have our head of state at the pinnacle of our constitutional system filled through inheritance from within the British Royal family. We have no say in this unpredictable, foreign process. We must move to a system in which our head of state is either directly elected by Australians or selected by the Australian parliament.

The symbolism of the republic is also important. It is not enough just to be an independent nation, as we are. We need to show our independence to the world and reinforce it to ourselves by jettisoning our links with the Crown. Once appropriate to our history and circumstances these links have now become anachronistic baggage. We need to update and upgrade our political system. Just as the Prime Minister has now belatedly accepted the necessary symbolism of recognising Indigenous Australians in the Preamble to the Australian Constitution, we should not shy away from symbolism as a motive for action. To say that "there is nothing in this for me" is a silly, narrow-minded response.

The precise best way forward on the republic issue is still to be agreed upon, of course. The same is true about deciding the type of republic best suited to Australia. That should not be seen as a flaw in the case for a republic but an opportunity for further public debate and ultimately public decision. Political parties and candidates have a chance now to put their own stamp on the best way to move forward.

There are approaches already on the table. The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) supports a two-stage community plebiscite, or preliminary vote, to determine the way towards a referendum. One vote would be on the general principle, the second on the most suitable type of republic. As a non-partisan grass-roots movement we recognise the need for a bottom-up approach to the issue, while remaining uncommitted about the details of the final outcome. After the 1999 referendum loss we also recognise the need to get the process right this time.

But the issue also badly needs energetic political leadership and now, during an election campaign, is the time for that leadership to be shown.

There have been some good signs. The Labor Party has re-affirmed its positive republican commitment at this year’s Labor national conference. Kevin Rudd has carefully committed a future Labor government to begin the plebiscite process, broadly along the lines that the ARM has suggested, though not as a first order issue. In spontaneous moments, such as in responding to the news that Prince William saw himself one day becoming Governor-General of Australia, Rudd has wittily demonstrated his own personal republicanism.


The Democrats, who have played such an important role in generating republican momentum over the years, and the Greens, have maintained their own party’s republican commitment. Individual Liberals, including the future leader, Peter Costello, have been openly encouraging about declaring their own republicanism. That leaves the Family First Party leader, Senator Steve Fielding, who is dismissive of republicanism, and the Nationals who are formally a monarchist party. They both need to rethink their position if they are to keep pace with the public mood. Let’s hope they do.

The community deserves more than these snippets from its political leaders and candidates on the republic issue. Republicans from all parties need to throw off the shackles of their conservatism about the republic. They have nothing to fear on this score. Republicanism is a winner in the electorate because of what it stands for and signifies. It is a unifying, forward-looking issue that is recognised by voters as distinguishing candidates looking to the future from those rooted in the past.

Candidates and leaders from each of the parties should make a contribution of the sort called for by Bill Shorten, Labor candidate for Maribyrnong, in the Melbourne Age newspaper recently; that is, measured and clear-sighted, and imbued with the spirit of goodwill and free of partisanship. It is only this type of community discussion that will take the issue forward in the productive way that voters expect.

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About the Author

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

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