Does the Australian public want a republic?

Jan 24, 2024
Large group of people forming Australia map and national flag.

One reason why the Republic referendum failed and why the result of another one is uncertain was confusion over just what the issues are. Like the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, our lot spent so much time fighting among themselves they had no time left to face their opponents. We need to identify the issues and consider the behaviour patterns of human animals.

There are two separate issues which tend to get confused:

  1.   Do we want a republic or a constitutional monarchy?
    2.   Do we want an Australian as our head of state or a foreigner?

At present we have a constitutional monarchy with a foreigner as our head of state.

Humans are herd animals and, like our cousins the apes, we love to touch or get close to the alpha creatures. Look at the hero worship for sporting figures, celebrities of all kinds and the media hype over the Danish Queen. Items about royalty sell newspapers. Why? Why did Germans support Hitler as countless other societies have supported dictators? Democracy, after all, is a recent invention.Is there a yearning for a just ruler who will take care of us? There are clearly many Australians who enjoy the trappings of royalty. Any proposal for change must consider who these people are and why they want what they want. History does not support the view that everyone yearns for democracy. The much vaunted American democracy was in fact an oligarchy until relatively recently when women got the vote and slavery was abolished.

There are many models for democracy but all involve rule by the majority. Theoretically, if 51% vote to shoot the other 49% that is a democratic decision. In practice it does not usually go that far! However, racial discrimination and extermination of Aboriginals was a democratic decision in Australia for many years. Slavery in the USA was also a democratic decision as was burning witches and heretics in many countries. So it is that many people argue that majority rule is not enough and an essential feature of a democracy must be the protection of the human rights of minorities. In wealthy Western countries this usually means political rights while for the poor the right to eat, get medical treatment and housing is more important. Just who gets what rights and who is denied their preference becomes a complex political question.

In federations things may be even more complex. In Australia Tasmania gets the same number of senators as NSW or Victoria which clearly does not reflect the population size of those states. A more blatant example is the USA which has a powerful president who may get a strong majority of the popular vote but be defeated by a somewhat arcane system of state elections. Given the importance of the President in the US system we may question just how democratic is a system where the most powerful and important political figure in the country is elected by a minority.

So why not import a monarch in the time honoured way from the UK or somewhere else and have our own constitutional monarchy? I don’t know how much support this would get from Australians but it is at least a theoretical option. Or maybe become the 51st state of the Union? Some would say we are already there!

It is clear that politicians who favour a republic are wary of going to a second referendum soon because they fear it would be defeated. John Howard ran a successful campaign on the claim that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and this probably still has appeal to many voters. People don’t like what they don’t understand as we saw from the Voice referendum and most people don’t understand how our system works let alone the pros and cons of conflicting models for the republic. It is all very well to put the argument for getting rid of the present system but we must be clear on what will replace it and sell that to a doubting public.

Before you start collecting the fagots for my stake, let me say that I favour an independent Australian democracy in theory as well as in practice but am flexible on details of the system. The simplest model would be to keep everything the same but replace the monarch/governor general by an Australian elected by two thirds or more of the parliament – but there are many others. If we are to have another referendum, experience suggests that the government will have to present one model with bipartisan support. In the present political climate that will not be easy so I suspect God will save our gracious King Charles and confound his enemies for some time to come.

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