September 13, 2022

The Australian Republic Movement (ARM) has always been nervous about making its move too early — it has been waiting for this moment for a long time. For the past decade, polls showed that Elizabeth II, who visited Australia 16 times during her 70-year reign, was the most popular member of the Royal Family. Given her son has never commanded anything like Elizabeth’s levels of adulation, the republican movement started to focus its messaging on what would happen after Elizabeth’s death.

This is partly why, just a few months ago, the ARM issued a celebratory statement titled “Australians reject King Charles”. According to the ABC survey the ARM was referring to, 53% of Australians did not want Charles to become king, while only 35% were in support. Today, then, despite the fact that the government’s flags are flying at half-mast and Parliament has been suspended for two weeks, the republican cause in Australia seems in strong shape. Indeed, the newly elected Labor Party government is the first to appoint a Minister for the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, whose job is to prepare the grounds for a future referendum on Australia becoming a republic.

Such a vote will be necessary, as any change to Australia’s system of government requires a constitutional amendment, which can only be done via referendum. Yet the government is currently preoccupied with its proposed referendum on enshrining an indigenous voice to parliament. Senior ministers have therefore suggested that the republic referendum would likely have to wait until the government’s second term, which will be in 2025 if the ALP is re-elected.

Despite this delay, republicanism is clearly back on the political agenda and is enjoying substantial support at the highest echelons of government. An unpopular King now sits on the throne in Britain. What could possibly go wrong?

While the circumstances are certainly propitious, if the ARM believes that a favourable result would simply fall in its lap, they could end up bitterly disappointed. Let’s not forget: we have been here before. In the Nineties, when Australia was gearing up for its first referendum on the republic, a majority of Australians supported the change. Successive polls showed the margin in favour of a republic was roughly two-to-one. Yet in the 1999 referendum, the republican cause lost by 45% to 55%.

Of course, the circumstances today are not entirely similar. Whereas the current Labor government and its leader, Anthony Albanese, is in favour of a republic, John Howard, who was Prime Minister at the time, was a staunch monarchist who put forward an unpopular model, in which the Head of State would be elected by parliament, not by voters. Malcolm Turnbull, a future Liberal prime minister, who was leader of the “yes” vote, later told Howard that he had broken “the nation’s heart” by manipulating the referendum to get the result he wanted. This was largely true, though the republican defeat was also enabled by a split within the movement over the preferred model for electing an Australian Head of State.

Still, the Nineties would turn out to be the highest point of support for the republic. Recent polling has shown that more Australians do not support a republic than those who do. At 34%, support for the republican cause is at its lowest ebb since 1979. Perhaps surprisingly, only 26% of voters aged 18-24 said they would support a republic, the lowest of any age group. A large share, over a quarter of all respondents, said they were uncertain how they would vote. If many of those decided to vote “yes” the republic vote could still win, but they would need to be won over to the cause. The biggest challenge facing the ARM, then, appears to be a debilitating one: public apathy. The republic just does not seem to excite Australians anymore.

This in itself is surprising, given the way the monarchy and its unelected representative in Australia, the Governor-General, have significantly intervened in Australian politics. Only this year, newly released documents showed how Governor-General John Kerr corresponded with the Queen’s Secretary throughout the dismissal of the ALP Whitlam government in 1975. The letters revealed how Kerr railed against the Whitlam government, attacking its policy decisions, and even asked whether the monarchy would consider using its powers to dissolve it. And more recently, it was uncovered that Australia’s current Governor-General, David Hurley, secretly swore in former prime minister Scott Morrison to several ministerial roles during the pandemic. These appointments, which could have had a monumental impact on government operations, were not recorded anywhere on Hurley’s publicly available schedule, again raising questions about the powers vested in the Governor-General’s office.

And yet so many Australians, including younger citizens, just don’t seem to care about introducing a republic. In part, this reflects the ARM’s firmly middle-class characteristics. The Movement was established by prominent journalists, academics, lawyers, corporate figures, and some politicians in 1991. The same professions dominate today. Although these individuals undoubtedly bring a wealth of relevant expertise and knowledge, one negative consequence is the ARM’s heavy emphasis on the symbolism of becoming a republic and on designing the perfect selection process for an Australian Head of State, while paying relatively little attention to articulating precisely how a republic would benefit ordinary Australians.

This is the most important issue because the fate of the republic will not be decided in meeting rooms. For the constitutional amendment to take place, Australians need to vote “yes” in a referendum. And symbolism and identity, seen as self-evidently important to the ARM, don’t appear to be vote-winners. Absent a stronger positive case, many Australians might just vote to keep what they know.

To make matters worse for the ARM, the debate for a republic is now happening in a context of serious decline in Australians’ trust in their public institutions and democracy. A spike in trust in democracy during the early stages of the pandemic swiftly fizzled out, and was followed by the second biggest recorded decline in 2022. This explains Queen Elizabeth’s remarkable and enduring popularity. Many viewed the Queen as dutiful and publicly minded, a source of continuity and stability in contrast to their feckless politicians and globally oriented elites. Irrespective of King Charles’s personal standing with Australians, their declining faith in democracy makes this a difficult moment in which to argue for the inherent benefit of elected office.

Queen Elizabeth’s death should therefore be a moment of collective reflection and debate for Australia. The end of her 70-year reign represents a major fork in the road — a time to assess where we came from and, perhaps more importantly, where we would like to go. Tragically, there seems to be little appetite for this: republicans seem to expect the transition to happen almost by itself, while monarchists are also counting on inertia to keep things as they are.

Neither side seems capable of, or interested in, mounting a compelling, positive case for their cause. And given the void left by the Queen’s passing, the monarchists’ job appears to be the easier one.