Australia might follow its historic survey on gay marriage with a national poll on becoming a republic, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. Turnbull is a staunch republican, and campaigned heavily before the 1999 referendum, which resulted in a 55% majority for remaining a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
Speaking at the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney on New Year’s day, Turnbull brought up the possibility of a national vote to determine whether Australia should call it a day as a constitutional monarchy and member of the Commonwealth.
According to news.com.au, the PM stated that a postal vote would trigger debate before a referendum on the issue.
“I think the first thing that you would need to do is to have an honest open discussion about how a president would be elected … (and) whether the president would be chosen by parliament in a bipartisan two-thirds majority — as proposed in ‘99 — or directly elected,” Turnbull said, as reported by The Australian, one of only two national newspapers (paywall).
Now the leader of the Liberal Party, he headed the secession campaign in the 1999 referendum on Australia’s parting with the Commonwealth and ending Queen Elizabeth’s role as head of state. That vote saw 54.87% of voters choosing to stay, compared to 45.13% voting to leave. Statistics from the Australian Electoral Commission show that 95.1% of eligible voters participated.
Turnbull said that a constitutional amendment would be needed should Australia decide to form a republic. “But that issue needs to be debated and resolved and then of course the fundamental question — then you’ve got to put up an amendment to the constitution which proposes a president to replace the Queen as head of state and then it’s up to the Australian people to decide,” Turnbull said during an informal address.
“No great state has ever had the monarch of another country as its head of state. Australia is a diminished country, diminished by its own hand, maintaining the monarchy and our reliance upon the sovereignty of Great Britain,” he continued. “This is not a change that Parliament can make. This is a question for the Australian people and Australians have shown themselves to be very conservative when it comes to constitutional change.”
He added, according to The Guardian, that there was no great push from the public: “no point pretending there is an appetite for change when there isn’t one at the moment”.
There has been some support for Australia to leave the Commonwealth, with the non-partisan Australian Republic Movement (of which Malcom Turnbull was a founding member) forming to campaign for such a move in 1991. Its website says that “There has never been a better time to be a republican. There is now a momentum for change but it’s not inevitable — it needs people like you to make it happen.”
Turnbull’s remarks appeared to be sparked by former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, who told a newspaper that his successors had failed Australia by not accelerating the move to a republic.
Australia is a federation and a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth, as official head of state, is represented by the governor-general, whom she appoints on the advice of the serving prime minister. The role of the governor-general was considered largely ceremonial until Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government of Gough Whitlam in 1975, a move which helped create the urge for a republic.
There is also an anti-republic movement, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.
After the 1999 referendum, Turnbull told supporters: “I thank every Australian who voted yes. I thank you for your patriotism, your optimism and pride. The republic will come back, not as soon as we would like it to come. But it will return, and I hope we all live to see it.” (YouTube).
Australia’s neighbor and fellow Commonwealth member, New Zealand, has a similar movement called New Zealand Republic.