Australian Financial Review, federal Attorney-General Robert McLelland has divulged that a reelected Rudd Labor government plans to hold a referendum on the question of whether or not Australia should become a republic. This means that this issue is back on the agenda for the first time since the defeat of the Howard government's 1999 republic referendum. Australia last dealt with this issue in the 1990's. Then Prime Minister Paul Keating supported Australia becoming a republic. Had his government not been defeated at the 1996 federal election, chances are that Australia would have become a republic by the time of the centenary of federation in 2001.
Under current constitutional arrangements, Australia is a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is Australia's head of state, with the Australian Governor-General, who is appointed by the Prime Minister, as her representative. The office of Governor-General is largely a ceremonial post. If Australia becomes a republic, this office will be renamed as President, but an Australian President would have the same powers as the Governor-General. One of the reasons why the 1999 referendum failed was that the republican movement was divided over the question of how an Australian President would be appointed. The Howard government proposed a model in which the President would be appointed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament. Some republicans supported that model, but opinion polls showed that the majority of Australians supported direct election by popular vote. Direct election republicans and constitutional monarchists joined forces to defeat the referendum vote, and parted ways soon after. It didn't help matters that then Prime Minister John Howard was an avowed monarchist. His opponents claimed that the government deliberately set up the process so that it would fail. Some ten years later, we once again have a Labor government, and the issue is back on the national agenda.
To summarise each position, supporters of an Australian republic claim that its current constitutional arrangements are no longer appropriate for a modern, cosmopolitan nation, for which the British monarchy has little relevance. When Australia first became a nation in 1901, it was part of the British Empire. The Empire is no more, but Australia is still part of the Commonwealth. If the republicans are to be believed, Australia is still wedded to its colonial past, and needs to become a republic to break away from the mother country and demonstrate that it is an independent nation. Opponents of a republic claim that Australia has been well served by its Constitution. It has a stable system of government, and tampering with this is not worth the risk.
Media commentators, public intellectuals, celebrities, and others believe that it is inevitable that Australia will become a republic. Perhaps it is. It will largely be a symbolic gesture that have little bearing on how Australians see themselves and their place in the world. I suspect that some republic opponents are probably closet royalists, but the majority of them believe that becoming a republic is simply unnecessary. Likewise, I suspect that some republicans are radicals with an irrational disdain for the British aristocracy. The burden of proof is on the republicans, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to show that rather than a change for change's sake, the change to a republic would be change for the better. I will follow this debate with great interest.