Australia plans referendum on monarchy following queen's death: 'We are not British anymore'

Queen Elizabeth

The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II has reignited a simmering republican debate in Australia, where the United Kingdom's monarch is head of state, with Anthony Albanese's government planning to put the issue to a vote.

Already committed to a referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous 'Voice to Parliament', the government plans to hold a similar vote to test Australians' appetite for a republic.

Assistant Minister for the Republic of Australia, Matt Thistlethwaite, told Al Jazeera that while "the priority for this government is the Voice to Parliament, the next natural progression for Australia is look to have one of our own as a head of state and we'd seek to do that in a second term if we are successful with the Voice in the first term".

"Australians have always been willing to look to ways to improve our system of government and improve our country and our nation," he said.

"This is an opportunity for us to build a new system, to select our head of state, and at the same time, improve the rights of citizens in the choices that we have but also strengthen the democracy we have."

With an Indigenous history stretching back more than 60 000 years, the continent now known as Australia was colonised in 1788 and, while politically independent, has remained part of the British monarchy.

Under the current system, the monarch is represented in Australia by the governor-general, who plays a largely ceremonial role.

However, the position retains constitutional and statutory powers, like swearing in ministers and acting as the commander-in-chief of Australia's Defence Forces.

They also have the power to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister, most controversially done in 1975 when Gough Whitlam was removed.

The death of Queen Elizabeth in September came four months after Labor, long supporters of the republican movement, were elected to power in Canberra.

"The queen's passing provides us now with an opportunity to discuss what comes next for Australia," Thistlethwaite told Al Jazeera.

"Australia is now a mature and independent nation. We make our own decisions about how we govern ourselves, our economic relationship is predominantly linked to the Asia-Pacific region, our security relationship is based on the ANZUS alliance. We are not British anymore."

'100 per cent' for Australia

The queen reigned for 70 years and was a constant presence for Australians, most of whom were born while she was on the throne.

But her death has sparked debate about the future of the monarchy in Australian public and political life – there has even been a backlash against King Charles III automatically replacing the queen on Australia's five-dollar bank notes.

Australians have supported replacing her portrait with a variety of Australian people and animals, with support for prominent Indigenous Australians such as recently deceased Indigenous actor Jack Charles.

Despite the renewed debate, polls remain unclear whether support for a republic would see a successful referendum, with a recent Guardian poll showing fewer than half of those surveyed support a republic.

In 1999, a referendum was held in which Australians were asked to decide between two different republican models, yet the referendum failed to win sufficient support, and the idea of a republic was largely scrapped.

Sandy Biar, director of the Australian Republican Movement, said the 1999 referendum was unsuccessful because "the proposal that was put forward in 1999 was developed by a small group without reference to what Australians wanted".

However, he believes with a better education campaign and widespread consultation; a referendum would be successful.

"Once people have a greater level of understanding about how those aspects of our government work, then they are far more able to engage in a conversation about potential changes to that than they are now," he told Al Jazeera.

Biar also argued that along with having an Australian as a head of state, there would be economic and political benefits from the republican model.

"Right now, our head of state represents the UK when they travel around on these kind of trade trips and delegations," he said.

"We should have an Australian head of state who stands up for Australia 100 per cent of the time and who champions Australia's interests."

The Australian Republic Movement recently released a proposed model for how the republic would work.

Named the Australian Choice, the model proposes Australia's parliaments nominate candidates for Head of State, who would be put to a national ballot of all Australian voters.

The Head of State would be elected for a five-year term and be responsible for appointing a prime minister but would have no individual authority in relation to the setting of government policy, day-to-day governance or passing of laws.

But some have dismissed the proposal, including Former Prime Minister and republican campaigner Paul Keating who was reported saying the country would be better off remaining a constitutional monarchy than experimenting with a "US-style" presidency.

Writing in The Conversation, Professorial Fellow Dennis Altman from La Trobe University said it was not clear how turning Australia into a republic would benefit Australians.

"Becoming a republic would essentially be a symbolic if important act … but it is hard to see what effectively would change," he wrote.

"Monarchists will retort that we already have an effective head of state with the governor-general, who for all practical purposes exercises the powers granted to the monarch."

Those who support retaining the UK monarch say the system has served Australia well.

Eric Abetz, the spokesperson for the Australian Monarchist League, says one of the key benefits of retaining the monarchy is that the head of state – being the queen's or king's representative – is removed from day-to-day politics.

"The monarchy provides a head of state who is above politics and the day-to-day cut and thrust," he said.

"The chief of our armed forces is the governor-general – a neutral person – rather than a political person. It diffuses power within the body politic. The big argument has to be how will being a republic enhance our democracy, enhance the body politic, enhance the way of life for Australians?"

Time for 'Australian era'

While support for the monarchy may remain high for many Australians, Indigenous groups reacted strongly to the queen's death and the widespread, relentless coverage of her life and funeral.

In capital cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, protests were held on the day of the funeral, declared a public holiday and a "day of mourning" by Albanese.

Ironically, Indigenous groups have been calling for their own recognised "day of mourning" for decades to acknowledge the impact of colonisation, calls which have gone unheeded.

Indigenous groups such as the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance say the unresolved issue of a treaty with Indigenous people should be the priority for the Australian government.

The group said:

"We do not want to be a part of the Stolen(common)Wealth – we never have, and we will continue to fight against all it stands for and its ongoing colonial regime, which continues to exploit, oppress and kills our people."

"Using the queen's death to strengthen the monarchy's power is out of touch, disrespectful and is completely at odds with the Treaty process."

In an acknowledgement of the need to find a way forward in resolving Australia's colonial past, the government has committed to holding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum as a priority over the republic.

"The priority for this government is the Voice to Parliament. That's Australia's great unfinished business," Thistlethwaite told Al Jazeera.

Despite Indigenous politicians remaining divided over the proposed Voice – and public apathy towards a republic – Thistlethwaite remains optimistic the government could successfully chart a new course in Australian political history.

"It's about modernising the Australian democracy," he said. "We think that the right time is now, given that the Elizabethan era is over. It is now time for the Australian era."


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