Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday November 6, 1999
Aussies don’t love Queen but will keep her
‘If you vote No, ” warned Senator Aden Ridgeway as campaigning for Australia’s Nov. 6 referendum on the monarchy drew to a close, “it will take at least another century before this country revisits the question.” If he is right, then Queen Elizabeth II of Australia will presumably be succeeded by King Charles III of Australia (and maybe Queen Camilla, if he eventually marries his long-time lover), then by King William V, followed perhaps by Queen Fiona I, King George VII … and so on all the way down to the end of the 21st century.
Ridgeway, an Aboriginal Australian, was mainly urging his own people not to be swayed by the fear-mongering and nit-picking that has sabotaged what once looked like an easy victory for those who wanted to dump the British monarchy and make Australia a republic. After the most recent polls, the Australian Broadcasting Commission estimated the odds against a republican victory at 100 to one.
Aborigines will mostly vote Yes, for they have little reason to love the British connection: it was British settlers who reduced them to a mere 2 per cent minority in their own country in only two centuries. The majority of more recent non-British immigrants to Australia (where 20 per cent of the population is foreign-born) will also vote Yes, as will around half of those Australians who are actually of British descent — but that is not enough.
It takes a two-thirds majority to change the Australian constitution, and the Yes vote, while it will probably be well above 50 per cent, is very unlikely to reach 66.6 per cent. The result will be the worst of all possible outcomes: Australia will be stuck with a British monarchy that a majority of its citizens have clearly shown by their votes that they do not want. How did such a normally sensible country get into this silly predicament?
There has been a republican movement in Australia since the end of the last century (mainly because the “British” settlers in Australia actually included many Irish with no love for Britain). It is purely an argument about symbols, of course, since the country has actually been fully independent for over half a century: Queen Elizabeth never interferes in the decisions of the Australian Governor-General, who is selected by the Australian government. But symbols matter greatly to some people.
Sensing in the early ’90s that the changing demography of Australia had eroded the old British ties, the republicans fixed on 2001, a century after the Commonwealth of Australia was created out of the six existing British colonies on the continent, as the date when the country should at last get its own head of state. A sympathetic Labour government promised a referendum on the issue — but politics has moved on, and it is being held under a conservative Liberal-Country Party government whose leader, Prime Minister John Howard, is deeply unsympathetic to the republican cause.
So Howard had the referendum question written as follows: “A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic, with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth parliament. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
With the bare-faced cheek for which Australian politicians are famous, Prime Minister John Howard urged the public to vote No last week not because they love their Queen (most of them don’t), but because the proposal to replace her with an appointed president is deeply flawed. Just as if he had not been personally responsible for the form of that proposal.
The republicans, for their part, are a fractious lot who fell right into Howard’s trap, splitting over the issue of whether the president should be appointed by parliament or directly elected by all 19 million Australians. The more doctrinaire ones stomped off in fury, insisting that only a directly elected president would do — a position that would make more sense if either the monarch and the governor-general, or the president who might replace them, had any real power under the Australian constitution.
So about a third of the No votes that scupper an Australian republic, it is estimated, will be cast by ardent republicans who fondly imagine that if they reject this referendum proposal as unsatisfactory, they will be able to vote on another, better one in a few years’ time.
Senator Ridgeway has a firmer grasp of political reality: there will probably not be another referendum on the monarchy for at least a generation, if not longer.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Howard has not been so foolish as to follow the original plan and invite Queen Elizabeth II, as Australia’s head of state, to open the Olympic Games in Sydney next year. He is going to open them himself. – Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. (Hamilton Spectator, C2, 11/2/1999)