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There is a long history of republicanism in Australia, dating back to pre-Federation times. Republicanism was a popular cause in the 1870s and 1880s. It was enough of a movement to cause serious concern to Benjamin Disraeli, who was then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the 50th anniversary of the monarch's reign) in 1887 was a time of royal ceremony, with the unveiling of numerous statues of the Queen throughout Australia and the British Empire. In this period, as a response to the visible domination of Australia by the Crown, republican unions, a republican journal and the staunchly republican Bulletin magazine were formed. They called for Australian independence from the British Crown.

Although Australia did not become a republic but instead became a Federated Dominion of the British Empire, our constitutional relationship with Britain continued to evolve over the twentieth century. Indeed, Australia has been breaking with British control since settlement in 1788. Even as a series of colonies we broke with the British authority by establishing local self-government and parliamentary process. The Australian colonies refused to take any more convicts, and put in place electoral reforms which were far ahead of the British system. Women were given the vote in Australia (and New Zealand) much earlier than in England and many other parts of the world - in Australia in 1902, in England in the 1920s.

In 1901 Australia became a Federation with practical, if not legal, independence. In the 1930s the Statute of Westminster 1931 (UK) established legislative equality between Australia (as a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire) and the United Kingdom. This further asserted Australian independence, ending the reliance on Britain in defence and foreign affairs.

In the late twentieth century, events in Australia continued to pave the way for increased independence from Britain. The Dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General (the Queen's representative in Australia) was one such event. It sparked a constitutional crisis and raised a number of crucial questions about Australian democracy and the degree of control the Queen's representative should have over the Australian government and national affairs.

The Australia Act 1986 (Cth) was an important step in getting rid of any remaining ties between the courts and parliaments of Australia and their counterparts in the UK. It also finally cut off any power the UK had to make laws for the Australian States. It was later officially determined by the High Court in Sue v Hill [1999] HCA 30 that the Australia Act 1986 established Britain and Australia as independent nations sharing a common sovereign.

In more subtle ways, references to the Crown were being removed from various official institutions. In 1993, references to the Queen were removed from the Oath of Citizenship sworn by naturalised Australians. Barristers in New South Wales were no longer appointed as 'Queen's Counsel' (QC), but instead as 'Senior Counsel' (SC). Institutions in Australia could no longer apply to have 'Royal' in their names, and British citizens living in Australia could no longer enrol to vote in elections. In Queensland the State parliament did away with all references to the Queen or Crown in its legislation.

The campaign for an Australian republic was given a new official face when it began to be led by the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), formed in July 1991. The ARM was established around the central goal of making Australia's official Head of State an Australian citizen. The ARM wished to achieve this goal in time for the centenary of Australia's Federation on 1 January 2001.

The argument made by supporters of an Australian republic is that it is inappropriate for someone in a distant country to be the Australian head of state - that a Queen who lives in the United Kingdom and whose main role is as head of state of the UK cannot represent Australia to itself or to the rest of the world. As a popular bumper sticker of the time put it, the republican movement wanted 'a resident for President'.

Monarchists, such as those represented by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and the Australian Monarchist League, felt differently. They considered the Queen the Queen of Australia, rather than a citizen of a foreign nation. They believe that the governor-general, who acts as head of state, does a perfectly appropriate job in representing Australia to itself and to the world.

There were other arguments for an Australian republic. Supporters of a republic argue that as Australia becomes an increasingly multicultural society the idea of a British head of state loses relevance, as the Queen of England means little to Aboriginal, Middle Eastern or Asian Australians. Monarchists argue against this, suggesting that people who left unstable political countries (often republics in themselves) would welcome the political and social stability found in the Australian system. It has also been suggested that the monarchy in and of itself is in conflict with Australian values, with the idea of hereditary privilege going against the Australian egalitarian spirit.

There are several models for an Australian republic. The central element is the replacement of the Queen and governor-general by an Australian president. The question of how the president would be appointed - whether by the parliament or by election by the people - has inspired vigorous debate. So too has the issue of the role of the president and the extent of the position's power.

The ARM supported the bi-partisan appointment model, which would result in a president elected by the parliament of Australia, with the powers currently held by the Queen and the governor-general. Many republicans did not support this model, preferring the president to be directly elected. Amongst pro-republicans, there was also disagreement as to the degree to which the president's powers should be changed or limited. Some argued for extensive constitutional reform and a president having greater powers than the governor-general currently has.

In December 1991 Paul Keating was sworn in as Prime Minister after deposing Bob Hawke as leader of the federal ALP. As Keating came to power in the early 1990s his support for the republic was widely known, and he continued to campaign for it throughout his time in office and beyond. In February 1992 Keating called for a new Australian flag, stating that the presence of the Union Jack in the corner of the flag was appropriate for a colony, not for an independent nation like Australia. See image 1

Keating gave a speech during the Queen's visit to Australia in 1992 in which he referred to Australia's outlook being 'necessarily independent', and around the same time he announced Cabinet's decision to amend the Citizenship Act 1948 (Cth) and the Oath of Allegiance to remove all references to the Queen. In this period the organisation Australians for Constitutional Monarchy was launched in Sydney.

In April 1993, Keating appointed a Republic Advisory Committee to examine the options for an Australian republic. Under Keating, the republic was part of a progressive policy approach toward the Australian national image, which also included reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Republic Advisory Committee published its report in 1993, in which it stated that 'a republic is achievable without threatening Australia's cherished democratic institutions'. In the wake of the report Keating proposed a referendum on the republic, on the question of replacing the governor-general with a president. The president was to be nominated by the prime minister and appointed by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives.

1996 saw a change in the federal government, with John Howard becoming Prime Minister before Keating's referendum could go to the Australian people. Howard proceeded with the question of a republic by holding a Constitutional Convention in Canberra over two weeks in February of 1998. Half of the 152 delegates to the convention were elected with the other half being appointed by federal and State governments.

The Constitutional Convention was asked to decide whether or not Australia should become a republic and which was the preferred model. Over the two weeks of debate, the idea of a republic gained majority support (89 votes to 52 with 11 abstentions) and the republican model was settled on. Four models were considered with two involving direct election of the head of state, one involving appointment of the head of state by the prime minister and one involving an appointment by a two-thirds majority of Parliament.

The two-thirds majority appointment model (intended to ensure bi-partisan support for the head of state) was eventually decided on as the preferable model at the Convention, and was put to a referendum in 1999. The model proposed in the referendum involved the governor general and the Queen being replaced by one office, the President of the Commonwealth of Australia. The president was to be appointed by the Australian parliament to a fixed term, and the appointee would take over the existing powers of the governor general. The Convention also made recommendations about updating the preamble to the Constitution, and the proposed amendments were also put to a referendum.

In the two-part referendum held in 1999, the first question asked whether Australia should become a republic with a president appointed by parliament (the two-thirds majority appointment model). The second question was as to whether the constitution should be changed to insert a preamble. Neither of the amendments passed, with 55 percent voting 'no' to the republican model presented. Referendums have been historically very difficult to pass in Australia. To succeed, a referendum requires a majority of votes as well as a majority of votes in a majority of States. See animation

The defeat of the republic referendum has been analysed from many different angles. Some people believe that the fault lay with perceived difficulties with the model, while others feel that the Australian public was insufficiently engaged with the republican issue. Many supporters of the republic chose to vote against the referendum because they preferred a model involving a directly-elected president. The campaign for an Australian republic continues, although the issue has been made less of a priority under the coalition government and in the wake of the unsuccessful referendum.

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1. When was the Constitutional Convention on the question of a republic held?

February of 1998.

February of 2000.

January 26, 1988.

January of 1999


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