An Australian Republic?

A constitutional monarchy

Australia is a constitutional monarchy. Its head of state is a hereditary monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Australia, who is represented by the Governor-General.

A constitutional monarchy is a system of government which sees the powers of the monarch set out in a constitution, along with the procedures for intervention in government. Australia shares this system with other countries, but the distinction is that (along with Canada and a few other countries with historical links to the United Kingdom) it shares its head of state with another country.

A parliamentary democracy

As a parliamentary democracy, Australians elect their own parliament, from which the prime minister and cabinet are derived. The Governor-General, whose powers are outlined in the Constitution, traditionally acts on the advice of the prime minister, but (as the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 demonstrated) this convention can be ignored.

An Australian identity

Historically, there have been contesting views on the nature of an Australian identity. The two broad traditions have been described as radical and conservative nationalisms. Radical nationalists have historically favoured a more assertive Australian identity, one defined by its geographical location, its own set of values, and its independence from the United Kingdom. Conservative nationalists have tended to emphasise the influence of Australia’s shared history with the United Kingdom, as well as the democratic and cultural traditions that are part of that shared heritage.

The debate about an Australian republic falls neatly between the two camps, with one seeing the legacy of Australia’s ties with Britain as out of step with modern Australia, and the other seeing it as central to Australia’s democratic traditions, institutions and identity.

A model for a nation

Even if most Australian electors opted for a republic with a president as the head of state, there would still be the unsettled question of what powers the president should have and what method should be used to appoint or elect them. What model Australia should adopt tends to divide those in favour of a republic. In 1998, a constitutional convention recommended a model which was put to the Australian people at a referendum in 1999. A majority of people voted against becoming a republic, with much of the opposition to the proposal focusing on the recommended model.    

Focus Questions

Should Australia become a republic, and, if so, how should the new head of state be chosen, and what powers should they have?

Overall Aim

The overall aim of this research unit is for you to become fully acquainted with the ongoing debate about the institutions of Australian democracy, and be able to participate in them as an informed citizen. To that end, you will be required to investigate the debate about an Australian republic, and to design your own campaign or campaign strategy for or against the proposition of an Australian republic. You may choose to explore this unit on your own, or to do so with your fellow students.