Wallaby free?

Australians voted against the republic, not for the queen.

Liz Frayn

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Topics Politics

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999-January 2000

What a weekend for Australia. The Wallabies won the Rugby World Cup in the early hours of Sunday 7 November, and the nation could have woken up from its collective hangover freed from one of the most anti-democratic institutions in the world. But it didn’t.

As an anti-monarchy Pom living in Brisbane, I watched gloomily over recent months as it became more and more predictable that Australia would vote ‘No’ to severing its ties with the queen. The public has little particular attachment to HRH, and for a long time polls have shown that most Australians are in favour of a republic. Fervent monarchists like 74-year-old grandmother Gilda Trigar-Benvuti, banned from polling booths in Brisbane after turning up to cast her vote in a Union Jack dress (no advertising allowed inside polling stations) are few and far between: one poll even indicated that only one in 10 of those voting ‘No’ actually wanted the queen to be head of state.

So why did republican Australia not vote for a republic when it had the chance? Quite simply: the voters didn’t like the republic on offer. Prime minister John Howard proposed the model of a president chosen by himself and approved of by two thirds of both Houses of Parliament. Not so much throwing off the shackles of an unelected monarch, then, as a backhand way of ushering in a new unelected appointee. Consequently, the No campaign was an unholy alliance between ‘direct electionists’ (republicans who believe in a president elected by Aus citizens) and the dreary group Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. And their message was not ‘up with their queen’, but ‘down with our politicians’.

Their joint advertising slogan ‘Vote no to the politicians’ republic’ said it all. This was a vote against politicians, and there was certainly nothing radical about it. A letter from a Courier-Mail newspaper reader sums up the prevailing sentiment: ‘(It’s) a referendum that…gives all Australians a unique opportunity to vote on issues that don’t matter a damn. Changes that affect daily life such as the introduction of a GST (VAT) are decided by politicians only. Make this an “I hate politicians and their elitist mates” referendum and vote “No”.’

The No vote was not a positive endorsement of the queen’s rule. Instead it expressed a more modern anti-democratic sentiment than old-fashioned monarchism. The scorn poured on elected politicians reflects public alienation from the entire system of representative democracy. And as a letter to The Australian newspaper said: ‘Politicians are in government because voters elected them. If politicians cannot be trusted then voters by definition cannot be trusted.’ In emphasising the irrelevance of politics, the campaigners emphasise the irrelevance of their own views and decisions.

But then, do you blame them? Getting rid of the queen – who has never been elected to head either Australia or Britain – is one thing. Replacing her with John Howard’s pet politician is another thing entirely. That the Australian government did not see fit to offer people a genuine republic – only a political stitch-up – indicates a certain contempt for the electorate. That the electorate chose an ageing granny with no democratic authority over its own politicians shows just how mutual this feeling is.

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999-January 2000

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