Advocates for an Australian republic need to start convincing people now that someone locally-born should replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan said.
“How can it be in a modern democracy that any one of our citizens can’t aspire to be our head of state?” Swan said today in a speech in Canberra. “How can it be that the sole qualification to be the head of state is an inherited privilege? It is simply astounding that we are still stuck in that discussion.”
Decades of debate over whether Australia, founded by the British in 1788 as a penal colony and now the world’s 12th-largest economy, should be a republic peaked in 1999, when a referendum on the matter was defeated. Since then the republican movement has stagnated, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose minority Labor government trails in polls ahead of the Sept. 14 election, saying the nation shouldn’t consider such a move during Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
While opinion polls before the 1999 referendum showed three-quarters of Australians wanted to break ties with Britain, they were split over what form a republic should take. Monarchists joined those republicans who wanted to directly elect a president to defeat the model offered in that vote, in which a ceremonial president would be chosen by the parliament.
“The world remains bemused that Australia doesn’t have its own head of state, but it’s an issue that’s managed to divide even supporters of a republic,” Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne, said by phone today. “Swan is playing a long game to get this back into the public consciousness, because it’s lost mainstream support and won’t be a factor at this election.”
Swan today called for a two-stage process with a vote to determine the best model for a republic, including the method of choosing a head of state and setting out their powers. That would be followed by a vote on becoming a republic, he said to mark the release of the book “Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia.”
“With the economic and political balance now shifting to our part of the world, the idea of an Australian head of state who resides in Windsor Castle outside London seems very far-fetched,” Swan said. “This is the right time to make a big statement on the global stage.”
The republican argument has support from some members of the conservative Liberal-National opposition. Still, opposition lawmaker Malcolm Turnbull, the head of the Australian Republican Movement during the 1999 referendum, said the issue wouldn’t feature in the election as there were “more immediate issues.”
“It isn’t an issue of the hour for determination, at least for most Australians,” Turnbull said, adding a successful push toward a local head of state would need to start with convincing the population of the right model. “Our best chance for having a referendum that could win would be after the end of the Queen’s reign.”
The popularity of the royal family, which was criticized in the late 1990s for its reaction to the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, has risen since the 1999 referendum. Queen Elizabeth, 87, last year celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, which marks 60 years on the throne.
“It is not the question at the forefront of people’s minds,” Gillard said in a February 2012 BBC interview when asked about the prospects of becoming a republic. “Ultimately I believe Australians will have their say again on our ongoing constitutional arrangements, but it’s not the center of national life or national debate at the moment.”