Why is Australia Still Part of the British Monarchy?

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Yan Zhuang, a reporter for the Australia bureau.

Former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke certainly never called the Queen “a pig” dressed “in twin set and pearls.” There is no evidence that Princess Diana ever called Uluru “Ayers Dock,” and no, Brisbane does not look like Spain.

These are just a few of the things that Australians watching “The Crown” were quick to point out after episode six of the wildly-popular series, which centered around Charles and Diana’s visit to Australia in 1983 to counter a growing republican movement in the country spearheaded by Mr. Hawke. The more complicated question in recalling the visit is this: Why did a country that prides itself on its egalitarianism and giving everyone a “fair go” decide to maintain a formal connection to the British monarchy then, and why is it still the case now?

Formally speaking, Australia is a constitutional monarchy, which means the Queen is the head of state. According to the royal family’s website, when the Queen visits Australia, she speaks and acts as Queen of Australia, and not as Queen of the United Kingdom.

Other former English colonies have a similar setup (Jamaica, for example) but Australia is the largest and most distant of the Queen’s realms, and for some reason, seems to want to keep it that way.

The last major push to make Australia a republic was more than 20 years ago. A referendum to give the power of choosing Australia’s head of state to the Australian parliament was narrowly defeated in a referendum in 1999 with 45 percent of Australians voting in favor and 55 percent against.

“Australia is a country that’s republican in spirit,” said Mark McKenna, a historian and republicanism scholar from the University of Sydney. “It’s egalitarian, democratic, it believes in merit before background, status, class. But it’s been unable to make its constitutional arrangements reflect the tenor and values of its society.”

So what’s stopping it?

In the real interview the one in “The Crown” is based on, Hawke says: “I believe we’d be better off as a republic but I don’t think it’s a matter of great importance.”

He was more concerned about the issues facing ordinary Australians, “and if we became a republic tomorrow it wouldn’t improve their condition one iota.”

And that seems to be the attitude of most supporters of republicanism in Australia: let’s keep it on the back burner while we deal with more immediate issues.

Even when I was a member of my university’s republican club (more out of a want for free pizza rather than any kind of fervent desire to advance the cause) the feeling was: Why talk about republicanism when we could be talking about, say, student welfare or inequality?

Louis Devine, the former president of our club who now sits on the Victorian committee of the Australian Republic Movement, agrees that’s part of it — although he argues that people can multitask, and that symbols still carry weight.

The other reason “why there’s that interest but not passion is because most people tend to think it’s inevitable,” he says. And inevitability leads to inaction.

Lack of passion may also have something to do with the fact that the question of republicanism has historically been framed as something external to us, a question of what we don’t want to be, said Professor McKenna. That’s not a particularly inspiring message.

“The republic has to mean more than just severance,” he said. “It needs to be a bigger question about our relationship with the country, the land, one another, and the position of Indigenous Australians.”

He added that constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians should be central to the conversation.

Another challenge is in convincing Australians to place more importance on the constitution than they currently do. In the United States, the constitution and its language are central to national identity and phrases like “the second amendment” and “constitutional rights” get thrown around regularly.

“Australia is the reverse,” Professor McKenna said. “Australia is a country which does not attach its identity to its constitution in any really powerful way.”

Sandy Biar, the national director of the Australian Republic Movement, also noted a more personal reason that many Australians favor holding onto the monarchy. They retain a fondness for Queen Elizabeth.

“For many people she’s been there for their entire lives,” he said. “They feel a strong sense of personal affinity and have felt, for the most part, that she’s held the office with dignity and managed to embody the kin of virtues of a head of state they’d like to see.”

In “The Crown,” Bob Hawke expresses hope that Charles and Diana’s trip going badly will be the flashpoint Australia needs to shake off the monarchy. The hope now is that when Charles takes over, it will trigger another flashpoint that will “remind people we’re not as constitutionally independent as we think we are,” Mr Biar said.

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