Eighteen years ago, the Australian people were asked whether their country should become a republic. Fifty-five per cent answered no. Since then, the issue has remained dormant on the Australian political agenda, with neither of the two major parties keen to revive it. That has started to change.
In December last year, Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the “Yes” campaign in 1999, declared at an Australian Republic Movement (ARM) dinner that the old flame still burned and his support for a republic had not gone, but that he would not act on it until after current monarch passed away. Bill Shorten, also a republican, has no such qualms and in recent weeks declared that if a Labor government were elected at the next general election, it would hold a referendum on the issue in its first term.
The issue is a divisive one, but it’s roughly thought that left-leaning progressives support a republic while older conservative voters do not. Surveys in recent years have found surprisingly high support for the constitutional monarchy among young people. So will Shorten’s announcement be a vote-winner with students?
Eliot Harper, a representative for the Australian Monarchist League (AML), thinks not. “There is significant support for our system of government amongst Gen-Y,” Harper says. “Many young people do not trust politicians and certainly do not want to hand them more power.”
It’s a sentiment shared by fourth year Commerce/Law student Ben Lawler: “I don’t think it’s a particularly urgent issue for most people. There is so much going on in the country already, and if the politicians can’t even sort themselves out then I don’t think the situation is going to change.”
Support for a republic has faded since the referendum, while support for the constitutional monarchy has increased, and young people have now overtaken the older generations as most likely to support our current system of government. A Newspoll survey released last week found that while a slim majority of Australians, 51 per cent, support a republic, this falls to 45 per cent for people aged 18–34 — the lowest of any age group.
Other surveys show that this falls even further for those aged 18–24. This is evident at the AML, where Harper says many young people are involved with the organisation and several of their branches are dominated by those in their twenties and early thirties. “Most of our members around the country are under the age of 40,” Harper says.
What’s behind this pattern of monarchical support among young people? A spokesperson from the University of Sydney Australian Republic Society points to the popularity of the young royals as one factor. Kate Middleton’s fashion sense and the cute baby photos of Prince George and Princess Charlotte have led to the rise of “aesthetic monarchists”. The glamourous young royals are part of the monarchy’s improved public image, a 2016 Australian Journal of Political Science article argues. This, combined with fewer royal scandals during the 2000s, has led to younger Australians developing positive attitudes and familiarity towards the monarchy.
The Republic Society spokesperson also highlights a degree of apathy among students towards the issue. “With the first year cohort of 2017 being typically born in 1999, the year of the referendum, it is becoming more and more rare to find a student who even remembers when that debate consumed the national spotlight” they said.. “The lack of engagement with the debate itself will tilt students towards the status quo.” Sarah Hamilton, a third year Economics student, says having a national debate on the issue may change people’s minds, and many friends of hers would probably support the push for a republic if they knew more about it. “At the moment what people mostly see of the monarchy is Prince Harry or Kate Middleton on TV”, she says. “There isn’t a lot of focus on anything else”.
Harper does not dispute the influence of the younger royals. He says the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with Prince Harry, “have established a rapport between young people and the monarchy, so that it is not some distant fairy-tale but a down-to-earth realistic part of Australia’s system”. He also says that young people enjoy the Australian way of life and associate it with the current constitutional arrangements, without any great desire to change it. Another major factor compromising support for a republic is the current political turmoil in the West and widespread distrust of politicians. America is hardly a shining light for republicanism at the moment, and the leaders of both political parties in Australia are not widely admired. “If we were to have a republic now, I can’t see it ending well,” Lawler says. “Either the president is elected by the people and we risk a Trump-like figure rising to become head of state in Australia, or the president is chosen by parliament, which gives more power to an already disliked political class”.
This lack of support could be changing, though. ARM has increased its membership significantly since Peter FitzSimons took leadership, and has the backing of wealthy donors such as James Packer, NAB chairman Ken Henry, and businesswoman Janet Holmes à Court. What’s more, surveys consistently show that support for a republic will rise if Prince Charles ascends to the throne. The national organiser of ARM, David McGregor, says, “the change to having Prince Charles as the King of Australia will put the issue of a republic front and centre. The Queen has been the only monarch that young Australians have known, and the costs involved in the transition will have more people scrutinising the institution.”
ARM’s plan is to hold a referendum by 2020, and in preparation they have been building momentum and now operate a full-time campaign office. McGregor also questions existing survey results, and says research shows there is support for a republic among young people, particularly as they become aware of the issue. “There are republic clubs at fourteen different universities across Australia — the most at any point in history, and ARM now has a dedicated Youth Convenor position on its board.”
The Republic Society spokesperson says an Australian head of state would embody Aussie values of mateship, equality and a fair go better than a royal family ever could. It would better reflect our multicultural and Indigenous heritage, and show that Australia can stand on its own two feet on the world stage. Hamilton agrees with these points. “There are obstacles in the way, and it’s never going to be the case that everyone agrees on this issue” she says, “but it’s a debate we need to have and something that Australia should definitely think about”.
For now, though, with young people continuing to be cool towards the idea of constitutional change, it seems ‘vive la republique’ will have to give way to ‘long live the Queen’ for the foreseeable future.