They call us the Poms. We call them the convicts. There has long been this ‘friendly’ animosity between people from the UK and Australia. The land, originally named New Holland, was found and claimed by Captain James Cook in 1770 for Britain, remained in the Empire, and today is part of the British Commonwealth. It has for years collaborated in armed conflict and competed in sport at the highest level. But with the Republican movement growing, Queen Elizabeth II’s position as the Head of State is somewhat vulnerable.
Before the Empire and Dutch colonialists arrived on Australian shores, the land was populated by the native Aboriginals, the descendants of whom (according to a 2016 census) make up only 2.8% of the country’s population compared to over 36% with English ancestry. The origin of this is widely known; the practice established in Britain in the late 1700s whereby convicts were deported Down Under due to fears of overcrowding and the loss of previous British penal colonies in what is now the USA. Captain Cook had initially captured Botany Bay, located in modern day New South Wales. However, in 1788 the arrival of the first shipment of convicts saw the first permanent settlement established at Port Jackson, now the modern day Sydney harbour.
The British Monarch has since remained the Head of State in a country almost 10,000 miles away from British shores. The Australian continent, part of the British Empire, had its disparate colonies unify to became a Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1901. Thereafter, in the first half of the 20th Century, Australia as part of the Commonwealth fought on the side of Britain in both World Wars. The First World War would prove to be most costly for the Australians, with 60,000 men killed of over 400,000 who enlisted. A further 39,000 gave their lives during the Second World War.
It was also during the first half of the twentieth century that Australia, like most other Commonwealth nations, was given full legislative independence from Britain, with the Monarch (Elizabeth II since 1952) maintaining their ceremonial position as Head of State. Made possible by the Statute of Westminster, Australia passed such legislation in 1942, becoming a fully independent state. The origin of this came in 1931, when the Statute was first passed by Parliament following the 1926 Balfour Declaration. This in itself declared that the dominions of the Commonwealth were now recognised as independent nations, loyal to the British Crown.
Australia as an independent Commonwealth state flourished. It notably battled England on the cricket field, with the Ashes in 1981 going England’s way considered the pinnacle of such clashes between two heavyweights of the sport. Figures such as Ian Botham and Dennis Lillee emerged as both cult heroes and villains in Britain and Down Under. In pop culture, Australian soaps proved extremely successful with shows such as Neighbours and Home and Away broadcast on BBC and ITV respectively. The wedding of Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue) in Neighbours saw 20 million UK viewers flock to their television screens in 1988.
However, as Australia moved towards the 21st Century, a burgeoning Republican movement began to enter mainstream politics and society. With the election of the Australian Labour Party, Prime Minister Paul Keating called for Queen Elizabeth II to be removed as Head of State and be replaced with an elected President, making Australia a republic. This was to be confirmed under a Constitutional Convention in 1998 with a referendum announced for the following year, in which the populace of Australia would make their decision on whether the Queen would remain as Head of State.
Australian Cricket Captain Steve Waugh voting in the 1999 Australian Republic Referendum.
What was clear from the ‘Yes’ vote (Yes to confirm Australia’s will to be a Republic) was that this was, in fact, a non-partisan movement that was expected to triumph. Despite some believing the ‘Yes’ vote was championed by only the ‘political elite’ who saw a Republic as a chance for them to establish their own political ambitions on Australia, opinion polls showed the Republican cause as the likely victors in the Referendum, a fact regrettably seized on by Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign, and later Australian Prime Minister. The ‘Yes’ vote was heavily favoured by the Australian media, with the late Conservative MP Bill Deedes commenting at the time that he had seen such ‘shameless bias’ surrounding an election.
However, needing a 2/3 majority to win, the ‘Yes’ vote was defeated handsomely in the referendum. Of the 8 states and territories, only the Capital Territory voted in favour of a Republic, which was unsurprising given it’s proximity to the Australian Parliament. However, due to divisions within the Republican camp as to how a Republic should indeed be set up, some dissenters voted or encouraged ‘No’ in an attempt to possibly put forward a future vote with a Republican system that they felt would be more beneficial than the ‘Yes’ campaign, which would see a President elected by the Australian Parliament.
However, for those that voted ‘No’, this was seen as a way of maintaining Australia’s symbolic relationship with Great Britain, something that that had been continually developing since it’s independence in 1942. For both Monarchists and those who valued Australia’s relationship with Britain, it would be futile, as one ‘No’ voter stated, to be ‘throwing time and money at a possibly unpopular outcome’ especially since Australia’s Governor-General and the Queen’s Representative are Australian. The interference of the British Monarchy and politics is not a contributing factor anymore as to how Australia governs itself.
However, it seems that almost two decades on, with the likelihood of Prince Charles becoming King drawing nearer, the appetite for change may be rising again in Australia. On the Prince of Wales’s visit down under in 2015, it seemed as though the burgeoning Republican movement of the late ’90s was on the rise again, with Australian Republican Movement Leader Peter Fitzsimmons remarking that he longed for the days in which the British Monarchy would arrive in Australia ‘as our equals and not Australia’s current and future rulers.’ There will surely be a time again in which Australia will once choose it’s own path as to who it’s Head of State should be, and if so the British Monarchy should be prepared for the end of a symbolic relationship that does not hold the same importance as what it once did.