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Focus question 4: Should Australia become a republic?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Class convention ESL Activity 1
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  


Australian flag The United States has been a republic (a country with an elected head) since 1776. This was one outcome of the War of Independence. The Australian head of state remains the Queen or King of England.

While there were people who thought Australia should become a republic at the time of Federation (and before) they were in a minority. Few, if any, of the colonial delegates to the Convention believed that ties with Britain should be cut in this way. There remained a strong idea among these leaders that, while Australia might be a new country, it was a new British country.

In 1901, 80 per cent of Australia's population was born in Australia but for most of these their parents were born in the British Isles. Of Australia's population who had been born overseas more than 40 per cent were born in England and more than 10 per cent in Scotland. 'Home' for much of the Australian population remained elsewhere, and for most it was the United Kingdom. (You should note also that about 20 per cent were born in Ireland and were definite that they had not been subjects of the United Kingdom.)

Issues about the capacity of Australia to defend itself against foreign invasion were in the front of people's minds. In the early years of the twentieth century, the British navy was the strongest in the world and it was felt that Britain would come to Australia's aid if and when it became necessary.

When he presented the first defence bill to the Commonwealth Government in 1903, Sir John Forrest said that the purpose of the new armed forces was to protect Australia. But he also said:

We ... will ... assist in maintaining the integrity and the power of our [British] Empire. It is our Empire and not the Empire of other people, and we are under an obligation to assist in maintaining it, not in the interests of others, but in our own interests, which I hold, are identical with the interests of the British race.

Although Australians had little idea of the causes of World War I (1914-18) there was a great deal of enthusiastic public support for Britain and its role in the war. Andrew Fisher, the Labor Prime Minister, said at the beginning of the War that Australians would 'stand beside our own' and 'defend Britain to our last man and our last shilling'.

Little had changed prior to the outbreak of World War II (1939-45). In his first statement on defence policy (in April 1939) Prime Minister Menzies said:

Britain's peace is precious to us because her peace is ours. If she is at war, we are at war ... The British countries of the world must stand together or fall together.

Australia relied on Britain for many other things as well. In 1938 it was estimated that about 85 per cent of the foreign news published in Australia's newspapers came directly from London. Until 1966 Britain was the most frequent destination for the goods Australia produced and even into the early 1980s Britain provided more foreign investment in Australian industry than any other country.

However, in World War II, the fall of Singapore and its British garrison (including 15,000 Australian soldiers) to the advancing Japanese forces in 1942 was a sharp reminder that British forces could no longer guarantee the safety of Australia from invasion.

In recent times Britain's importance as a trading partner has declined in favour of Japan, other Asian countries and the United States. In addition the migration boom which began in the 1950s brought many hundreds of thousands of people to Australia who were born in countries other than Britain.

In 1993 Prime Minister Keating suggested publicly that Australia should consider becoming a republic to recognise these changed circumstances.

This suggestion has led to considerable public debate. Some Australians think that until Australia is a republic with its own elected head of state, it cannot be considered a truly independent nation. Others believe that there is no reason to sever the last remaining formal ties with Britain. The Constitutional Convention held in Canberra in 1998 debated these and other issues.

Activity 1: Class convention

Your class will hold its own constitutional convention, focused on the question of whether or not Australia should become a republic.

1a The Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet requested these statements from two major groups with differing views on the republic. Read them, making notes about the points you agree with.


A statement from Australians for Constitutional Monarchy on why Australia should not become a republic

Australia is the world's sixth oldest continuous democracy after Britain, USA, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden. Four of the six are constitutional monarchies and four have British origins. In 2001 Australia will celebrate 100 years of our working Constitution which made us a nation in 1901.

Prior to 1901 our land was divided into separate colonies. Throughout the 19th century our ancestors debated the best system of government which would create a unified and stable nation. The very best ideas were taken from constitutions all over the world and the result was Federation, and the Australian Constitution, proudly our own. Our Constitution has been the heartbeat of our nation ever since. It is the heart of our Australian identity.

We have no reason to change the system which has served us so well.

We are a peaceful, friendly, democratic and stable society which has seen people from all over the world choose Australia as their home. We should not risk changing something that works so well.

To become a republic would require making at least 70 changes to our Constitution, according to our Republic Advisory Committee Report. It will mean a new theory and system of government. Why do it?

We already have an Australian head of State who is above party politics, the Governor-General, who is nominated by the Prime Minister of the day, and in each State we have a Premier-nominated Governor.

As our Australian head of State and Constitutional umpire, the Governor-General can dismiss and has dismissed the Prime Minister. The Queen of Australia cannot. Both are above party politics.

The president of a republic, however elected, will be a politician and will wear the colours of one of the teams. This could lead to unstable governments as power struggles develop between a political president and a political prime minister.

Australia is one federal nation with six States. Under the republicans there will be a president in every State, a total of seven republics. And which of the 116 republics across the world do they want for us? Republicans still cannot agree on the important details.

A republic will not improve unemployment, the environment, or our national debt. But it will change our flag, our national anthem, the RAN, RAR and RAAF. Many republicans say it will change us - but to what?

Australia is closely linked to the international community. Our history has made us what we are - a free, tolerant and diverse people with a working democracy. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, unites 1.6 billion people in 53 countries. As separately, Queen of Canada, Queen of New Zealand, Queen of Papua New Guinea or Queen of Australia, in each country's affairs she relies only on advice from that country's Prime Minister. Each country operates totally independently under its own Governor-General.

A republic will put at risk what we now enjoy: our political stability, our national unity, our flag and our national anthem. In other words, Australia as we know it.

A republic will also cost financially and emotionally. The Republic Advisory Committee estimated in 1994 that a popularly elected president would cost $45 million minimum each election. It didn't publish the additional costs for elections in the six States, of the presidential entourage [the people who go around with the president], travel expenses, planning the presidential palace, etcetera.

Our present system works well. It keeps the politicians in order. It is far safer to stay with a proven system than to experiment with an untried alternative.

Australia is already a proud, independent sovereign nation. The republicans base their arguments on the need to have an Australian as head of State. We already have an Australian as head of State - so why risk change?

Illustration and statement from Australians for
Constitutional Monarchy, first published in Republic - Yes
or No?, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,
November 1997.

Australian Republican Movement

A statement from the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) on why Australia should become a republic

Our Head of State should represent Australia, our national unity and our unique Australian values of freedom, tolerance and a fair go.

Thanks to the courage and hard work of Australians, we live in the best country in the world. So why should Australia's Head of State be the King or Queen of England? Why is no Australian good enough to be our Head of State?

Shouldn't every Australian child be able to aspire to hold any Australian public office? Does it still make sense for our parliamentarians and judges to swear allegiance, not to Australia but to the Queen?

The Australian Republican Movement believes we should encourage all Australians, especially our children, to be prouder of and more committed to our country and its values. In a diverse nation like ours, it is important everyone can identify with our national institutions and that they represent Australia, not another country.

Queen Elizabeth is admired and respected by Australians. However, she is not an Australian and does not live here. She is seen, around the world, as the Queen of England. When she visits other countries she does so as the British Head of State and promotes, very effectively, the sale of British goods.

Our Governor-General does a good job, but he will always be seen as only the Queen's deputy.

This change would involve replacing the Queen (and the Governor-General) with an Australian citizen as Head of State chosen by, and in touch with, Australians.

Our present system of justice, based on British common law, and on federal parliamentary government with a Prime Minister answerable to Parliament would remain exactly the way it is today.

Our flag, our national anthem and the name of our country would not be changed. We would remain a member of the British Commonwealth and compete in the Commonwealth Games. Our friendly relations with Great Britain would continue. In fact most Commonwealth countries already have their own Head of State.

An Australian Head of State need involve no additional expense. The present budget and accommodation for the office of Governor-General are more than sufficient.

As is now the case with the Queen (and her representative the Governor-General) the main functions of the Head of State would be ceremonial [not actively involved in government]. The Head of State would normally act only on the advice of the Prime Minister and would have the same powers as the Governor-General which would be carefully spelled out in the Constitution.

As to the method of appointing the new Head of State, the ARM does not have a closed mind and looks forward to the Convention considering different modes of appointment, including direct election by the people. The ARM recommends appointing the new Head of State by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of the Federal Parliament supported by both the Government and Opposition. That would ensure the appointee could always command broad community support and would not be an ex-politician. At the moment the Governor-General is appointed by the Prime Minister alone.

The ARM believes that a majority of Australians already want to have an Australian as their Head of State. If the Constitutional Convention confirms this, the ARM believes the Commonwealth. Parliament should waste no time in preparing the appropriate amendments to the Constitution and putting them to the people for their approval in a constitutional referendum. This could happen in the course of 1998.

Every hundred years we get a chance to make a change. As proud Australians, we should enter the new century with one of our own citizens as Head of State. Let's get on with it!

Illustration and statement from the Australian Republican
Movement, first published in Republic - Yes or No?,
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, November 1997.

1b To help you come to grips with the arguments presented, discuss these questions with your class. What do the two statements say about each question?

  • Does Australia have an Australian head of state?
  • Would becoming a republic mean developing 'a new theory and system of government'?
  • Is it likely that the new head of state in a republic would be a politician? The head of state in the United States is a politician. What are the disadvantages of having a politician as head of state?
  • Under a republican system, must every state have its own president?
  • Will becoming a republic mean we will have to have a new national flag and anthem? Should it mean that?
  • Will having a new type of head of state mean additional expense?

What points do the two statements agree about? What do you think the strongest arguments advanced by the two sides are?

1c The class should form into groups whose members either all support becoming a republic or all support staying as we are. In groups of three or four, discuss your views and prepare some notes for a report to the class convention. Make sure you are clear about which views you support. Nominate one member of your group to be your spokesperson.

1d As a whole class, elect a chairperson for your convention. What qualities should your chairperson have? Should you try to find someone who is impartial (not decided on one view or other)?

1e Decide on the topic of the debate. Is it just about becoming a republic or will wider issues such as the flag, the national anthem and the preamble to the Constitution also be discussed? Hold your convention. The chairperson should invite the spokespersons from each group to make a short statement expressing their group's point of view. Any member of the convention who wishes to put a motion should do so. These motions can be discussed by any member of the class. When they have been discussed, the whole class should vote on the motion. The chairperson should sum up the results.

Assessment task

In your small groups, each person should write a different type of short article for a newspaper about your convention. These articles can be, for example:

  • a factual account of what was decided with a brief summary of the arguments
  • a story about who said what and why, focusing on the atmosphere of the convention
  • a profile of one of the spokespersons and why they think what they do
  • an interview with the chairperson about what they thought of what happened
  • material for a 'box' stating the main ideas.

You must prepare an explanation of the background issues to the republic debate, explaining how Australia became a nation after the Federation of the colonies and why we still have constitutional ties to Britain.

In every case make sure you have a headline, and that the most important news goes first. Lay out your group's articles on two pages and make sure each member gets a complete copy. If you have them, you could also include photos.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

(Note: these criteria may be varied by your teacher depending on the nature of the articles you write.)

ESL activities

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