A discussion on the defeat of the proposal to establish an Australian Republic.

Rape of the Australian Republic

by - Ian C. Purdie


Yesterday, 6th November, 1999 was to be the most historic day in my life. After 50 years of active involvement in Australian politics (both sides - as I was brought up in a Liberal * household) I realized a near life long ambition. This was to vote for an Australian Republic at a referendum held for that purpose.

* In Australia Liberal equates to U.S. Republicans or the U.K. Conservatives, while Labor equates to U.S. Democrats and U.K. Labor.

It is now a matter of history this referendum was defeated. It required a majority vote in a majority of states to succeed. It failed dismally.

As a consequence, today I honestly feel as if I have suffered a death in the family. I am not alone with this feeling of betrayal by my fellow Australian brothers and sisters.

Never in 50 years of electoral wins and defeats have I been so profoundly affected by an election result.

Again I am not alone in these feelings and I expect the long term consequence will be felt for years to come. People in other lands, notably the U.K as well as the U.S.A., must be truly perplexed by the result of this referendum.


                        /ruh'publik/ noun 1.  a state in which the supreme power rests in the
                        body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives
                        chosen directly or indirectly by them. 2.  any body of persons, etc.,
                        viewed as a commonwealth. 3.  a state, especially a democratic
                        state, in which the head of the government is an elected or nominated
                        president, not a hereditary monarch. [L r[emacr ]spublica (abl.
                        r[emacr ]public[amacr ]) state, lit., public matter]


Personally, I believe the the push toward an Australian Republic most likely had its genesis on 26th January, 1788 when the "first fleeters" arrived, mostly as wretched convicts in chains. Certainly the republican movement was in full force with the mini revolt at the "Eureka Stockade" in 1854. It would also be a fair bet our famous Ned Kelly was also a republican at heart. History reveals the ordinary working people of Australia during the last century were definitely not all ardent fans of H.M. Queen Victoria.

Many were however, indoctrinated into a culture of respecting "their betters".

Little would have changed in the first half of this century because, excepting the many people from Irish, Scottish or Welsh backgrounds (they were the majority), everyone else was "British to the bootstrap", unfortunately they were also the ones firmly in control.


The final chapter of this century saw tentative moves toward a republic when the setting up of a Republican Advisory Committee in April 1993 by then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, caused a storm with its designated purpose being how to become a republic rather than if we should become a republic.

Subsequently this culminated with an electoral promise by Paul Keating at the 1996 election to hold a constitutional convention if he were successful at that election. This promise was "sort of" matched by the then Opposition Leader John Howard.

History again records that Keating was soundly beaten by Howard at that election. Howard, an avowed monarchist, found himself obliged to honour an election pledge to form a constitutional convention.

John Howard did indeed "sort of" honour that "sort of" pledge. The convention which ensued was structured in such a fashion as, in my opinion, it would be most difficult to gain a consensus of opinion from a wide cross section of the community who should have participated in an "informed" debate on "what kind of republic".


Cynics have long held the view you should never hold an inquiry unless the terms of reference guarantee a predetermined outcome. Many would argue this was in fact the case with the constitutional convention of February, 1998.

Dedicated monarchists were invited to discuss proposed republican models. My own opinion is, notwithstanding the constraints imposed upon them, the final outcome by the participants was the absolute best one could expect.

With one or two rat bag exceptions, all participants made magnificent contributions and indeed many rose above themselves to reveal true statesmanlike characteristics. The youngsters in particular, made stunning contributions.


I watched this lively convention all day, every day only to be thwarted daily at 3.00 p.m. by ABC-TV.

On this historic and solemn occasion, ABC-TV honoured it's charter by punctually discontinuing the historic convention and commencing children's programs (Sesame Street) at that time.

Complaints to ABC-TV only elicited the response - "the average Australian mother must NOT, under our charter, be deprived of her electronic baby sitter".

So much for our sense of history. Then again, this series of debates over the future of a nation was probably soundly beaten in the T.V. ratings by the 2.30 a.m. "Home Shopping" program on commercial T.V. Such is the deep involvement of the average Australian in current affairs.

This distinct lack of interest, coupled with the inevitable ignorance, would prove to be quite profound come referendum day.

At the time of the convention quite extensive coverage was given by the media as a whole.  For the population at large this served only to unduly interfere with their sports results in the print media, whilst in the electronic media, the commercials would prove infinitely much more interesting. So much for your sense of destiny.


The final recommendation of the convention was a proposal regarded as a minimalist republic.

Essentially this was to sever ties with the anachronistic British crown, delete word "governor - general" and insert word "president".

A number of direct election delegates were so totally unimpressed and alienated that they selfishly (my opinion) vowed to destroy any success at a future referendum. True blue republicans.

This is a promise they have certainly since made good, to act as "spoilers". May future generations forgive them, I certainly will not.


Instead of the long standing protocol whereby governors' - general were appointed, solely upon the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, a balanced committee now representing all political parties, as well as citizens of high esteem would receive nominations from the Australian people.

This committee would then make a final single recommendation to the Prime Minister, to be agreed upon by the Leader of the Opposition AND then be confirmed by a two-third majority of parliament. Essentially a minimalist system of republic.

The reason for the evolution of the minimalist proposal was, in my view, a perfectly valid compromise or acceptable balance between those who did not want to disturb the existing proven system of governance against those who passionately wanted an Australian head of state. That is; not a radical departure from the existing system.

Interestingly, I am convinced that had a radical change been recommended, then it also would have failed at the referendum for fears of leaping into the unknown and untried. Don't believe the polls. Come to the crunch on voting day, a radical proposal such as a direct election model would have fared much worse than the minimalist model did. Think long and carefully about that.

I am utterly convinced the Australian people would never have accepted a radical overhaul of their constitution. The direct election slogans were simply uninformed knee jerk reaction to jingoist slogans.


Had the direct election advocates gracefully accepted the majority vote of the constitutional convention, supported the YES campaign unconditionally, then Australia would today be on the road to becoming a republic. It is their failure and intransigence alone which I think will in time cause voters a great deal of angst, when they finally reflect on the consequences of having cast their NO vote. The only real opposition to our republic would have been the monarchists who could never successfully articulate their case.

Direct election never was and never will be a real possibility, the obstacles are too insurmountable.

If you personally advocate direct election, yet voted NO to torpedo YOUR REPUBLIC OF AUSTRALIA, then why couldn't you have voted YES and; continue your campaign from within for direct election?

Why did you pick up your bat and ball and go home? Why did you rat on Australia?

If you are a monarchist then I respect your views. I agree to disagree with you.


The heartfelt yearning for a Republic of Australia is no reflection on the British crown, merely an acknowledgement that some things belong to a bygone era.

Significantly, the direct election advocates could not produce any satisfactory model which would unconditionally guarantee the position of president would not be politicized. They failed, they failed quite miserably. They still fail to acknowledge, that none of our esteemed past governors-general would have allowed his name to be put forward if it was to be for a politicized position.

To effect such a massive change in government as a directly elected president, would require the comprehensive re-writing of the Australian constitution, clear delineation of powers of the president, the prime minister and the parliament. Such a task, in my view, is nigh an impossibility.

A thought provoking "Geoffrey Robertson Hypothetical" on the Australian constitution several years ago elegantly highlighted the near impossibility of merely updating or modernizing our constitution. That was without even considering such a massive rewrite as would obviously become necessary to accommodate a directly elected president, with all the required divisions of power.

The failure of the direct election advocates at the constitutional convention to convince their co-delegates, merely underscores what is clearly the tip of the iceberg in gaining consensus of opinion. That is even before we involve whole herds of constitutional lawyers. Put two of them together and you get four opinions.

Irrespective of those insurmountable problems there are many people, myself included, who simply don't want a politicized position of president. It must not only be above politics but "seen" to be above politics.

Direct election must by definition encompass a politician as a candidate. The U.S. experience is such that only those financially well off in a big way or, those with substantial financial backing can hope to reach the top of the list of candidacy.

The selling point that "a little Aussie battler" could aspire to such a direct election position, while undoubtedly a very romantic notion, is patently ridiculous. It is absurd. It is fanciful. It is unbelievably naive.

Direct election is a fine slogan to seduce those who neither understand or are unwilling to seek the most basic education in governance at all its levels, the potential difficulties and pitfalls involved and the massive changes to that governance. For Australians this would entail, on the day, an unacceptable quantum leap into the wide unknown. If a minimalist proposal proved so devastatingly unacceptable to the Australian people what chance a radical change getting up?

Having said that, I expect I am to be labelled another one of those so called "elitist republicans", about whom so much has been written in recent weeks and months.

The truth is: I am just another knock about lad who originated from Sydney's western suburbs and apart from an assortment of formal technical qualifications, I was educated in the "hard school of life". So much for the "chardonnay set" theory. V.B. - Yes
 (see postscript)


When the republic referendum began in earnest, the direct election advocates had already formed an unholy alliance with the monarchists to defeat this minimalist proposal. The above minimalist model was portrayed in my view, with great evident distortion and manifest deceit,


"the politicians' republic"


Significantly, the monarchists alone, also with calculated deceit, NEVER once to my knowledge, publicly defended the monarchy or its role in a modern Australia. Obviously that would have been fatal to a united cause of "down with the republic".

The unholy alliance simply maintained an ongoing scare campaign of short, yet repetitive slogans to reinforce fear, doubt and scepticism. Rarely was there any rational debate. Total reliance was placed on the 15 - 30 second repetitive TV commercials. For once the media attempted to be informative, even educational in a few instances.

Interestingly, the NO campaign appeared to be financially able to run three times as many T.V. commercials and newspaper advertisements as compared to the republican movement. My comments above about financial backing and a directly elected president rings bells in my mind.


The government as is the usual custom, issued at great cost, to each household a booklet outlining the YES - NO cases as provided by the respective representatives for each campaign. Included in this booklet was a comprehensive reprint of the Australian constitution, with proposed amendments printed in full.

To date, I have met NO ONE apart from myself, who bothered to read this booklet. The confessed NO voters I have encountered so far (seems to be everybody but me) have all quite frankly told me the booklet was too boring and was immediately consigned to the rubbish bin.

This is called obtaining an informed opinion. Throw out the facts (both sides) and simply place total reliance upon T.V. commercials and talk back radio. This is how you decide the destiny of your nation for generations to come, a bit like considering the purchase of your lunch today.

A further burden to the republican cause was the stance taken by the Prime Minister, a self admitted monarchist and a man whose position guarantees significant influence. Instead of standing back in a statesmanlike manner and being even handed, he used every opportunity to "muddy" the waters. I believe, unfortunately for John Howard, his medium term prospects are quite bleak. Far too many of his party colleagues, whilst conservatives, are die hard republicans. Already I hear the political knives sharpening.

John Howard's assured place in history will unfortunately be inglorious. This is for a man who, although I disagreed with his political philosophy, I admired for his stance on guns and over Timor.


Ironically in the last weeks of the referendum campaign, ABC-TV screened a particularly excellent series depicting our mothers and fathers of Federation 100 years earlier. I wonder just how history will come to judge the NO campaigners in the year 2099? Most unkindly I would imagine.


On election day I manned an election booth nearby to my home. Here the people voted an overwhelming NO (about 58%).

Unlike our traditional elections which decide the fate of governments, where all too frequently they are decided by the hip pocket nerve, this referendum and; here I'm basing my impressions purely upon the comments and questions I received on the day, revealed to me a deep level of ignorance by voters of even the most basic issues involved. Few had any real idea of our system of government.

That is not an elitist view, simply a most obvious statement of fact.

The vote for my total respect for the day must go to a wonderful, frail little old lady who articulated her monarchist views quite well.  She was honest, informed and refreshingly, politely forthright.


Attempts will of course be made to revive the "dead horse". The myopic direct election advocates will, over the next few years or decades, disintegrate and infight as they eternally try to come to grips with the difficulties of an acceptable yet workable model. Nothing will come of it. The bird has flown, the chance was fleetingly held in the palm of our hands and certainly lost for my generation, all because the direct election advocates didn't want to understand the first definition of politics: "Politics - the art of achieving that which is possible".

I suspect the final outcome may well be sometime in the future, when Prince Charles succeeds to the throne. Then republican pressure throughout the United Kingdom will force King Charles III to abdicate.

In this circumstance, Australia would have to hurriedly cobble together a republic in an atmosphere of crisis.

Alternatively, King Charles III could of course be offered sanctuary as well as Australian citizenship. Monarchists would be over the moon and "Woman's Day" sales would go through the roof.

Ian C. Purdie
Budgewoi N.S.W.
Sunday - 7th November, 1999

Email to Ian Purdie

Footnotes and follow-up:
noted Monday, 6th March, 2000

1.    At the same time as I wrote the above page I also wrote a letter to the editor of the "Daily Telegraph" in Sydney. This letter was printed Monday 8th November and presumably on grounds of conserving space, was edited by removing about the middle 70%.

Unfortunately, as a consequence, my principal point i.e. an "ill informed" electorate was totally lost.

2.    Quite a number of people have taken the time to write to me by email and I thank them. One of the most thought provoking email letters came from Graham Paterson on 12th January, 2000

3.    Postscript 9th March, 2000 - As I write this postscript it has been universally conceded in recent days, that in the U.S. Primaries the principal candidates, both Democrat and Republican, have each already spent $US 100 million on their respective campaigns. Is this what the avid "direct electionists" (DE) want for our country?

There is absolutely NO way the DE's can avoid these fundamental issues:

The principal role of an Australian President should be to safeguard the constitution as well as the rights of the Australian people.

Subsidiary roles are purely ceremonial. Assuming we are not looking for an expanded role for the President beyond that expressed, what person of sufficient high esteem would allow themselves to be put forward as candidate for election apart from a politician with the usual obligations that it entails toward others?

Political campaigns COST money and, obligations invariably ensue.

4.    Postscript 29th July, 2000 - From feedback I have received, both for and against my views - and thanks very much for that because it is certainly appeciated, some people seem to confuse my views as being "anti-British".

This is certainly not the case. My mother migrated from England on a troopship with her brother in 1919. My father's parents were Scot and Welsh respectively. I have cousins residing in the UK. My wife's antecedents were Irish and English.

My view is, "I am an Australian", I am proud of that. The majority of Australians were either born overseas or had either one or both parents born overseas, that does nothing to lessen our desire to be "independently Australian", nor is it a reflection upon our antecedents. -


Sunday, 16th February, 2003

I attended a war protest rally in Sydney today and reported back to friends world wide through a newsgroup. Here's that report.

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