It’s already been acknowledged as not being the most important issue facing Australia and the recent visit by the most popular royals may have helped entrench support for the monarchy in some quarters, but Labor has cemented its commitment to ask Australians whether or not the nation should become a republic if elected next year, pledging to hold a $160m plebiscite to answer the question.
Bill Shorten first committed Labor to investigating public support for a republic in July last year, laying out a sketch for a two-prong plan, beginning with gauging support for the change first, before moving forward with the ins and outs of how it would occur.
Despite opinion polls consistently pointing to a public feeling quite favourable towards a republic, republicans lost the 1999 referendum with almost 55% of the voting public choosing the status quo.
Critics of that referendum blame the question as being too loaded: voters were asked whether or not they agreed “to alter the constitution to establish the commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and governor general being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the commonwealth parliament”.
Labor’s spokesman on the issue, Matt Thistlethwaite, told Fairfax Media the party plans on avoiding those issues by making the question simple, along the lines of: “Do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state?”
“We’re not saying it’s the most important issue but we are saying that if we are elected at the next election, it’s one of the issues that Labor will attempt to deal with during our first term,” Thistlethwaite said.
“One of the reasons it’s not the focus of people’s attention at the moment is because we haven’t had that national leadership.”
Opinion polls show support for a republic remains high, with an Essential poll in May finding 52.4% of Australians want to remove the nation from the British monarchy.
Unsurprisingly, the national director of the national republican movement, Michael Cooney, warmly welcomed Labor’s decision.
Cooney said he would like to see the question potentially posed to the nation expanded to include how the head of state should be elected, by public vote, or the parliament, but for now beggars would not be choosers.
“I think if those two questions are put, that is the ideal scenario and that would mean that Australians are given really clear direction ahead of a referendum,” he told Sky News on Sunday.
“No one thinks it ain’t broken, that we shouldn’t fix it. And no one thinks that we have enough say over our future, and so, no matter what people think about in the sense of the immediate issue of the republic, everyone knows that something is not quite working.
“Not only in politics, but maybe more broadly in our society, more divided, less democratic, certainly less dignified.
“Part of the reason for that is that we don’t have someone above politics and we don’t have an institution that unites us in a way that an Australian head of state could.”
Cooney said he believed Australians could acknowledge their “affection” for members of the royal family, while still establishingtheir own head of state.
“Just as there are many republics competing in the Commonwealth Games, just as there were many republics in the Invictus Games, we can have those ties of friendship, but at the same time be more democratic and more inclusive at home.”
Labor has costed the plan based on the $170m put aside for the marriage equality plebiscite run by the Turnbull government. That was later found to have cost just over $80m, not counting the $15m put aside for public campaigns for both the yes and no vote. Labor has ruled out public funding for television campaigns, with both the yes and no side expected to fund their own advertising campaigns.
Further detail on the plebiscite won’t be released until next year.
For Australia to become a republic, a constitutional referendum would still need to be held, with the majority of voters in the majority of states voting yes for change to occur. Of the 44 referendums held since federation, just eight have been successful.