Politicians and officials are sometimes accused of being lost and no longer close to the citizens. This is particularly true for Australia’s head of state – geographically speaking.
Because that is around 17,000 kilometers away from the capital Canberra in London. For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II has not only ruled Great Britain, but also Australia. But this link could now crack. For the first time ever, an Australian government has appointed an Assistant Minister for the Republic.
Matt Thistlethwaite, as Secretary of State, is now to deal with all the questions that need to be answered to make Australia a republic. “I think as the evening light falls on the Queen’s era, many Australians are wondering what’s next for their country,” Thistlethwaite told Sky News.
And he immediately pushed the question that was decisive for him: “Do we want a King Charles or are we grown up and independent enough to appoint someone from our midst to be our head of state?” He wants to use his new office to drive the discussion about it. “We should look to the future and recognize our unique identity and culture, our independence as a nation,” Thistlethwaite said.
The Social Democratic Labor Party, which has been in power again for a few weeks, has long supported the idea of an Australian republic. It is therefore no surprise that she is now taking the first steps on the way there.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is also a self-confessed Republican. “The relationship between Australia and Britain,” he said during the Queen’s recent jubilee, “has changed. It’s not like that between parents and young upstarts anymore. We are at eye level.”
And at an event organized by the Australian Republic Movement in 2019, Albanese said: “The Australian Republic is an idea whose time has come.” Leading representatives of the organization are already cheering the new Secretary of State. “This is the biggest breakthrough for the republican movement in 30 years,” said Peter FitzSimons, leader of the Australian Republic Movement.
But is that realistic? In order to become a republic, the Australian Constitution would have to be amended. That can only be done by a referendum. Most polls in recent years have shown a narrow majority for the republic as a form of government and against the monarchy.
But for many Australians the year 1999 is still very present. At that time there was already a referendum on this subject. And although polls saw a majority for the republic, almost 55 percent voted against it.
With reference to this result, there has hardly been any serious discussion about the form of government in recent years. “The monarchy doesn’t hurt anyone,” Dennis Altman, professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, describes the mood in the country to the “New York Times”. Especially since the queen as a person is also popular in the remote part of her kingdom. Although not particularly present. She last set foot on Australian soil in 2011. It is represented by the current Governor General, David Hurley.
He certainly holds the office that comes closest to that of Australian President. His duties are primarily symbolic: he swears in ministers and members of parliament, confirms laws or announces elections. In theory, however, he is also the supreme commander of the armed forces and can depose the government. The governor-general is of course appointed by the British Regent.
But the new post of Assistant Minister for the Republic may also show that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has learned from the mistakes of the 1999 referendum. It failed, among other things, because Parliament wanted to decide who would become head of state in the future. However, many citizens wanted the people to vote and therefore voted no in the referendum.
Now Matt Thistlethwaite is to find out under which conditions a referendum could be successful and how the office of a head of state would have to be designed so that the Australians renounce the monarchy.