Queen flies in to Australia as republicans fade out

Australia's anti-monarchist movement, riding high 12 years ago, is at a low ebb. Michael Perry and David Randall report
Click to follow

When the Queen arrives in Australia this week, protocol says she should be addressed as Queen of Australia, something that will grate with republicans who want to sever ties with Britain and appoint an Australian president. But expect little by way of protest. Australian republicanism is at its lowest ebb for a quarter of a century.

Time, politics and apathy have all conspired against Australia's republicans. An opinion poll last week revealed support for the monarchy had risen to 55 per cent, while support for a republic was at its lowest level in 23 years, at 34 per cent. In contrast, Australia's monarchists, who defeated a national vote to become a republic in 1999 by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, are giddy with excitement about Queen Elizabeth's 16th tour Down Under.

The Queen arrives in Canberra on Wednesday for an 11-day visit whose engagements press all the ritual buttons: the military, arts, emergency services, hospital, an Aboriginal college, garden party, and even a barbie. Whatever your views of royalty, it is an impressively packed schedule for anyone, let alone an 85-year-old.

Professor David Flint, national convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), said: "The magic of monarchy still has a place. We saw that at the royal wedding and we will see it during the royal visit. There is great affection for the Queen."

Even republic-supporting politicians such as the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, accept that the issue will not be revived until after the Queen's death. They also know that the prospect of a Queen Camilla of Australia may well change everything. Australians have fought alongside Britain in many major wars, but there has always been an anti-British streak running through the country.

Twenty years ago, a small band of Australians met in Sydney to form the Australian Republican Movement. On a wet night in July, many of the same people held a 20th-anniversary dinner. It was, wrote founding member Mark Day, a "sodden night when only fools and fanatics would venture out: 150 rusted-on believers in an Australian republic gathered for an evening of warm reminiscence. But the warmth could not hide the bleak reality. We held a party, few came and fewer noticed."

Mr Day recalled the blackly humourous talk of treason and sedition when the movement was formed, the optimism in the 1990s that a republic would be set up, and how the nation's "heart was broken" when the republic vote was lost. "Twenty years on from the original push and a dozen on from the referendum, when will the time be right to have another go? Certainly not now," he said. The 1999 referendum could not, after all, have been held at a more propitious time for republicans, coinciding with the approach of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Australia's centenary as a nation in 2001.

Jai Martinkovits, 24, executive director of ACM, says many young Australians have a soft spot for the Queen, just as they would for their own grandmothers, as well as a growing affinity with the young royals too. But it is apathy towards politics among young Australians that is the main reason they do not support a republic, Mr Martinkovits said. "The elderly are passionate monarchists and young people are apathetic and generally too conservative to change," he said.

Australia is a nation of immigrants, with one in four people born overseas, and Professor Flint believes many new arrivals oppose a republic because of experiences in countries where presidential power was abused. But some republicans hope that, from 2014, Australians will enter another period of self-examination and rekindle the republican dream.

The Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) centenaries starting in 2014 will mark Australia's greatest military battles, especially the defeat under British command at Gallipoli during the First World War. Mr Day said: "Republicanism and the Anzac image – laconic self-reliance and insolence towards the British generals – are easy bedfellows."