REFERENDUM ON A REPUBLIC
EXTRACT FROM SPEECH TO THE AUSTRALIA-BRITAIN SOCIETY
Melbourne, 26 October 1999
I want to say a few words tonight about the Republican debate. I certainly don’t want to enter into the debate itself, on one side or the other. That would not only be foolish but it would also be constitutionally improper.
But I do want to address some of the questions that get put to me as British High Commissioner.
First, people ask me what is the British Government’s position on the referendum and on whether Australia should become a republic? The answer to that is straightforward. The British Government sees this entirely as a matter for Australia to decide. The fact that the Queen of Australia is also Queen of the United Kingdom does not give Britain any locus in this debate. It is for Australia to decide its own constitutional arrangements.
That was true both under the Conservative Government of John Major and the Labour Government of Tony Blair. I have had the experience of standing in Downing Street during a joint press conference John Major held with Paul Keating in 1995, and during a joint press conference Tony Blair held with John Howard in 1997. And in both cases, the British Prime Minister made clear that the decision was one for Australia. And of course the two Australian Prime Ministers made their own positions clear—I think I detected a faint difference of emphasis there!
But some people go on to ask me whether the relationship between Britain and Australia would be harmed if Australia became a republic? I believe the answer to this is clearly "no." There are deep and long-standing ties between Britain and Australia, but these do not depend on Australia sharing its monarchy with Britain. They will continue whether Australia decides to stick with its present constitution or to become a republic. We will still see more than half a million Australians visiting Britain each year and more than half a million Britons visiting Australia. We will still see British investment in Australia and Australian investment in Britain. We will still see close co-operation between our armed forces, as we have done recently in East Timor.
We will still see close co-operation between our two Governments. And that brings me to another point sometimes raised with me. Tony Blair’s government is driving ahead with constitutional reforms—devolution to Scotland and Wales, reform of the House of Lords, and several other important changes. Will he turn his attention to the monarchy next? The answer is that a republic is not on the agenda in the UK. There is no public pressure to make a change, and there is no republican movement that can claim any significant following. That reflects the different circumstances in our two countries. In Australia, one of the arguments put forward by the republican side is the desire to have an Australian as head of state. That, of course, does not have a parallel in the UK.
That is not to say that the monarchy itself is complacent and does not recognise the need for change. The Queen, the members of the Royal Family and the Royal Households have put a lot of thought into how they should modernise their role, trying to balance the benefits of tradition with the need to take account of changing circumstances. One example is the development of the Royal Family’s web site, which is now one of the most popular UK sites on the Internet.
And sometimes people assume that the Royal Family is determined to stick rigidly by protocol without ever checking. One of the memorable events I was involved with at Number 10 was the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. As part of that, the Queen hosted a dinner in the Guildhall at Portsmouth for all the visiting Heads of State and Government. I was shown the drast seating plan, drawn up by officials in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. On the top table, the Queen was surrounded by members of other Royal Families, with President Clinton and President Mitterand almost literally below the salt. I queried this, and was told it was what Buckingham Palace protocol would insist on, since members of Royal Families took precedence over elected Prsidents! So I asked the Queen’s Private Secretary. He took one look, and decided to ask the Queen for her view. He said her reaction was immediate. Of course President Mitterand and President Clinton should sit on either side of her: that was clearly what people would expect in the circumstances, given the roles that France and the US played on D-Day. And that was duly what happened: the Queen’s sense of what was right overturning what protocol might have demanded.
But to return to the republican debate here. One issue that has come up is whether it is right that British citizens who have been resident here for years but have not taken out Australian citizenship should be eligible to vote in the referendum. My main answer is that this is the Australian law. When Parliament changed the law here in 1984 to make Australian citizenship a requirement for voting, it decided that British subjects who were already on the roll should retain full rights. Indeed, since voting is compulsory, they must keep up their enrollment and they must vote: otherwise they’ll be fined.
And it is not just British citizens who come under this provision. It also covers New Zealand citizens, Irish citizens and citizens of a number of other Commonwealth countries who were resident here before 1984. I have no idea how they will vote in the referendum, though it seems to me implausible they will all vote the same way.
It is in any event up to each country to decide who can vote in its elections. In Britain, as it happens, we allow Commonwealth citizens—including Australians—to vote in our elections if they are resident in the UK whether or not they have taken out British nationality. They can stand for Parliament and even become Ministers—as several have done.
The position is of course different in Australia, where the High Court recently ruled that people who held British nationality are not eligible to stand for Parliament since
Britain is a "foreign power" for the purposes of the Australian Constitution. Does that concern the British Government? The answer, once again, is that it is for Australian courts to interpret the Australian constitution. Britain recognises Australia as a fully sovereign, independent country, and so I don’t see any inconsistency between such a ruling and the close ties that exist between our countries.
Whenever I raise the subject of the ties between our countries, someone always raises the vexed issue of immigration queues at Heathrow. So let me get in first. Lots of Australians—including my wife!—feel aggrieved at having to join the long queues at Heathrow, rather than the shorter ones for British and European Union passport holders. My personal experience, however, is that the passport queue is not the critical one in determining how quickly you can get out of Heathrow: the critical wait is for baggage! I have never yet got our baggage before Katie has got through immigration and joined me at the carousel.
It is also only fair to point out that British citizens arriving in Australia do not get any preferential treatment at Australian immigration. And there are a number of examples where Australian immigration rules are more restrictive on Britons than vice-versa. Britain, for example, gives two-year working holiday-maker visas for young Australians going to the UK. Australia only gives one year visas to young Britons coming here for working holidays, a point we have raised with the Australian Government.
Before I leave the subject of the referendum, I want to address a couple of other points. The first is whether, if Australia becomes a republic, I—or rather my successor—would stop being a High Commissioner and become an ambassador. That wouldn’t in fact happen, assuming—as I do that—Australia would remain in the Commonwealth. The term "High Commissioner" is used for the representative of a Commonwealth country when he or she is serving in another Commonwealth country. So South Africa and India, for example, both have High Commissioners in Canberra even though they are republics.
And I don’t think there is any real doubt that Australia would remain in the Commonwealth if it became a republic. There are some simple formalities that would need to be completed, but there are already 33 countries with republican constitutions in the Commonwealth.
So, whatever the result of the referendum, Australia will still host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Canberra in 2001, and the Queen will attend in her role as Head of the Commonwealth.
I have given a pretty dispassionate analysis of some of the implications if Australia became a republic. But people often ask, yes but what do people in Britain feel about this? Wouldn’t you have a sense of regret? Don’t you think the Queen has served Australia well?
I do myself think the Queen has served Australia well during the 47 years of her reign, and I am glad that there are so many Australians on both sides of the republic debate who share that view. I know from personal experience, that the Queen takes her responsibilities as Queen of Australia very seriously, and has a depth of knowledge about Australia that is rather daunting. She is the first reigning monarch to have visited Australia—and I believe she has visited 13 times in all, with next year’s visit set to make it 14.
The referendum has, curiously, attracted relatively little public attention in the UK so far. I suspect that will change, and over the next two weeks we will see more coverage as the vote approaches and as the result becomes clear. No doubt the British tabloids will dredge up some sensationalist headlines. But I think the overwhelming majority of people in Britain will feel this is an issue for Australia. There would, inevitably, be some sense of the passing of an era if Australia did vote to become a republic. But either way, I think outcome will be seen as a decision on what people in Australia believe to be right for the future of Australia.
I have no idea what the outcome will be. I shall confine my betting to the Melbourne Cup—and no I'm not going to give you a tip for that either!
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