On 6 November 1999, Australians voted to keep the British monarch as their head of state in the Australian republic referendum.
The Australian republic referendum was a two-question referendum to amend the Constitution of Australia.
The first question asked whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament following a bi-partisan appointment model which had been approved by a half-elected, half-appointed Constitutional Convention held in Canberra in February 1998.
The second question, generally deemed to be far less important politically, asked whether Australia should alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.
For some years opinion polls had suggested that a majority of the electorate favoured a republic. Nonetheless, the republic referendum was defeated, partly due to division among republicans on the method proposed for selection of the president and dissident republicans subsequently supporting the no campaign.
The “Yes” side
The “Yes” campaign was headed by Malcolm Turnbull. It was divided in detail but nevertheless managed to present a fairly united and coherent message and was notable for unlikely alliances between traditional opponents—for example, former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave joint statements.
Many other prominent Australians also endorsed the “Yes” vote, which led to claims that the movement was “elitist” in sentiment and supported by politicians rather than the public at large.
Viewing the case for a republic as fairly self-evident and broadly supported by the Australian populace, their advertising concentrated mainly on the positive symbolism of the republican case.
The “Yes” campaign was also viewed as having the support of the popular Australian media; British politician and journalist Bill Deedes said in The Daily Telegraph in 1999: “I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias.
One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end.”
The “No” side
The organised “No” campaign was a mixture of monarchist groups. Additionally it included some republican groups who did not feel that the proposed model was satisfactory; in particular, they thought that the people should elect the President.
Headed by Kerry Jones, the “No” campaign concentrated on the perceived flaws of the model on offer, claiming that those who supported the “Yes” push were “elites” (although many leading figures on the monarchist side also had “elite” backgrounds), and skillfully managing to appeal both to those apprehensive about the change and to those feeling that the model did not go far enough.
Their advertising emphasised voting “No” to “this republic”, implying to direct-election supporters that a model more to their preferences was likely to be put in the future.
The common elements within the “No” campaign were the view that the model proposed was undemocratic and would lead to a “politician’s republic”, playing to a general distrust of politicians.
“No” campaigners called for further consultation, while remaining non-specific on what steps were needed to ensure this.
Section 128 of the Constitution requires a “double majority” in a referendum to approve a constitutional amendment—a majority of votes in each of a majority of the states (i.e. at least four of the six), and a majority of all the electors voting. Voters in the territories count only towards the second of those majorities.
11,785,000 votes were cast, representing a voter turnout of 95.10%. Of these, approximately 100,000 (0.9%) were informal.
A Proposed Law: 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.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
Analysis of results
Both propositions failed on both of the voting requirements. There was no majority for “Yes” in any state, where the “Yes” vote for the republic ranged from 37.44% in Queensland to 49.84% in Victoria, and for the preamble ranged from 32.81% in Queensland to 42.46% in Victoria. Overall, 54.87% voted “No” to the republic, and 60.66% to the preamble.
The highest “Yes” votes for the republic came from inner metropolitan areas. Of Australia’s 148 divisions, 42 voted “Yes”, with Melbourne (70.92%), Sydney (67.85%), Melbourne Ports (65.90%), Grayndler (64.77%) and Fraser (64.46%) registering the highest “Yes” votes at division level.
Sydney and Melbourne voted in favour of the proposition for Australia to become a republic, in contrast to “No” votes in Adelaide, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Perth. Votes in opposition to the proposal came predominantly from rural and remote divisions, as well as many outer suburban areas.