Interest in an Australian republic has recently been re-sparked by the ascendancy of prominent republican Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership, and statements of Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten. Despite the leaders’ apparent commitment to the cause, neither has proposed a date for holding a referendum to alter the Australian Constitution. The failure to specify a date raises the question: why do political leaders initiate, delay or oppose holding a referendum to introduce an Australian republic?

This is a question I have been researching for some time, primarily by asking politicians directly about their views. From 2008 to 2011, I conducted interviews with former Prime Ministers, Leaders of the Opposition, and members of Parliament. While I interviewed Malcom Turnbull, I have not interviewed Bill Shorten. In writing this post, I have drawn on both leaders’ recent media interviews and speeches.

From my research, three important justifications for proposing a referendum to establish an Australian republic emerged;

  1. promoting a new national identity for Australia;
  2. succeeding in passing a referendum and promoting political goals; and
  3. the timeliness of the proposal.

The three justifications may be characterised respectively as ideological, political, and pragmatic. An examination of these justifications raised additional questions, including: what reasons did politicians think were significant? How did their justifications form and develop? The interview evidence sheds light on these justifications, and reveals views not publicly expressed by the leaders. It also in part confirms but departs from views expressed in the literature. This post examines how these justifications informed the views of the leaders, with the aim of identifying how these may impede or promote progress towards initiating a republican referendum.

(1) A republic referendum would promote a new national identity

In the interviews, politicians regarded the development of a new national identity as an important justification for change. It was not simply seen as a good idea but emerged as a political commitment. In this debate, national identity may be defined as an attachment or allegiance to either republicanism or constitutional monarchy.[1] The reasons for initiating republican constitutional change in the literature included the desire for the Constitution to properly reflect national identity, the desire for a separate Australian head of state,[2] and — not surprisingly — anti-British sentiment.[3] While the political leaders interviewed mentioned these justifications, the interview data raised additional questions. For instance, what were the reasons politicians relied on to justify their views? How were these justifications formed? How did they inspire political action? The interview data indicated that such justifications are not a priori, but rather arise through developing political consciousness, as part of becoming a republican.[4] This often occurred in a ‘crystalising’ personal experience, a moment when the issue became important to the individual. Most importantly, their personal identification with the cause of republicanism was significant for each leader, since it provided a justification for future action.

For Paul Keating, for instance, the republic ‘spoke its own name’[5] and the issue touched him personally. As a new Member of Parliament, he would go to schools and hand out the Australian flag. Seeing the flag of the United Kingdom in the corner of the Australian flag made him ‘wince every time [he] had to give it out’. Turnbull also reacted against giving too many English dignitaries the right to speak at the bicentennial celebrations, believing that Australia should have its own head of state.[6]   

Republican justifications are not simply ‘old-fashioned plebeian nationalism’,[7] as some have contended in the literature. Rather, national identity is a complex personal experience. Turnbull and Keating, for instance, acutely felt the substitution of English identity for Australian. The views expressed by the leaders demonstrate the importance of personal allegiances to republicanism as a justification for change. This goes beyond a contention in the literature that general support for republican constitutional change arises merely from absences of emotional ties to Britain.[8]

Republican justifications are also expressed as political aspirations. These justifications are not expressed as personal experiences, but as national ideals. For instance, comments made by Shorten on the issue illustrate nationalist aspirations and the wish to create a new national identity.

Shorten wrote in The Age:

We should go to our region and the world proudly independent — declaring that we are no longer going to borrow a monarch from another country on the other side of the world.

And said in an interview on Radio National:

Constitutional reform which trusts in an Australian to be our Head of State is I think part of a constitutional renaissance of an independent nation proud of who we are and confident in our own identity.

In sum, these justifications of the leaders for initiating change were expressed as either political aspirations or allegiances to a Republic. The focus of the discussion so far has been on national identity, but another important justification for proposing change was the chance to further political goals and pass a successful referendum.

(2) A republic referendum would be successful and promote political goals

Republican constitutional change has not escaped electoral pressures. To the extent that politicians wanted simply to win an election, many saw the republican reforms as being, or not being, in their own interests. It is also significant that proposals for a republican referendum have emerged from the electoral contest and are also influenced by the prospects of winning a referendum.

The key period for the electoral contestation of proposals for Australia to become a republic was the 1990s, especially the 1996 election when Prime Minister Keating proposed holding a plebiscite on the republic and Leader of the Opposition John Howard proposed holding a constitutional convention. Since the failure of the 1999 republican referendum, there have been further relevant electoral developments, in 2008 and the present.

In 2007 Kevin Rudd, then the leader of the Australian Labor Party, won the federal election and the republic re-emerged as a political issue. The exchange of views between Rudd and Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition, highlights the political challenges of initiating republican constitutional change. Both Rudd and Turnbull were apparently concerned about the possible failure of a future referendum. In a radio interview Rudd commented that, we ‘lost the last referendum nearly ten years ago, we don’t want to lose the next one. So we’ll be building this one up very carefully’.[9] On Turnbull’s first day as Opposition Leader in 2008, Rudd made overtures of seeking bipartisan support to establish a republic. Yet these were resisted, with Turnbull responding, ‘I don’t want to use the republican issue for political advantage, having another referendum and losing it — that does nobody any good’.[10] But was this the most important issue for these leaders?

During his interview, Turnbull said that Rudd made this offer in order to ‘create a wedge’ within the Coalition.[11] Rudd declined to be interviewed on his time as Prime Minister and his dealings with Turnbull. In any case, divisions have existed in each party over the republic question. Prior to the 1999 referendum, for instance, West Australian and Queensland members of the Labor caucus supported a directly elected president.[12] Ultimately, though, these MPs decided to support the party majority, despite the apparent popularity of the direct election model. In the Liberal Party, opposition to a republic is represented by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is a prominent monarchist.

Shorten’s more recent approach illustrates how proposing a republic can be used in a bipartisan or partisan political way. His public statements have both sought bipartisan support and, in contrast, attempted to use his support for a republic to contrast his position with Turnbull and the Liberal Party. On Australia Day this year, Shorten declared:

Now, for the first Australia Day in our history, the leaders of both major parties are avowed republicans. So today I say to the Prime Minister, let us work together to seize the moment, to lead the movement for change. Let us have the courage to match our words with actions.

But Shorten has also attempted to use the republic in association with other socially progressive policies to set up a contrast between the Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party. For example, he has stated:

There is a choice between a Labor Party taking real action on climate change, on marriage equality, on support for a Republic, or this current Prime Minister … who has sold-out on all three of those issues.

If Shorten proposes, at the next election, to hold a republic referendum, Turnbull will need to find a way to manage the divisions this issue could cause within his own party. While winning elections and referenda and developing a new national identity provide compelling justifications for political leaders to act, timeliness is another possible justification.

(3) A republic referendum would be timely

The timeliness of a republican proposal appears in at least three contentions in the literature: that the republic should be deferred until the Queen’s reign ends; that there are more pressing issues; or that the mood of the public must be taken into account when deciding whether to propose change. Both Turnbull and Shorten have indicated that they believe a referendum is inevitable,  but the date for holding that referendum remains unclear.

(i) The ‘Queen’s abdication’

One might expect political leaders to be concerned about the timing of their proposals. As Turnbull has remarked, ‘Politics is all about timing’.[13] Various dates have been suggested to justify the introduction of a republic: 1988 as the bicentenary of British colonisation; 2001 as the centenary of Federation; and, most frequently, the change of the monarch. For example, Turnbull has stated, ‘If you don’t want to have another heroic defeat, and you want it to be carried, the best time to do that will be after the end of the Queen’s reign’.

What is common to these views is that initiating the amendment process will occur at some arbitrary date in the future; holding another referendum is deferred until whichever date is deemed most appropriate. Waiting until the Queen’s abdication, something that is a matter of timing, may be seen as a reason for deferring action on the republic.

But deciding when to act on a proposition can only occur after one has decided to support or oppose that proposition. Thus the question about ‘when’ assumes antecedent republican sympathies or antipathies. In this case, using timing issues as reasons for delay might conceal a rationalisation — such as a lack of apparent public support for a republic. As Turnbull observed in 2011, ‘people do not presently regard the issue as a front of mind one. But I think when the Queen’s reign ends that will be such a watershed I’m sure they will then’.[14]

(ii) Interest or Apathy of the Public

Another related factor is the politicians’ perception that there is a lack of interest, or even apathy, on the part of the public. This justification discourages leaders from proposing constitutional reform. Constitutional monarchists and republicans have relied on such reasons for their opposition to current republican proposals. ‘Frankly’, Turnbull has stated, ‘there was more momentum in the late 90s than there is now, it needs to have grass roots support.’

Others see the role of leadership differently. For instance, when I interviewed Senator Bob Brown in 2011, he said, ‘I’m a campaigner in politics and I believe that very often politicians have to lead and invite the public to become involved […] and make it easy for the public’.[15] Similarly, Keating believed in the centrality of the role of the leader, and that prior to his proposal the idea of an Australian republic ‘had some sentiment but no momentum’.[16] He was convinced that ‘a political leader is utterly central to such a change. First, without the political leader it cannot be proposed, and second, it would not happen’. Former Leader of the Opposition Kim Beazley suggested that the change to a republic is ‘unlikely to succeed unless it’s in the hands of a person who loves it’.[17]  How much Shorten and Turnbull ‘love’ the Republic remains to be seen, but it is true that since they have discussed the prospect opinion polls have reflected a growth in support for the change.

(iii) ‘More pressing issues’

Both Turnbull and Shorten admit that there are more important issues on the agenda than the republic, but regard the effect of these other issues on the timing of the referendum differently. Turnbull has made it clear that he believes there are ‘much more immediate issues’ at hand, declining to discuss the potential for a referendum before a groundswell of popular support makes itself felt.

By contrast, Shorten has said:

Australians can multitask; we can talk about more than one issue at a time. [T]he Parliament of Australia should discuss the future. Part of our future is, in my opinion, becoming a Republic. But it is not the only issue we talk about.

However, as regards timing, Shorten has made it clear that, if there are to be sequential referenda, he regards the holding of a referendum regarding the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution as a presently higher priority.

In sum, the justifications offered by the politicians not to propose a republican referendum now are contingent upon factors other than such a proposal’s possible electoral effect, or their sense of national identity. Their personal beliefs provide justifications for an absence of political action. Justifications for deferring action for a republic relate to timeliness — waiting until the monarch’s reign ends — and/or until there is renewed interest or community action demonstrated by the public. These claims cannot be treated simply as justifications, but must be seen as responses to complex political circumstances, or even as a rationalisation for inaction.


What has changed recently in the republican debate is that both leaders of the major parties now view the holding of a referendum as inevitable. Now, the question is when will that referendum actually be held?

The three reasons for initiating a referendum discussed here provide insights. Both Turnbull and Shorten are committed to having an Australian as Head of State. However, given the difficulties in achieving bipartisan agreement regarding the republic, when the referendum occurs will probably depend on when it becomes an election issue. Shorten has stated that Parliament should discuss the republic as a priority; if he were to propose – concretely – a referendum, Turnbull would have to respond. Shorten has indicated that at the present, he would not hold a referendum on the republic prior to one regarding the constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples, while Turnbull has given no indication of timing for a referendum at all.

While the Australian public might have expected that when Turnbull — a self-described ‘notorious Republican’ — became Prime Minister, they would get the chance to vote on becoming a republic, the impetus for this change has in fact come from the Leader of the Opposition. It may well be that the timing of a republican referendum will, ironically, be decided by Shorten.

Glenn Patmore teaches Constitutional Law at the Melbourne Law School.  He is the author of Choosing the Republic, (University of New South Wales Press, 2009) which was long listed for the John Button Prize for the best piece of political writing in 2010.  For further reading about the process for constitutional change, drawing upon his interview evidence, see particularly chapter 3, ‘Altering the Australian Constitution’: Glenn wishes to thank Ms Sarah Moorhead who provided research assistance and read text to him. His post draws on his own previous work, specifically: Glenn Patmore ‘Justifications For Initiating A Constitutional Amendment to Establish an Australian Republic: An Empirical Study’ (2012) 40 Federal Law Review 89.

Suggested citation: Glenn Patmore, ‘Justifications for Initiating a Constitutional Amendment to Establish an Australian Republic: Assessing the Leaders’ Views’ on AUSPUBLAW (23 March 2016) <>



[1] David Charnock, ‘National Identity, Partisanship and Populist Protest as Factors in the 1999 Australian Republic Referendum’ (2001) 36(2) Australian Journal of Political Science 271, 278; John Warhurst, ‘Nationalism and Republicanism in Australia: The Evolution of Institutions, Citizenship and Symbols’ (1993) 28(4) Australian Journal of Political Science 100, 115.

[2] George Winterton, Monarchy to Republic: Australian Republican Government (Oxford University Press, 1986) 21–22.

[3] Glenn Davies, ‘A Brief History of Australian Republicanism’ in George Winterton (ed), We, the People: Australian Republican Government (Allen and Unwin, 1994) 50–51.

[4] By political consciousness, I mean a person’s political self-awareness or state of mind. Political consciousness is a subject of political enquiry. See, eg, Andrew Heywood, Political Theory: An Introduction (MacMillan, 2nd ed, 1999) 19-21; Alan Marsh, Protest and Political Consciousness (Sage, 1977); Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Routledge, 1981).

[5] Interview with Paul Keating (Telephone Interview, 18 December 2008).

[6] Malcolm Turnbull, Fighting for the Republic: the Ultimate Insider’s Account (Hardie Books, 1999) 2.

[7] Harry Evans, ‘Keeping the Australian Republic’ in ‘Essays on Republicanism: Small R Republicanism’ (Papers on Parliament No 24, Department of the Senate, 1994) 19.

[8] Mark McKenna, ‘A History of the Inevitable Republic’ in M A Stephenson and Clive Turner (eds), Australia: Republic or Monarchy? Legal and Constitutional Issues (University of Queensland Press, 1994) 61.

[9] Kevin Rudd, interview with Chris Uhlmann on ABC Radio AM, ‘Rudd talks regulation and republic’, 21 April 2008.

[10] Michelle Grattan, ‘Turnbull Takes Command, Nelson Takes Backbench’, The Age (Melbourne) 17 September 2008, 1.

[11] Interview with Malcolm Turnbull (Telephone Interview, 25 February 2011).

[12] Interview with Kim Beazley (Telephone Interview, 11 December 2008).

[13] Interview with Malcolm Turnbull (Telephone Interview, 25 February 2011).

[14] Interview with Malcolm Turnbull (Telephone Interview, 25 February 2011).

[15] Interview with Bob Brown (Telephone Interview, 8 February 2011).

[16] Interview with Paul Keating (Telephone Interview, 18 December 2008).

[17] Interview with Kim Beazley (Telephone Interview, 11 December 2008).