The British Empire suffered another blow to its pride last week. Well, what’s left of the empire, anyway. Australia’s constitutional convention closed Friday, forwarding a republic to the people for a 1999 referendum. As a republic, Australia would no longer recognize England’s monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, as the head of state. The empire itself is all but gone; after the 1997 loss of Hong Kong to China, Britain now directly rules only a handful of islands with no more than a few thousand residents. England’s former colonial empire — actually its second empire; most of the first one declared independence in 1776 — now exists as a club of sorts. Most nations of the former empire are members of the British Commonwealth, and the queen is still head of state in many Commonwealth countries.
Australia, like Canada and New Zealand, is a constitutional monarchy. The queen is sovereign, and local governments technically rule in her name. Real power is in the hands of national parliaments and local prime ministers. But the queen still appoints a colonial governor-general who must sign all new laws. Britain’s Union Jack adorns the Aussie flag, and the queen’s face appears on currency and postage stamps. England gave up the last remnants of direct rule in 1901, and an increasing number of Australians bristle at the royal visage on their currency. They would like to see a kangaroo instead.
If the Australian people accept the proposed republic, Elizabeth’s face will be off dollar bills before the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Polls show overwhelming support for replacing the monarch, but the referendum might not pass. If not, it would be a case of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The republican proposal replaces England’s monarch with a president appointed by parliament. Little else would change; the president would have a mainly ceremonial job without real power. It’s a compromise proposal, and it falls short of what most Australians want. The American model of a powerful president elected directly by the people attracts a majority of Australians.
The political parties backing an American-style republic have so far refused to get behind the convention’s compromise. Calling themselves “true republicans,” the hard-liners have threatened to work with monarchists and defeat the referendum. That would be a shame. The war that heralded the collapse of England’s first empire is known here as the American Revolution. For the most part, it was simply a civil war. But it had a spark of real revolution to it. The 13 colonies didn’t just declare King George III to be an unfit ruler. The Declaration of Independence said that sovereignty rested with the people themselves. Here, members of the political community are citizens. In England, they are subjects.
The convention’s republic makes only cosmetic changes to the Australian constitution. It’s probably only a first step, with an American-style presidential system likely in the future. But the proposal offers a sweeping and fundamental change for Australia’s civil society. If they accept their republic, sovereignty will be taken from an elderly English woman and distributed among all Australians. Popular sovereignty is the point of any republic. Australians will finally be citizens in their own country.