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According to the Australian constitution a document written for us by the English at the turn of the century it is ultimately the English monarch who rules Australia through an unelected viceroy, the Governor-General. This official may be Australian or may not. He may, on behalf of the Queen, cancel any law enacted by the Australian government or even throw out the government itself and call for new elections. Or he may not. In practice he almost never does. The last and only time he did was in 1975, when the G-G, Sir John Kerr, fired the Labor government led by Gough Whitlam. This caused shock and resentment. Millions of Australians felt that Whitlam, their hero, the great reformer of government policy in the domains of race, immigration, foreign policy and the arts, had been stolen from them. There are still plenty of people around who regard this as not far from a coup d'Útat.
The firing of Whitlam made many Australians sit up with a jerk. It had never occurred to them before that the Queen had the raw constitutional power to do such a thing. It cranked up the long-dormant impulse toward republicanism. Until the 1970s this had been an issue only for intellectuals and a few left-wing workers whose vehemence earned them an undeserved reputation as ratbags (obsessed eccentrics). The problem was democratizing the republican issue while detaching it from the ownership of the Australian left. And it did slowly broaden, though its main political instrument, the Australian Republican Movement (a.r.m.), didn't come into existence until the 1980s.
The growth of republican feeling in Australia coincided with, and was strongly encouraged by, the prime ministership (1991-96) of Paul Keating, a brilliant and abrasive Laborite much feared for his insults ("pansies" and "unrepresentative swill" were among the milder epithets he launched at his foes in parliamentary debate) and greatly misunderstood for his tastes: given his passions for antique French clocks and Georgian furniture, Keating was the most cultivated Australian ever to serve as Prime Minister. The movement's chief unelected backer was a formidable young merchant banker named Malcolm Turnbull. (Full disclosure obliges me to say that Turnbull is married to my niece Lucy, herself the deputy lord mayor of Sydney.) Despite Keating's defeat in the 1996 elections, Turnbull and his fellow republicans were able to bring the republic issue to a nationwide vote in 1999.
The result was a triumph of electoral timidity, worsened by fake populism. By a queer flip-flop of logic, a majority of Australian voters (55% to 45%) decided that to have an Australian President appointed by a democratically elected government was Úlitist and unsafe, whereas to have an immensely rich hereditary monarch as their head of state was somehow democratic and good. To understand how this weird inversion could occur, one must be aware that Australians are even more skeptical about the character of their "pollies" than Americans are, though they have little reason to be: the level of serious political graft in Australia is extremely low.
In the end the monarchists won the referendum, not because Australians were devoted to the Queen and her successors, but because feuding republicans couldn't agree on which model of republic to uphold. Should the new-style head of state, an Australian President, be appointed by parliament? Or elected in a national campaign, in the American manner? The a.r.m. wanted the former, but Australians hated the idea of an American-style republic or American-style anything in their public life. This split the republican vote, to the boundless relief of the monarchists, who could never have carried the issue on their own. (Pollsters thought that about 70% of Australians were for a republic of some kind.)
Soon after the referendum, Elizabeth II and her cold fish of a consort, Prince Phillip, toured Australia. The crowds were small and more curious than enthusiastic; the media, polite but indifferent. The romantic, near mystical Queen worship that had surrounded her tour in 1954 was gone forever. Being smarter than the monarchists themselves, Elizabeth II could easily read the signs. She openly acknowledged (and was scrupulously careful not to attack) the possibility of a stable republic in Australia. The current Prime Minister, John Howard, is an obdurate monarchist. But the next in line as head of Howard's conservative Liberal Party, Peter Costello, is a republican. The Australian Labor Party is republican through and through. It is only a matter of time before the less reactionary and nostalgic Liberal politicians can come out of the closet, and then Australian monarchy will be finished.