The King’s Birthday and the role of the monarchy in Australia

7 JUNE 2023

The King’s Birthday and the role of the monarchy in Australia

With the first celebration of the new monarch’s birthday next Monday, a leading Charles Sturt University constitutional law expert says overcoming the poor knowledge of civics in Australia provides the best chance of Australia becoming a republic.

By Dr Bede Harris (pictured, inset),Senior Lecturer and Law Discipline Head in the School of Business at Charles Sturt University in the Faculty of Business, Justice and Behavioural Sciences.

Celebration of the King’s Birthday inevitably raises the question of the role of the monarchy in Australia. The past year has seen a greater than usual degree of controversy.

Charles Sturt Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Indigenous-Australian Belonging Professor Stan Grant Jr’s legitimate and timely commentary on First Nations perspectives in relation to the monarchy following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III sparked a vicious reaction from some sections of the public and the media.

This occurrence, in which rational argument is displaced by emotion, is all too common.

The root of the problem is that knowledge of civics in Australia is so poor.

A survey of voters in 2014 found that 51 per cent of respondents said that they had never been taught how the Australian Constitution works.

Even more disturbingly, a 2015 survey found that 35 per cent of respondents had not heard of the Constitution.

Ignorance of how the Constitution operates means that the instinctive reaction to proposals for reform is one of fear.

Although this is ultimately the fault of the education system, it is entirely predictable that people will be afraid to change a system whose workings they do not understand.

In such an environment, it is extraordinarily easy for opponents of reform to further foment public anxiety by making claims which the well-informed can identify as the nonsense they are, but which gain currency among the broader public which is unable to evaluate the truth of what it is being told.

The most recent example of this has been bizarre claims that putting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice (‘the Voice’) into the Constitution would amount to the adoption of apartheid in Australia – a statement that beggars belief on the part of anyone who lived in South Africa under apartheid, as I did.

More pertinent to the King’s Birthday were equally bizarre statements during the 1999 republic referendum that because Germany’s Weimar Republic was overthrown by Hitler, if Australia became a republic it too would fall victim to tyranny.

This then leads to the question of whether we are likely to see a referendum on a republic.

The current government appointed an Assistant Minister for the Republic when it came to power, although Prime Minister Albanese has subsequently downplayed the likelihood of a referendum in the immediate future.

The timing of such a referendum would undoubtedly be affected by the result of the Voice referendum.

A successful referendum on the Voice would give the government confidence that a referendum on a republic might also succeed. Conversely, a failure of the Voice would likely dampen enthusiasm for constitutional reform.

Whenever a referendum on a republic occurs, its success will depend upon explaining to voters how the current system operates and what a change would – and wouldn’t – mean.

Part of the difficulty is that most of the rules that govern the relationship between the monarch, represented by the Governor-General, are conventions – rules of practice rather than law – which do not appear in the Constitution and which in some cases contradict what is in the Constitution.

Helping voters understand this system is a challenge.

However, given that polls have consistently shown that voters would prefer to elect a president rather than have one elected by politicians, it will be crucial to counter the argument that monarchists will make that an elected president will be tempted to usurp the functions of the prime minister.

This is where codification of the conventions – that is, converting them into rules of law - comes in.  If the president was constrained by enforceable rules of law contained in the Constitution, rather than by unenforceable conventions, that argument would be neutralised.

Indeed, it would be useful to codify the conventions even if we did not become a republic.

The idea that the Constitution should designate as the ultimate source of executive authority in this country a person who is monarch of Australia because they are monarch of the United Kingdom is hard to explain.

Monarchists are fond of saying that having the apolitical figure of a monarch as head of state confers stability on the constitutional system.

If that is so, why not let Australian’s choose their own monarch? Why should we forever be linked to whoever succeeds to the House of Windsor?

And if Australians did elect their own head of state – as, for example, people in Ireland do - why not call that person the president? In which case, why not have a republic?

None of this is novel, dangerous or difficult to achieve.

Most Commonwealth countries became republics – and codified constitutional conventions – without fuss soon after independence, so that 36 of the Commonwealth’s 56 countries are now republics.

In other words, there is no shortage of examples where a move to a republic has happened with little controversy, whatever Australia’s monarchical doomsayers may say.

Looking at the overseas experience, rather than adopting an approach to the issue based on insularity and fearmongering, provides the best chance of Australia becoming a republic.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Bede Harris, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or

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