Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Monarchy, republics & the royal wedding

The Royal Wedding has received almost saturation media coverage here in Australia to the pleasure of some, annoyance even fury of others. Inevitably, the issue of an Australian republic has come back into discussion.

At the same time, the suggestion by the British PM that the rules of succession for the monarchy should be modernised has raised a different set of issues, for it requires approval by the fifteen countries including Australia that have the Queen as head of state. It also requires discussion among the broader Commonwealth of Nations, since the Queen is formally head of that body.   

On ANZAC Day, The Australian released details of a special Newspoll examining current attitudes towards a republic. You will find the story here, the graphic setting out the poll details here.  

As regular readers would know, I support the current constitutional position. However, this post is not an argument for or against constitutional monarchy, rather I am interested in what the polls tell us.

The first thing thing that I noticed was the decline over time in the proportions of Australia wholly or partly in favour of a republic from 52% in 2001 or 2002 to 41% in the latest poll. That shift in support has gone partly to those opposing a republic (up from a low of 32% in 2002 to 39% now), partly to an increase in the uncommitted vote (up from a low of 13% in 2002 or 2002 t0 20%).

The 1999 referendum on the republic was defeated 55% to 45%. However, that vote was affected by the form of the republic proposed at the time, with many republicans voting no because they wanted direct election of a president rather than selection by Parliament. If we compare the public opinion polling at the time with the latest results, we find that the uncommitted vote is unchanged on 20%, while support for a republic has declined from 46% to 41%, opposition increased from 34% to 39%.

Interestingly, and I had forgotten this, support for a republic bottomed during the Keating period at 39%.

Support for a republic is skewed:

  • Male support is at 49% as compared to 41% for women
  • 64% of Labor voters support a republic as compared to 39% of Coalition voters
  • At 52%, support is quite heavily skewed towards voters aged 35-49, dropping away to 49% for the 50+ and then 43% for those aged 18-34. If the numbers were available, I think you'd find that support for a republic in the 50+ age group is quite heavily weighted towards the younger end of that age range.

Attitudes of younger Australians are especially problematic from a republican perspective. The original republican thought was that the republic would come naturally as the older fogies with their historical memories and comfort with the existing system passed away.  The very high undecided vote among younger voters, 27%, provides a measure of comfort. However, it seems clear that the republic as an issue is simply not grabbing.       

Republicans also thought that the transition from Queen Elizabeth to King Charles would provide a natural break point. However, this seems more uncertain than might have been expected.

The poll asked specific questions directed at measuring support for a King Charles or a King William. With King Charles, the total in favour of a republic rises from 41 to 48%, with 16% undecided. With King William, its rises from 41 to 45%, also with 16% undecided.

Among voters aged 18-34, the total in favour of a republic with King Charles rises from 40 to 43%, with 23% undecided. With King William, support for the republic rises from 40 to 42%, with 21% undecided.   

You can see from the changing numbers a rough measure of support for the Queen as Queen. You can also see in the comparison between William and Charles that Charles remains less popular. However, the shifts among younger voters in both cases are less than the total shifts. In commenting on the figures, Mike Keating as head of the Republican Movement complained:

Australian Republican Movement chairman Mike Keating lamented what he saw as a lack of political leadership on the issue.

"All sides are looking for some sort of cheap political advantage, preferably next week," he said.

"That's not the kind of issue the republic is. It's not about scoring cheap political points."

Major General Keating said public fascination with the royal wedding was a symptom of modern celebrity culture.

"We're interested in the goings-on of footballers and Russell Crowe and everyone else," he said.

"That's quite different to the concept of having a republic."

The quote comes from the Australian story linked above.

You can see General Keating's problem. Numbers bounce around and things change. Even so, on these numbers it is very hard to see a republic referendum getting through any time soon.

This post is not for or against a republic. I am interested in what the patterns tell us.

I may be wrong, but I think that one of the problems republicans face with younger voters goes back to the original slogans for a republic. If we paraphrase these, Australia needed a republic and a new flag for an independent country for a new century. It was time to cut the apron strings with mother.

The problem is that for younger voters, the historical and perceptual links with Britain, Commonwealth and Empire are much attenuated. They get little of this in schools, and then it is put in a specific context - Empire and colonialism, for example. Monarchists bewail this loss of tradition and continuity. Indeed, I have been known too as well! However, I think that it's had some unexpected side-effects.

Many of the drivers in the republican debate date back to class and religious divisions in the main home countries, to conflicting views over the question of Australian identity.

To many if not most younger Australians, these questions and issues are largely irrelevant. They neither know or care. Australia just is. As they wrap themselves in the flag, as they proclaim their Australian identity, the idea that Australia needs a republic and a new flag for an independent country for a new century seems somewhat odd. What mother strings? Why take away our flag?

I stand to be corrected, but I just don't think that the idea of an Australian republic is important among younger voters. Certainly, on my experience, it's rarely discussed. Even the story of Princess Diana, something that did aid the republican cause, has begun to vanish into the mists of the past in the fourteen years since her death in 1997. 

One of the problems for republicans is that the monarchy is actually interesting. Here I have watched the coverage of the Royal Wedding with interest.

Forget the views of dedicated monarchists or republicans who will dominate the political chatter, and focus instead on the large number of undecided, especially among younger voters.

As part of the coverage, Australia is being saturated with stuff on the role and history of the monarchy. Many turn off, a lot watch. The combination of the wedding with this large scale history lesson clearly has effects. If you think that this is a lot of coverage, imagine what will happen when the Queen dies.

None of this means that an Australia will not become a republic at some point. Australian society is changing very rapidly with continuing large scale migration combined with emigration. I have no idea how the latest rounds of new settlers will respond over time to the republican debate. We don't know what's going to happen to the monarchy itself.

What I am reasonably sure of is that, for the foreseeable future, the chances of Australia becoming a republic are very low.    


Anonymous said...

I don't share your views about a republic, but like you I was frustrated by the lack of differentiation in the 50+ age group. I, too, suspect that there would be a heavier weighting towards a republic in the 50-65 age bracket. It is an increasingly large demographic group, and I think that '50 plus' is too crude a measure.

I think that the case for and against a republic will need to be prosecuted anew, rather than harking back to the arguments used during the referendum. I know that I have changed my mind- during the referendum I wanted direct election, but I no longer would want that. Usually on referendum questions I have a clearcut view that does not change over time, but on this one it has, and it makes me feel more unsettled about it.

It seems to me that referenda only pass when there is bipartisan support, and this is unlikely unless Turnbull returns as Liberal leader.

Jim Belshaw said...


On measuring support by age bracket, I suspect we need five year age cohorts.

It's really interesting from a historical perspective trying to assess which groups formed their views, when and why. I might try
my hand at a more detailed hypothesis at some point just to define what might be tested.

Your final comments are interesting because they go to the heart of the key difficulty, defining what republic system might work. I think that quite a few views have shifted.