Australian republic referendum, 1999

Australian republic referendum, 6 November 1999[1]

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?'
Location Australia
Date 6 November 1999 (1999-11-06)
Votes %
Yes 5,273,024 45.13%
No 6,410,787 54.87%
Valid votes 11,683,811 99.14%
Invalid or blank votes 101,189 0.86%
Total votes[2] 11,785,000 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 12,392,040 95.1%
Results by state and territory
  Yes —   No
Website: 1999 referendum report and statistics
Preamble referendum
A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
Location Australia
Date 6 November 1999 (1999-11-06)
Votes %
Yes 4,591,563 39.34%
No 7,080,998 60.66%
Valid votes 11,672,561 99.05%
Invalid or blank votes 112,474 0.95%
Total votes 11,785,035 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 12,392,040 95.1%
Website: 1999 referendum report and statistics
This article is part of a series on the
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The Australian republic referendum held on 6 November 1999 was a two-question referendum to amend the Constitution of Australia. The first question asked whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament following a bi-partisan appointment model which had been approved by a half-elected, half-appointed Constitutional Convention held in Canberra in February 1998. The second question, generally deemed to be far less important politically, asked whether Australia should alter the Constitution to insert a preamble. For some years opinion polls had suggested that a majority of the electorate favoured a republic.[3] Nonetheless, the republic referendum was defeated due to sustained opposition from monarchist groups and to division among republicans on the method proposed for selection of the president.


Australia is a constitutional monarchy under the Constitution of Australia adopted in 1901, with the duties of the monarch performed by a Governor-General selected by the Australian Government. Australian republicanism has persisted since colonial times, though for much of the 20th century, the monarchy remained popular. In the early 1990s, republicanism became a significant political issue. Australian Labor Party Prime Minister Paul Keating indicated a desire to instigate a republic in time for the Centenary of the Federation of Australia in 2001. The opposition Liberal-National Coalition, led by Alexander Downer, though less supportive of the republic plan, promised to convene a Constitutional Convention to discuss the issue. Under John Howard, the Coalition won the 1996 Federal Election and set the Convention date for February 1998.[4]

The Australian Constitutional Convention 1998 debated the need for a change to the Constitution of Australia which would remove the monarchy from a role in Australian government and law.[5] The convention considered three categories of model for the selection of the head of state in an Australian republic: direct election, parliamentary election by a special majority, and appointment by a special council following prime ministerial nomination.

"In principle" agreement was reached by a majority of delegates for an Australian Republic (though a minority bloc of monarchists dissented). Following a series of votes, a proposal for a "Bipartisan Appointment of the President Model" for an Australian republic was endorsed by a majority of delegates who voted for or against the motion (monarchists and some radical-change republicans abstained from the vote).[6] The Convention recommended to the Prime Minister and Parliament of Australia that the model, and other related changes to the Constitution, supported by the convention, be put to the people in a constitutional referendum in 1999.[5]

Division of electorate

The majority of analysis has advanced two main reasons for the referendum defeat:

First, Australians have traditionally been cautious about proposed constitutional change. Beginning in 1906, only eight of 44 proposals put to a referendum[7] have been approved by the constitutionally required double majority - that is, (1) a majority in each of a majority of the six States and (2) a majority nationally.[8] In Sir Robert Menzies' words, "to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules."[9]

Second, public opinion varied widely on the issue, and was not a simple positive or negative reaction. The major opinion groups were:

Alternative methods for selecting a president

Main article: Process model

The process for change is seen as an important factor for the eventual outcome in a referendum.[10] There were several other proposals for selecting a president:

Different groups within the republican cause expressed views as to which one was preferable. Some were committed to one option exclusively.

The two sides

The 'Yes' side

The "yes" campaign was headed by Malcolm Turnbull. It was divided in detail but nevertheless managed to present a fairly united and coherent message and was notable for unlikely alliances between traditional opponents – former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave joint statements, for example. Many other prominent Australians also endorsed the yes vote, which then led to claims that the movement was "elitist" in sentiment and supported by politicians rather than the public at large. Viewing the case for a republic as fairly self-evident and broadly supported by the Australian populace, their advertising concentrated mainly on the positive symbolism of the republican case. The "yes" campaign was also viewed as having the support of the popular Australian media; British politician and journalist Bill Deedes said in The Daily Telegraph in 1999: "I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end."[11]

The 'No' side

The organised "no" campaign was a mixture of monarchist groups. Additionally it included some republican groups who did not feel that the proposed model was satisfactory, in particular they thought the people should elect the President. Headed by Kerry Jones, the "no" campaign concentrated on the perceived flaws of the model on offer, considering those who supported the "yes" push as "elites", and skilfully managing to appeal both to those apprehensive about the change on one hand, and those feeling the model didn't go far enough on the other. Their advertising emphasised voting no to "this republic", implying to direct-election supporters that a model more to their preferences was likely to be put in the future.

The common elements within the no campaign were the view that the model proposed was undemocratic and would lead to a "politician's republic", playing to a general distrust of politicians. "No" campaigners called for further consultation, while remaining non-specific on what steps were needed to ensure this.

Constitutional Convention

The model with an appointed head of state was the one endorsed by the Constitutional Convention and put forward at the referendum. It was broadly supported by both minimalist and establishment republicans, including almost all Labor and some conservative politicians.[12] Progressive republicans in the general community opposed the indirect elected model urging people to vote against the referendum. It was opposed by monarchists of both kinds.

Voting at the Convention was open and was recorded in Hansard.[6] Hansard shows that 73 delegates voted in favour, 57 against and 22 abstained. Not one constitutional monarchist delegate voted in favour. The policy of ACM and other monarchist groups was to oppose all republican models, including the minimalist McGarvie model. Some conservatives argued this would be the easiest model to defeat in a referendum and therefore should be supported at the Convention. Had the monarchists followed this advice the McGarvie model would have prevailed at the Convention. A number of republicans who supported direct election abstained from the vote (such as Ted Mack, Phil Cleary, Clem Jones and Andrew Gunter), thereby allowing the bi-partisan model to succeed. They reasoned that the model would be defeated at a referendum, and a second referendum called with direct election as the model.[13]

Although the motion was passed by ignoring those who abstained, the referendum model did not enjoy the support of the majority of delegates, a condition which the Prime Minister had indicated for a referendum. Because the model was overwhelmingly supported by the republican delegates, the Prime Minister decided[6] to put that model to the referendum, a decision enthusiastically acclaimed by the ARM delegates and the media.[12]

The questions and results

Republic question

Electors were asked whether they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Preamble question

Electors were also asked to vote on a second question at the 1999 referendum which asked whether they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.

The preamble would then have read

With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of government to serve the common good.
We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution:
proud that our national unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries;
never forgetting the sacrifices of all who defended our country and our liberty in time of war;
upholding freedom, tolerance, individual dignity and the rule of law;
honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country;
recognising the nation-building contribution of generations of immigrants;
mindful of our responsibility to protect our unique natural environment;
supportive of achievement as well as equality of opportunity for all;
and valuing independence as dearly as the national spirit which binds us together in both adversity and success.


Section 128 of the Australian Constitution requires a "double majority" to pass a constitutional amendment—a majority of states (four or more), and a majority of all the electors voting.[14] Voters in the territories only counted towards the second of those majorities.

11,785,000 votes were cast, representing a voter turnout of 95.10%. Of these, approximately 100,000 (0.9%) were informal.[1]

The republic

A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

State/Territory On




For Against Invalid
% %
New South Wales 4,146,653 3,948,714 1,817,380 46.43% 2,096,562 53.57% 34,772
Victoria 3,164,843 3,016,737 1,489,536 49.84% 1,499,138 50.16% 28,063
Queensland 2,228,377 2,108,694 784,060 37.44% 1,309,992 62.56% 14,642
Western Australia 1,176,311 1,114,326 458,306 41.48% 646,520 58.52% 9,500
South Australia 1,027,392 986,394 425,869 43.57% 551,575 56.43% 8,950
Tasmania 327,729 315,641 126,271 40.37% 186,513 59.63% 2,857
Australian Capital Territory 212,586 202,614 127,211 63.27% 73,850 36.73% 1,553
Northern Territory 108,149 91,880 44,391 48.77% 46,637 51.23% 852
Total for Commonwealth 12,392,040 11,785,000 5,273,024 45.13% 6,410,787 54.87% 101,189

Obtained majority in no State and an overall minority of 1 137 763 votes. Not carried.

The preamble

A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

State/Territory On




For Against Invalid
% %
New South Wales 4,146,653 3,948,482 1,647,378 42.14% 2,261,960 57.86% 39,144
Victoria 3,164,843 3,016,716 1,268,044 42.46% 1,718,331 57.54% 30,341
Queensland 2,228,377 2,108,659 686,644 32.81% 1,405,841 67.19% 16,174
Western Australia 1,176,311 1,114,455 383,477 34.73% 720,542 65.27% 10,436
South Australia 1,027,392 986,535 371,965 38.10% 604,245 61.90% 10,325
Tasmania 327,729 315,664 111,415 35.67% 200,906 64.33% 3,343
Australian Capital Territory 212,586 202,618 87,629 43.61% 113,293 56.39% 1,696
Northern Territory 108,149 91,906 35,011 38.52% 55,880 61.48% 1,015
Total for Commonwealth 12,392,040 11,785,035 4,591,563 39.34% 7,080,998 60.66% 112,474

Obtained majority in no State and an overall minority of 2 489 435 votes. Not carried.

Analysis of results

Both propositions failed, with none of the states recording an overall "Yes" vote. The state results ranged from 37.44% in Queensland to 49.84% in Victoria for the republic, and 32.81% in Queensland to 42.46% in Victoria for the preamble. Nationally, 54.87% voted "no" to the republic, and 60.66% to the preamble.[1]

The highest "Yes" votes for the republic came from the inner metropolitan areas. Of Australia's 148 divisions, 42 voted yes, with Melbourne (70.92%), Sydney (67.85%), Melbourne Ports (65.90%), Grayndler (64.77%) and Fraser (64.46%) registering the highest "Yes" votes at division level.[15] Wealthier areas also overwhelmingly supported it—of the top 10% divisions on the 2001 SEIFA Advantage/Disadvantage index, only two out of 15 (Mitchell (46.89%) and Mackellar (49.43%)) voted "no".

The lowest votes by division came from rural and remote areas, as well as many outer suburban areas.[15]


With republican models of one form or another winning a majority in opinion polls prior to the referendum, it was expected that the republican referendum would pass. However, the question put was for a particular model of republic with a head of state appointed by Parliament. This was opposed by some supporters of the republic who preferred a directly elected head of state. Some of these, such as Phil Cleary, advocated that republic supporters vote No in order that a future referendum could be put on the directly elected model. Some commentators identified this split within the republican camp as a key reason for the referendum's failure.[12][16][17]

After the referendum, the president of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, blamed Prime Minister Howard in particular for the defeat and claimed, "History will remember him for one thing. He was the prime minister who broke this nation's heart." Turnbull later became a minister in the Howard government, and eventually Prime Minister (2015). Meanwhile, the leader of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, Kerry Jones, called for citizens to accept the result and go forward "as a united nation". Despite the hopes of more radical republicans such as Phil Cleary, the referendum defeat was generally viewed as a setback for the republican cause and no further referendums on the subject were mooted by the Howard Government.

High Court Justice Michael Kirby, a constitutional monarchist, ascribed the failure of the republic referendum to ten factors: lack of bi-partisanship; undue haste; a perception that the republic was supported by big city elites; a "denigration" of monarchists as "unpatriotic" by republicans; the adoption of an inflexible republican model by the Convention; concerns about the specific model proposed (chiefly the ease with which a Prime Minister could dismiss a president); a republican strategy of using big "names" attached to the Whitlam era to promote their cause; strong opposition to the proposal in the smaller states; a counter-productive pro-republican bias in the media; and an instinctive caution among the Australian electorate regarding Constitutional change.[4]

The Gillard Labor government which took power in a hung parliament following the August 2010 election indicated an intention not to revisit the issue of a vote for an Australian republic during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.[18] The Liberal-National Coalition government in power following the September 2013 federal election was led by Tony Abbott, a supporter of the constitutional monarchy. During Abbott's term as Prime Minister, Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stated he believed it was time to "breathe new life into the dream of an Australian republic."[19]

On 15 September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull, a republican who was Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement from 1993 until 2000, succeeded Tony Abbott to become the Prime Minister of Australia. The change in leadership marked for the present time that the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and each of the 8 state and territory Premiers and Chief Ministers were all declared republicans. Malcolm Turnbull has previously stated that he believes Australia should become a republic after the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.[20]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 "1999 Referendum Report and Statistics – Key results". Australian Electoral Commission. 8 June 2007.
  2. Table 4.21 (data) on Australian Electoral Commission (2000). Australian Referendums 1906–1999 (cdrom). ISBN 0-642-76007-1.
  3. "Newspoll: January 2007 republic poll (PDF)" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-18.
  4. 1 2 Michael Kirby (2000). "The Australian Republican Referendum 1999 - Ten Lessons". Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
  5. 1 2 Constitutional Convention (final communiqué) (14 February 1998). "Constitutional Convention - the final verdict". Pandora Archive. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
  6. 1 2 3 "Constitutional Convention Hansard, 13 February" (PDF). Parliament of Australia. 13 February 1998. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 January 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-06.
  7. Parliamentary Handbook 2008 Retrieved 12 March 2011. Search for "referendums and plebiscites" and download PDF file. Percentages are for valid votes, excluding the invalid ("informal"). Voting in Australian elections and referendums has been compulsory since 1924.
  8. Constitution section 128.
  9. "Constitutional Convention: Transcript of Proceedings. Old Parliament House, Canberra. pp.51 (PDF)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 June 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2009.
  10. George Williams; David Hume (September 2010). People Power: The history and the future of the referendum in Australia. ISBN 978-1-74223-215-7.
  11. Deeds, Bill; The Daily Telegraph; 8 November 1999
  12. 1 2 3 Steve Vizard (1998). Two Weeks in Lilliput: Bear Baiting and Backbiting at the Constitutional Convention. Ringwood (Vic): Penguin. ISBN 0-14-027983-0.
  13. Malcolm Turnbull (1999). Fighting For the Republic. HGB. p. 32.
  14. Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (Cth) s 128
  15. 1 2 "1999 Referendum Report and Statistics – Divisions". Australian Electoral Commission.
  16. Higley, John; Case, Rhonda (July 2000). "Australia: The Politics of Becoming a Republic". Journal of Democracy. 11 (3): 136–150. doi:10.1353/jod.2000.0058. ISSN 1045-5736.
  17. Steketee, Mike (31 October 2009). "Ten years after the referendum, we are no closer to a republic". The Australian. Retrieved 6 November 2009.
  18. Andrew Drummond; Tom Wald (30 April 2011). "Gillard handed a royal audience". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
  19. Mark Kenny (17 March 2015). "Australian republic: Bill Shorten reignites debate by casting doubt on relevance of the royals". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  20. "King Charles? Majority of Australians support a republic instead of Queen Elizabeth's successor". The Sydney Morning Herald. 11 November 2015. Retrieved 9 January 2016.

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