Fifteen years since Australia had a referendum on whether to become a republic, the possibility of another is on the horizon. But the push seems to be facing an uphill battle, particularly from the generation that missed out on voting in the 1999 referendum. Forty-six percent of young people aged between 18-34 are against a republic, compared to 36 percent who support Australia becoming a republic, according to a January poll conducted by NewsPoll.
Among the supporters of a republic is Jacob Rodrigo, 24. He describes himself as “unashamedly progressive” but doesn’t look like the stereotypical “lefty”. He orders his coffee white and dresses sharply in a button up shirt and sweater. His mischievous smile instantly gives an insight into his casual, jovial nature. He comes across as an average university student who loves a beer down at the local pub, while eloquently engaging in a topical political debate with his mates.
Rodrigo is in his first year at Melbourne University’s Law School after completing an undergraduate degree in arts at Melbourne University. He joined the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) after realising the republic is a change he wants to see. “The thing that got me was that Australia is a country that loves to bang our chest about ‘fair go’ and how equal we are, but as it stands having someone who is born into privilege and hierarchy running our country, even just on paper, runs counter to a characteristic we see as so essential to ourselves.”
Jai Martinkovits, 30, unlike some monarchists, doesn’t dote over Prince George or hoard glossy magazines with Kate Middleton on the cover, but rather is drawn to the debate over this love of the law. He looks the typical businessman you’d sit next to on the morning train into the city. Martinkovits dresses sharply in a suit with a navy tie, which is perhaps a nod to the Liberal Party’s traditional blue. He looks every bit a budding politician. Despite his background in finance, he is an unofficial face of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM).
For Martinkovits, it was a romance that spurred him 10 years ago to join the ACM. He began dating its then-secretary, Teresa Martinkovits, his now wife, whose Twitter bio reads: “future first lady of Australia”. Martinkovits says, “I went with her to a few meetings to spend time with her. From there I did some of my own research and came to my own conclusion that I was really attracted to the system we have in place. I really like the evolutionary nature of our system. Also the fact our Constitution is steeped in thousands of years of history, and wasn’t just something thrown together. It took thousands of years of British history which was adapted for Australia. And that’s something I cherish and think shouldn’t be thrown away.”
The republic debate has been reignited in recent months. Australia’s key republic group the ARM is, as Roderigo says, “getting the band back together” with a re-launch of its push for a constitutional change. In 2015, when Australia’s most prominent republican, Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, for the first time in Australia’s history republicans led both major political parties. The Labor Party at a 2015 national conference declared its intention to make Australia a republic by 2025. Prominent Australians such as Australian of the Year David Morrison and even former Governor General Quentin Bryce have spoken out for the republic.
Rodrigo’s passion for the republic has made it’s way into his studies; he spent a year researching and writing a thesis on young people’s attitudes to an Australian Republic. “What I found out was that there are fundamentally so many things facing young people today, like unemployment, the environment, cost of housing and so many other issues. And we’re more concerned with the issues that directly impact us in our day-to-day lives. If we can’t buy a house in 10 years time or we don’t have a job, that’s what is going to consume our political thinking. It’s not as forefront as other things in terms of how it impacts on our everyday life, its just something long on the list of things we care about. While a republic won’t have a tangible impact on our every day life, I think it’s important in the relevance of our lives.”
Martinkovits too believes that young people think Australia has other more important priorities. “I believe young people think that the system isn’t broken and that it isn’t really a priority and that their time could be better spent lobbying other things. The only reason for Australia to become a republic is for there to be proof that a republic will improve the everyday lives of individual Australians. And I’m yet to hear an argument that proves that. There are other ways for problems within the current government system to be addressed, rather than a complete over haul.”
Professor Robert Pascoe, Dean Laureate and Professor of History at Victoria University, says there could be a number of reasons for the lack of interest in a republic from young people compared to older generations. “Unlike older generations young people don’t have any memory of the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal.” In 1975 then-Prime Minster Gough Whitlam was controversially dismissed from office by then-Governor General John Kerr. This led to a constitutional crisis and questions about how much power the head of state should have.
Pascoe also cited the popularity of the royal family as a potential reason. “The royals now seem to be attractive and intelligent people, cast as celebrities in the glossy magazines. Some people may be more so focused on royals’ star appeal than say the political arguments.”
Turnbull, who was the chairman of the ARM during the 1999 referendum, has said that success would only follow after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. Rodrigo disagrees. “If we set our national stance on waiting until this lovely grand old dame dies I think that’s really insulting because we’re pretty much saying, ‘you’ve been great but we’re waiting for your corpse to cool before we change our country’. If we’re going to have a national change we should be confident enough to have it on our own terms. I like the year 2025.”
Martinkovits says, “Right now I don’t think there’s enough evidence to warrant another referendum. For a referendum to be held again, young people would drastically have to change their minds or gain huge interest in the matter. The support just isn’t there, particularly because the past has shown people who are undecided typically vote conservative.”
Pascoe thinks that it may be possible for the republic to be successful a second time around: “I think the republican movement has to explain the economic argument. The fresh symbols and messages of a young republic have a commercial value, especially in the cultural and communication industries. We must also agree on the voting method for a president before going into the debate. Genuine models that appeal to what Australians want. Some flag that the 1999 referendum failed because Australians felt no model truly reflected their desire to have the head of state elected by the people.”