November 6, 1999, was a fateful night for Australia. The men's rugby team had reached the World Cup final and the nation took part in a referendum to become a fully independent republic.
The Wallabies triumphed over France 35-12, but the republic campaigned failed 45-55. The Queen presented the Webb Ellis Cup to captain and outspoken republican John Eales.
The game had been won, but the chance to have an Australian head of state was lost.
20 years on, Australian republicans had another fateful night. Heading into the 2019 federal election, Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten promised a plebiscite on becoming a republic in his first term in office.
Despite consistently leading in the polls, Shorten lost. The new Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has not recommitted his party to a republic vote. When I wrote to Scott Morrison to ask for a plebiscite, he reiterated his support for constitutional monarchy.
For republicans, November 6 is a frustrating anniversary. On the surface, it seems uncontroversial, obvious even, that Australia should have an Australian head of state. In our adapted Westminster system, it is a ceremonial role. Protocol forbids the head of state from exercising their reserve powers, but it is a position with deep symbolic meaning.
If the head of state role is to represent the nation, then surely an Australian is best suited to the job. And in a democracy that cherishes the ideals of egalitarianism and a fair go, then surely a life of service rather than hereditary birthright should be the criteria.
In the 20th century, Australia took many small steps towards independence. By 1986, all links with the British parliament were cut with the Australia Acts. The final step was, and is, to alter the constitution so that we do not rely on another nation to provide us with a head of state.
For a number of reasons, the republic seems to always fall in the political too-hard basket.
It was too hard with committed monarchist John Howard in the Lodge. It was too hard with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard giving in-principle support but taking no steps to revive the campaign. It was too hard with Tony Abbott as prime minister, a former leader of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. And even when republicans got their man in the top job, for Malcolm Turnbull, who led the Yes campaign in 1999, it remained too hard.
The first republican campaign in Australia was in the mid-19th century led by the irascible Scottish preacher, Dr John Dunmore Lang. His 1852 book, Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, provoked much discussion in the colonies and in Britain. A good idea but the time is not yet right, was a common response. His statue outside Sydney's Wynyard station greets commuters and asks, when will the time be right?
This anniversary is an opportunity to remember why republicans have fought so hard for so long. The head of state is the highest position of constitutional honour. We should consider carefully who we give this to and why.
What message do we want to send our children? Should we tell them that they can grow up to be anything, or that the highest position of national honour is exclusively reserved for a European monarch?
The Australia of 1901 does not exist. The constitution writers of the 1890s could not imagine a world without the British Empire. They could not imagine an Australian parliament expelling MPs for being dual-British citizens.
Our nation, and the world, has changed. We are not a white British outpost of empire, but a multicultural democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. Our constitution should proudly reflect this.
Part of the difficulty for republicans has always been the split between supporters of the minimal and reformist models. The former, which was put to the vote in 1999, would have the head of state selected by Parliament. Many of those who passionately wanted the people to vote directly for the head of state campaigned alongside monarchists and sunk the referendum.
Even after two decades, the wound is still there. Minimalists still resent that the vote was lost because republicans voted No. Direct-electionists maintain that theirs is the only model worthy of a republic, and also the only model likely to pass a referendum.
It is an impasse that must be overcome for republicans to unite and move forward.
In a 2018 book, This Time, I presented a hybrid system called the Jones-Pickering model. It draws on our existing federal system and requires each state and territory parliament to nominate a candidate (not necessarily from that state or territory). The eight candidates are then put to a popular vote. The hybrid model is one example of how the divide can be bridged.
Australia has been historically described as a pragmatic nation, more interested in outcomes than ideology. In many respects this is admirable, but it should not be an excuse for intellectual laziness.
The Queen's long reign will inevitably come to an end. When that happens, Australia will have its first king since 1953. Charles, King of Australia. Is this how we want to present ourselves to the world in the 21st century?
With Prince William and his son Prince George next in line, Australia can decide to accept British kings for the rest of the century. We can leave the republic in the too-hard basket. Or we can act.
The Australian Republic Movement has not been idle this past 20 years. Especially under the energetic leadership of Peter FitzSimons, memberships have grown and the optimism of the 1990s is returning.
To continue for another century under British monarchs would mark a failure of political leadership and a failure of imagination. We can have something better.
Despite the setbacks, I remain optimistic that my baby daughter will grow up in a nation where she can rise as far as her talent and determination will take her.
Even to the very top.
- Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at Central Queensland University. He is the author of This Time: Australia's Republican Past and Future.