The dictionary


According to the Macquarie Dictionary , a republic is a state in which "the supreme power resides in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them."
(For more detail from the dictionaries go to Definitions.)

Usage and political theory

Sir Thomas Smith introduced the term “republic” to describe the English system as long ago as the sixteenth century. He was an English diplomat and one of the greatest classical scholars of his time.

He studied at Padua and was made Regius Professor of Civil Law and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. He was also a Member of Parliament, an ambassador to France and as a secretary of state a very close and trusted confidante of  Queen Elizabeth I.

His book, “De Republica Anglorum; the Manner of Government or Policie of the Realme of England” , was first published in 1583.  His intention was to show how the English system differed from and was superior to others.

 “No one”, said the renowned historian, FW Maitland, “would think of writing about the England of Elizabeth’s day without paying heed to what was written about that matter by her learned and accomplished Secretary of State.” The French political philosopher Montesquieu, one of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment, declared England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be a ‘republic hiding under the form of a monarchy’.

Eighteenth century republican theorists did not see constitutional monarchy as incompatible with genuine republicanism, says Professor Brian Galligan, A Federal Republic, 1995, p.4.  Montesquieu praised the English constitution as an ideal model for republican government

Usage in Australia


The statement Australia is already a republic may come as a surprise to many. But this would have been the assessment of those great political philosophers, Rousseau and Montesquieu. As Sir Henry Parkes, to many the Father of Federation, wrote:

"Every constitution is in reality a republic. There is just as much a republic in England as there is in the United States, the only difference being, that in the one case the word is not used, and in the other it is."

Cardinal Moran, the leader of Australia's Catholics during the final phase of the nineteenth-century movement for Federation, described our constitutional system as the "most perfect form of republican government".

The choice of the word to describe our Federation, the Commonwealth of Australia, is consistent with this line of reasoning. That word "Commonwealth" is, after all, the English equivalent to a republic. But as with the word "republic", it does not necessarily mean a state in which there is no monarch or sovereign.The Republic Advisory Committee, established by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1993, chaired by Malcolm Turnbull and consisting only of republicans, conceded that  it may be appropriate to regard Australia as a crowned republic. ( An Australian Republic,Vol 1, 1993 at page 3)

The word “republic” by itself is so imprecise as to be almost meaningless.  It requires some qualification to explain what is intended. On this site we distinguish between crowned republics (also known as constitutional monarchies) and politicians’ republics.

This does not purport to be an exhaustive classification. Falling outside of these are , for example, absolute monarchies, which have existed historically in say, France under Louis XIV and exist today in Saudi Arabia. But most countries today would the greater part would be either crowned republics  or politicians’ republics. Politicans’ republics can be classified in various ways. In Australia the republican movement proposed a republic where the politicians’ chose and closely controlled the president. This was rejected in 1999.Although they will not today reveal what sort of politicians’ republic they want, the two most talked about is, first, some variation of that rejected in 1999. The other is one where the president, and presumably the vice president, the six governors, the six lieutenant governors and the administrator of a territory are all politicians.

As we are arguably already a republic, albeit crowned or disguised, and as our constitutional system is one of the most successful in the world, readers could be excused for wondering what all the fuss is about. And why have millions and millions of dollars already been spent and more proposed on what is really an elite folly? More importantly, we may wonder why anyone would wish to change any of the fundamental features of such a successful constitutional system of which there are so few in the world.

The term "crowned republic" has been used by leading supporters of the Australian Crown in our constitutional system, including the former Prime Minister, John Howard, the former Minister, Tony Abbott, the former High Court judge, Justice Michael Kirby, and the former NSW Court of Appeal judge, Justice Ken Handley. 

 ".... in many respects, Australia, like the United Kingdom, is already a republic," declares Alan Fenna , Professor of Politics at the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin University in a  volume published in honour of  the late Professor George Winterton, one of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers. The Incremental Republic in Constitutional Perspectives on an Australian Republic, ed. Sarah Murray, Federation Press, Sydney, 2010, pp. 127,128)

Professor Fenna is a leading proponent of constitutional change to remove the Crown.

“Well over a century ago Walter Bagehot, whose ‘canonical works’ have done more than even Dicey’s  to define ‘the English Constitution’, was characterising  Britain as having a system of ‘veiled republicanism’.

“Bagehot was undoubtedly exaggerating – though not greatly – for effect, but he was identifying the unmistakable trend, and since then of course the veil has become diaphanous.

“The metaphor was less apt to Australia, where what Bagehot called the ‘dignified ‘part of the Constitution scarcely plays that sort of masquerading role relative to what he calls the ‘efficient’ part, but the underlying message is equally applicable.

“Following on from Bagehot, (Professor) Brian Galligan  described Australia as being a ‘disguised republic’, but James Bryce’s earlier term ‘Crowned Republic is the more apt.”


 Australia, as are many of the world’ leading countries, is already a republic – a crowned republic.


Next: definitions

The current debate


The current constitutional debate in Australia is usually presented simplistically.

For example,  in some opinion  polls, people  are asked whether they think Australia should become a republic. As we point out in the section on Definitions,  the word “ republic” is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Australia is already a republic, and more than, as Mrs Helen Clark, NZ Prime Minister said in the Evening Post on 4 March 2002, a “de facto republic.”

The essential question is, what sort of republic is being proposed? We were federated as an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown and under the Constitution. That is, the Australian people decided the nation should be formed as a crowned republic. The Crown was not new in 1901. It is  in fact our oldest legal and constitutional institution.

It came in 1788, and since then has evolved into the Australian Crown. (The ORIGIN of the Australian Crown is discussed separately.) At the centre of  a crowned republic there is an institution which is above politics. It acts as a check and balance against the political branches, the houses of parliament and the ministers who effectively constitute the government.

This may be distinguished from a republic where the politicians either appoint and control to varying degrees the head of state, or where the head of state is an elected politician.

On this site these are categorised as “politicians’ republics.”

The current constitutional debate  is whether the fundamental nature of our “indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown “ should be changed by the removal of the Australian Crown. The model preferred by most republican dlegates at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the Referendum Model, was put to the people in 1999 referendum.

It was rejected nationally, in all states and 72% of electorates. The Rudd government has indicated that it will raise the issue again, but not in its first term. Before any referendum, the Rudd government has indicated there will be a plebiscite. ( No details of the proposed change are revealed in a plebiscite). This was the principal issue at the 2020 Summit

Before making a decision, Australians should compare crowned republics with politicians’ republics.

  • First, which has been more successful in providing stable democratic government over an extended period of time, especially in times of crisis?
  • Second,  which has been more successfully adopted by other countries?
  • Third, which has been more successful in assuring the well being of its people?

(The well being of the people in different countries –their health, education and wealth - is regularly measured by the United Nations Human Development index, HDI. This allows us to compare crowned republics with politicians’ republics.)

Those who support keeping the current system do not rely on the attractiveness of crowned republics, the Magic of Monarchy or the widely acknowledged personal qualities of The Queen, who is our Sovereign.

At the time of the 1999 referendum, the republicans were also campaigning against the Australian Flag, without agreeing on what the new flag will be. Some republicans now say this is a separate issue, other say the flag must change if the people approve a change to a politicians’ republic in any future referendum.

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