The republic referendum in Australia
The republic referendum in
Australia: a view from the left
The modest republican constitutional change proposed in the
November 6, 1999, referendum was hardly the most significant political question
facing Australians in recent times. Nevertheless the results provide a very
useful snapshot of a changing Australia.
The results were actually much better for the republic than
most of the media would admit. A 46.5 per cent Yes vote for a republic, first
time up, is a very good result when you consider that British-Australia was
still celebrating Empire Day about 30 years ago, and when you remember the
enormous grip all the hype about the British royal family still had in the
1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Most older Australians can remember being bussed as
schoolchildren to showgrounds during royal visits to stand in the hot sun
waiting for the Queen to pass by. For most of the period since white
settlement, the Australian establishment has energetically promoted the
monarchical British connection as an invaluable support for the hegemony of the
ruling class in Australia.
understand the results, I have studied the detailed figures, booth by booth,
for all the seats in NSW, and the national results for five categories of
votes. The following analysis is based on my examination of these results,
supplemented by some useful figures supplied by Mick Armstrong in the magazine,
Socialist Alternative <http://www.sa.org.au/>, published by the
group of the same name, which was one of the socialist groups with sufficient
understanding of the class forces at work in the referendum to very sensibly
advocate a Yes vote. Mick Armstrong's article is very useful and a lengthy
quote from it is worthwhile here:
Indeed it has much in common with the Hanson phenomenon.
Significantly, the No vote in the referendum was highest in those rural areas
where One Nation polled well in the last federal elections. The three seats
with the highest No vote were the seats with the highest Hanson vote in the
last Federal election - the Queensland rural seats of Maranoa (No: 77 per cent,
Hanson: 22 per cent), Hanson's own seat of Blair (No: 75 per cent, Hanson: 36
per cent) and Wide Bay (No: 75 per cent, Hanson: 26 per cent). This pattern was
replicated outside Queensland.
In NSW, Victoria and Western Australia the seat that topped
the state No vote also had the top One Nation vote: Gwydir, NSW (No: 75 per
cent, Hanson: 21 per cent), Mallee, Vic (No: 72 per cent, Hanson: 13 per cent),
O'Connor, WA (No: 72 per cent, Hanson: 14 per cent).
Similarly, the outer suburban areas with the highest No votes
had above-average support for Hanson: Canning in Perth (No: 68 per cent,
Hanson: 14 per cent), Bonython in Adelaide (No: 67 per cent, Hanson 15 per
cent), Oxley in Brisbane (No: 66 per cent, Hanson: 18 per cent), Werriwa in
Sydney (No: 58 per cent, Hanson: 12 per cent).
By contrast the Yes vote was strongest in areas most
resistant to the appeal of Hansonism: the core working class suburbs of
Melbourne and the inner suburbs of Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra.
One misconception propagated by the media is that the Yes vote
was strongest in better-off Liberal electorates. It is true that Sydney's
wealthy North Shore voted Yes and that the republic was narrowly defeated in
some Labor seats in Sydney's outer west. However, in NSW two-thirds of the
seats that voted Yes were in the working class areas of Sydney, Newcastle and
Nationally, the five seats with an overwhelming Yes vote were
safe Labor seats, headed by Melbourne with 71.5 per cent, Sydney 68 per cent,
Melbourne Ports 66 per cent, Fraser (ACT) 65 per cent and Grayndler in Sydney
65 per cent. And the Yes vote in these seats was well above that in super rich
Nearly two-thirds of the 30 seats with the highest Yes vote
were Labor seats. These were not simply inner-city "chardonnay
socialist" areas but included the core working class areas in Melbourne's
western and northern suburbs.
The working class Yes vote was strongest amongst
non-English-speaking migrants and slightly better-off workers but lower in the
poorest, most depressed sections of the Anglo working class. In Melbourne it
tended to be the marginal outer suburban seats with fewer non-English-speaking
migrants and a larger churchgoing Protestant middle class that voted No. So
while there was not a totally clear-cut working class Yes vote, the No vote was
concentrated amongst the sections of the population most easily swayed by
populist appeals: the rural population, the outer-suburban middle class, the
less unionised and class conscious workers, older people and traditional
In addition to the points that emerge from Mick Armstrong's
analysis, a number of other points emerge from my own investigations. The
Australian Electoral Commission has five special categories in each electorate,
in addition to each booth, of which there are usually between 30 and 50. The
five special categories are:
· absentee votes (cast on election day
in other electorates).
· pre-poll votes (cast by arrangement
before election day, usually because of travel commitments on election day).
· postal votes, routinely made
available by the Electoral Commission to elderly or housebound people.
· special hospital mobile teams (votes
cast in hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities on election day,
again in practice, with a heavy predominance of elderly people)
· votes cast at the capital city Town
Hall polling booth in each state where a number of votes are cast on election
day for each electorate.
The result for these five categories is very illuminating.
Both the postal votes and the special hospital votes show a much higher No vote
than the general vote in each electorate, even in the electorates that strongly
voted Yes. This No vote is most pronounced in the hospitals.
On the other hand, absentee voters, people who voted outside
their electorate on voting day, showed a significantly higher Yes percentage
than the general vote for their area. Pre-poll votes, the votes cast by
arrangement before the election, averaged nationally about the same Yes vote as
the national average, being a little less than the average in the Northern
Territory and Victoria, roughly the same in NSW and the ACT and dramatically
higher in WA, Queensland, SA and Tasmania.
Those voting at the capital city Town Hall polling booth for
other electorates are obviously people who get around, and they are probably
younger people. Anyway, they clearly show a pronounced Yes bias. The
overwhelming result for No in the special hospital team votes and the postal
votes clearly suggests a very heavy vote against the republic in older age
groups. (A significant group amongst the postals, in addition to the aged, are
people who are housebound for other reasons, such as disability. Probably some
features of the situation of being housebound, such as being exposed to a
steady diet of talkback radio, has a conservatising effect on voting patterns
on an issue like the republic.)
The tendency for the young to vote Yes and the old to vote No
is confirmed indirectly in another way. For the Yes vote to have done as well
as it did, it emerges clearly that, to counterbalance the No vote among the
old, younger age groups must have voted solidly Yes, including the "young
fogies" of Generation X and younger, who conservative pundits desperately
hoped were in a deeply conservative frame of mind.
This alleged conservative mood among the young didn't show up
in the republic referendum results at all. The story that a large number of the
young voted No is a conservative invention, not backed up in any way by the
actual results. The electorate-by-electorate pattern confirms the general
observation made by most electoral observers that people with tertiary
education voted Yes very heavily.
This question of levels of formal education is somewhat
intertwined with the age factor. As the steep rise in the number of Australians
with tertiary education has taken place progressively over the last 30 years,
the cohort of Australians in the age group, say of 55 and above, is the same
cohort where the proportion of people with tertiary education is far less than in
It also ought to be said that the older cohort are also the
cohort whose whole lives were moulded in the rabidly royalist British-Australia
of the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s, many of whom have an entirely natural
human nostalgia for the period of their youth, which seems to translate
electorally into a certain reluctance to vote for a republic. Natural
demographic evolution will inevitably reduce the electoral impact of this
cohort over time.
In parliamentary elections, postal votes and hospital votes
are an area of fierce contest between the campaigning political machines of
candidates for different parties, whose interests are directly involved. All
the anecdotal evidence suggests that on the occasion of the republic referendum
this very sharp intervention by the various political machines was minimal
because their electoral interests were not directly affected.
Consequently, the overall result in these two categories can
be taken as a reasonable indicator of the viewpoint of these categories of
voters on the referendum questions. The votes in these five categories,
examined above, total about 1.8 million votes nationally, or about a fifth of
the votes cast in the referendum, so the variations revealed are quite
The variations in the voting pattern between the five special
categories are of considerable interest. Among other things they clearly
highlight the age factor in the results. An even more fascinating inference is
what one might call the mobility factor. Greater republican inclination appears
to be associated with greater mobility.
The absentee voters, many of whom voted in electorates quite
close to their own electorate, show a higher Yes vote than the vote in their
electorate. Voters who are even further away on voting day, visiting the state
capital, show the highest Yes vote of the lot. (Possibly people who work
outside their own electorate on Saturdays, and therefore vote absentee, also
have a greater republican bias.) So, on the face of it, the further you travel,
the more likely you are to vote for a republic, which is a new and rather novel
concept in political science.
The Yes vote, migrants and
There is no question that there was a strong Yes vote from
most non-British migrant communities, including most second and third
generation people of migrant background. In Sydney this was particularly
apparent, with all the Labor seats having a large ethnic component, even seats
like Lowe and St George, where the ethnic component is mainly older, more established
and affluent people of second and third generation Italian and Greek
background, voting solidly Yes.
This is also one of the major explanations for the
extraordinarily high Yes vote in metropolitan Melbourne, where recent migrants
and second-generation ethnics are fairly evenly distributed in almost all areas
and are not concentrated so strongly in particular regions as they are in
There is also a very high component of first, second and
third generation Greek and Italian Australians scattered all over Melbourne,
which has a very high proportion of migrants. Of the 20 Melbourne electorates,
17 voted comfortably Yes, with very high Yes votes in working class areas. The
only three Melbourne electorates that voted No were outer-suburban electorates
with fewer migrants and ethnic Australians.
All of this suggests that the widely distributed cultural
weight of migrant ethnicity was a major factor in the very strong Melbourne Yes
In NSW the contrast in the results between the Newcastle and
the Illawarra-Wollongong areas was very informative. Newcastle, a working-class
area, with a number of Labor seats but proportionately a much lower number of
migrants and people of migrant background, showed a very bad result for Yes.
The only electorate that voted Yes in this region was the Newcastle electorate
itself, by a very narrow margin.
Newcastle is the Hunter Valley electorate in which tertiary
educated people are most heavily concentrated.
On the other hand, the story was dramatically different in
the Illawarra region, an area where there is a very high migrant and ethnic
population, perhaps the highest proportionally in the whole of Australia. The
electorate of Cunningham, the main Illawarra electorate, showed an overwhelming
Yes vote, both in the more affluent suburbs north of Wollongong, where there
are more tertiary educated people, and in the strongly ethnic working-class
suburbs south of Wollongong.
In Cunningham, it is clear, both major social layers:
blue-collar workers of whom, these days, a very high proportion are migrant
workers; and tertiary educated people, voted Yes. In the next electorate south,
Throsby, there was a No majority, but it was derived mainly from a strong No
vote in the Southern Highlands area, where there are few migrants, and where a
generally affluent Anglo middle-class and rural mood prevails.
A number of the booths in the northern part of Throsby, which
are in outer-suburban working class suburbs of Wollongong, with a large migrant
component, voted Yes. The different and contrasting results in Newcastle and
the Illawarra underline the significance of migrant ethnicity in the results.
Even in metropolitan Brisbane, the capital of conservative
Queensland, there was a strong Yes vote, and here again there is a clear
association between a Yes vote and two elements: firstly, migrant ethnicity,
and secondly, tertiary education. At this point it is worth saying that by my
reading of the results, there was a majority Yes vote in descending order of
magnitude, in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, Brisbane and Hobart,
with a majority No vote in Perth, Adelaide, Newcastle, Geelong and Launceston.
The more heavily urbanised, cosmopolitan cities were the centre of the Yes
Sydney's voting pattern
In Sydney there was a striking geographical divide, starting
at Bobbin Head, going down to Baulkham Hills then through the middle of Parramatta,
down to the northern outskirts of Liverpool and across from Liverpool, past the
affluent Anglo suburbs north of the Georges River, and hitting the Georges
River at about Tom Ugly's Bridge, then out to sea. The electorates, Liberal or
Labor, to the east and north of this divide voted Yes, and the electorates
south and west of it voted No, although there were strong pockets that voted
the other way in all these areas.
These kinds of results suggest strongly that there is some
truth in the proposition that pockets of traditionally Labor-voting people who
exercised a strong No vote were often expressing a fairly sharp social protest
against the political class, against economic and political elites and against
the fact that not much has been done for them lately.
On the Tory side of the usual electoral divide, the break
from the suburban North Shore to semi-rural kind of activity at Baulkham Hills
is the sharp divide in the republic referendum result. Semi-rural areas and,
once again small distinctive Anglo communities such as Richmond, Windsor,
Castle Hill, etc, were strong No areas, whereas the dormitory North Shore voted
fairly solidly Yes.
The Yes vote on the normally Liberal-voting North Shore was
quite high, but not as high as the Yes vote in the Labor electorates, where the
Yes vote had the majority. Once again, education obviously has a bearing. The
North Shore electorate with the lowest Yes vote was Bronwyn Bishop's electorate
of McKellar, which stood out from the rest of the North Shore, with an almost
50:50 split between Yes and No.
When you look at the Bureau of Statistics breakdown of
Sydney, the Northern Beaches area, which comprises Bronwyn Bishop's electorate,
has a high concentration of self-employed tradespeople and contractors. Another
Anglo area where there is a strong concentration of self-employed tradespeople
and contractors, intertwined, however, with people with tertiary education, are
the three subdivisions in Daryl Melham's Labor electorate of Banks, just north
of the Georges River.
In federal and state elections Labor wins these subdivisions
with a lowish margin, much smaller than the margin in the rest of Banks. In the
republic referendum, in which Banks as a whole voted No by a significant
margin, these very affluent Anglo subdivisions showed a very substantial No
majority. (On the other hand, in Melham's electorate, subdivisions such as
Penshurst, with a large Asian community, voted solidly Yes.) This patchwork of
voting patterns suggests strongly that people such as self-employed
tradespeople, contractors and Anglo small-business people very largely voted
One of the more entertaining small sidelights of the
referendum was that the vocal public demagogy of two Republican No advocates,
Phil Cleary and Ted Mack, didn't persuade the majority of people in either of
the electorates that had once put them into the federal parliament. Cleary's
old Melbourne working-class migrant electorate of Wills voted overwhelmingly
Yes. Mack's upwardly socially mobile, Liberal/independent Sydney lower North
Shore electorate also voted overwhelmingly Yes.
The Labor electorates that had a No majority, in the outer
suburbs of Sydney and in Newcastle still, despite this, registered a fairly
high Yes vote, averaging about 40 per cent, which suggests the traditional core
of the Labor vote, trade union members, migrants, many people of Irish Catholic
background, Aboriginal Australians, etc, voted Yes.
In Country Party and Liberal seats in rural areas and
provincial cities all over Australia, the Yes vote corresponded fairly closely
with the Labor primary vote in the last federal elections, which strongly
suggests that Labor voters who were drawn away by the populist noises from the
Direct Electionists were replaced on the Yes side by tertiary educated
traditionally Liberal voters, who voted Yes on this occasion.
The voting pattern in the Blue Mountains area was extremely
informative. The upper Blue Mountains: Katoomba, Wentworth Falls, etc, where
there is a high concentration of people with tertiary education, showed a very
high Yes vote. The Penrith, lower Blue Mountains area, which is an Anglo
outer-suburban area with far fewer tertiary educated people, more self-employed
tradespeople, and more church-going Protestants, showed a fairly strong No
A referendum day vignette.
Fun and games at Newtown
A curious experience of the republican referendum campaign
was to work on voting day, as I did, for the Yes side, at the main Newtown
polling booth. Early in the day some members of the most obvious sectarian
socialist group, the International Socialists, put on a bit of a stunt for a
couple of hours, noisily campaigning for a No vote, with the slogan, "No
to the boss's Republic".
A number of the Yes campaigners had to be gently restrained
from doing bad things to the ISers, who got a universally hostile response from
the Newtown voters, who are wildly multi-ethnic and pretty young, including
quite a number of students.
In the event, the result for the two Newtown subdivisions,
one in the seat of Grayndler and one in the seat of Sydney, were about the two
highest booth results for the Yes vote in the whole of Australia. The Newtown
subdivision in Grayndler registered an almost unbelievable 83 per cent Yes
vote. The irony of the eccentric behaviour of the IS is underlined by this
result. Newtown is their patch, so to speak. It's the only place in Sydney
where they consistently sell their paper. The masses of Newtown decided to do
precisely the opposite of what was recommended to them by the International
about the current shape of Australia and future electoral prospects
It seems very likely to me that observant and demographically
informed conservatives will be looking at the republic referendum result with
very considerable uneasiness about the electoral future for Australian conservatism.
The angry social and political undercurrents in rural,
provincial and outer-suburban parts of Australia were expressed in the No vote
in those areas. They are also expressed in the Pauline Hanson phenomenon. These
undercurrents are quite clearly an ongoing feature of current Australian
political life, and are unlikely to go away for quite a while.
The monarchists achieved the immediate electoral result that
they desired on the republic by a very populist and very public appeal to the
discontent of these social layers against political and commercial elites.
It would not be overstating it to say that the monarchist
side snatched a victory by stepping aside a little and vigorously exploiting
the reactionary demagoguery of the so-called Direct Election republicans, Ted
Mack, Phil Cleary and Peter Reith. There is an obvious danger in this tactic
for the general conservative side in politics, which was demonstrated
dramatically in the recent Victorian election.
The problem for the conservatives is that this kind of anger
is even more easily directed against the Tory parties in politics than it is
against the Laborites, which is clearly indicated by the result in the
Queensland election, the Victorian election and even in the last federal
The other problem for the conservatives at the level of
electoral politics is that the existence of different Hansonite independent
electoral formations tends to atomise the conservative vote, with obvious
electoral benefits for Labor. This situation is developing in much the same way
as the existence of the Democratic Labor Party severely damaged the electoral
prospects of the Labor Party from 1955 to 1972.
The current electoral backlash against the conservatives is
likely to peak after the introduction of the GST in June this year. Many of the
social categories of Australians most disadvantaged by the GST, and most
opposed to its imposition, are precisely the social categories that were
persuaded to vote against the republic by the populist campaign attacking the political
and commercial elites. Particularly important in this regard is the
self-employed small business sector. They are going to be particularly
infuriated against the Liberals during the long period of initial
implementation of the GST.
The age polarisation that showed up in the referendum will
also obviously help the progressive side in politics electorally, for the
foreseeable future. In addition, the lack of emotional involvement by ethnic
Australians in the monarchical ethos of British-Australia, demonstrated in the
referendum, is very promising for the Labor side electorally. In addition to
this, the steady and more or less inexorable increase in tertiary education
among Australians is a potential electoral plus for the progressive side of
Their use of New Class
rhetoric indicates that the conservative side of politics is bleeding
There has recently been an energetic outburst, emanating
basically from the conservative side of politics, alleging that people with
tertiary education, now approaching 20 per cent of the adult population,
represent some kind of "New Class", with interests basically
different to those of "ordinary Australians", who the conservatives
claim to represent.
The close referendum result underlines why the conservatives
are so alarmed by these demographic developments. On many issues there clearly
is a new social factor emerging in electoral politics. The steady rise in the
educational level of the population produces a kind of potential
"education dividend" for the progressive side in politics if it is
prepared to argue a case energetically before an increasingly well-educated
This showed up during the referendum campaign in the
interesting exercise of getting a few hundred ordinary Australians into Old
Parliament House in Canberra and having a debate on the republic proposal, in
which those ordinary Australians were themselves involved, over a couple of
days. By the end of that process, the republic side had dramatically improved
its support among that group of people.
The problem the conservatives have is that the steady
increase in the educational level of Australians tends to work against them
electorally. All the nasty rhetoric that they use about the New Class has its
real origin in this set of circumstances.
The steady increase in the educational level of Australians
is ongoing and inexorable. This continuing improvement in the educational level
constantly undermines and diminishes the scope of one of the traditional
weapons of conservative politics, which is the exploitation of, and appeal to,
all sorts of cultural and educational backwardness. When you add to this the
continuing electoral effect of past, present and future immigration, and
intermarriage between different ethnic and cultural groups in Australia, the
electoral difficulties for the conservative side in politics are likely to
The angry Labor voters who voted No to the republic in
outer-suburban areas and provincial cities because of their antagonism to
political and business elites will inevitably swing back to Labor at some
further point in the political cycle, which will almost certainly be reached
very soon, with the June 30 introduction of the GST.
On the other hand, many of the mainly younger, tertiary
educated people who have in the past voted Liberal, who voted Yes to the
republic in the referendum, have made a very major first-time change in their
voting behaviour. Quite a few of them are likely to move over in the future to
voting Democrat, Green or Labor.
Seriously investigated, the results of the referendum on the
republic reveal enormous emerging electoral problems for the conservative side
in Australian politics. These demographic problems for the conservatives are
obviously going to increase in the future.