Is “the Republic” a Women’s Issue?

Is “the Republic” a Women’s Issue?

The women’s vote attracts particular interest in any controversial referendum because it spans that vital 50 percent – a majority of votes, in a majority of States. It is, therefore, the most visible and contentious of all the segments of the voting population. However, very little is known about how women really voted in the 1999 referendum on the Republic.

The Electoral Commission’s official report provides details of voting in each federal electorate, some interesting statistical material about the referendum and much about its organisation (see Appendix A). But, it reveals nothing about the people who answered the two questions: one on the republic and one on a new preamble to the Constitution. Although voting either YES or NO, what did women really think about the propositions or the process?

How did women vote in 1999?

There was some opinion polling of interest prior to the vote that went beyond the usual YES/NO questions. In September 1999, an ANOP poll indicated that 42 percent of women and 51 percent of men would vote YES in the November referendum. Men were significantly more positive about the Republic eg on the powers of the President; the possibility of Australia leaving the Commonwealth; that there would be no change to our government arrangements; about whether a politician would become President, than women were (1). Interestingly, the same poll indicated that 52 percent of women were in favour of direct election compared with 54 percent of men.

After the vote and in the absence of exit polling (which is the most reliable of all), there was much speculation that the women’s vote was significant in the failure of the referendum question. This reasoning mostly appeared in feature articles and commentaries in the major daily newspapers. Susan Mitchell writing in The Australian a fortnight after the referendum summed it up thus: that blokes had told women what to do; that the campaign consisted of silly old blokes engaged in willy waving; that the republican women were nice and pretty – they were the wives of political leaders or influential men but had little in common with most women; the YES republicans had no female leaders and finally that “women smelled the blokes, their arguments and power games a mile off and weren’t buying it” (2).

That seemed a plausible explanation and reasons readily presented themselves: women tend to be conservative voters; they lacked information about what it all meant; they did not believe the subtle arguments of the Republicans; there was no charismatic or handsome male Republican leader to entice them. Some may have had a lingering affection for the flag. Some may even have harboured a dislike for the Australian Republican Movement’s (ARM) tactics from the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1998 and were waiting for the opportunity to take their revenge (3).

All of those things may hold true but I contend that “the monarchy”,as opposed to “the republic”, had two things going for it that really influenced women voters in 1999.

The first was that “the monarchy” represents stability while “the republic” appeared to represent change, or the way it was being presented: organised chaos. Even more, that “the monarchy” represents stability above a sea of change (4). Most voters recognised that the 1980s and 1990s were times of great change. There was no sign that the new century was going to be any different. The YES Republicans focussed on “the republic” but spent little time contemplating what “the monarchy” meant to most people, particularly to women. Not only that, women voters were very familiar with the female figures of stability in their lives – the many women from the British royal family – right down to their choice of hats, shoes and handbags. The President in comparison was an unknown quantity in all respects.

Secondly the leaders against the Republic, were mostly women. First, there was Pauline Hanson. Her position on the Republic ie that it was a waste of time because it would not do anything to improve people’s circumstances and demonstrated once again that politicians were out of touch was often repeated. The seat that she contested in the 1998 federal election, Blair in Queensland, voted 74% against the Republic, one of the highest NO votes in the country (see Appendix A).

There was Kerry Jones, head of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy and leader of the NO campaign, visible and often heard. The Republicans made a bad mistake in not having prominent women leaders but then they did not much pay attention to those sort of things at the time. They had Hazel Hawke with a strong credibility rating but she was not used by the Republicans in the same way as women were by the NO campaign nor did she have as high a public profile on day to day issues about the republic. Some of the direct election women republicans, joined with the NO case, were more memorable.

In summary, how “women” voted on the republic is unknown. A few commentators and analysts speculate that women as a bloc voted against the Republic. But where does this assumption leave us now? Certainly, not with any concrete evidence of who voted the republic down. If the “guilty” can, in fact, be identified, what purpose can it now serve? There may have been attempts to blame women for the failure of the vote but, lacking data, we might just as well say that the YES Republicans did not understand their opponents or their strategies well enough and that this was the reason that the Republic question failed, that their advertising campaign was not effective or, just as plausibly, that it was men’s opposition running at about 50 percent that formed the basis of the NO vote.

Moving on from 1999

The republic referendum is well over two years ago now. It is time for republicans to refocus and start establishing plans for the future. The Republic, with an Australian Head of State, is still the most prominent, public constitutional issue in the country today. If “monarchy” means stability and “the republic” means change, then the women’s vote is needed to make change come about. Women need to be convinced that change is good and stability is not going to get them anywhere, other than where they are now. In such a change process, women have a vital role to play to advance their own cause.

Is the Republic a women’s issue?

It was frequently argued in the lead up to the 1999 referendum that “the republic” was not a women’s issue and women’s organisations were conspicuously absent from the public discussion. If women’s issues are defined as being those which advance only or mainly women’s interests such as paid maternity leave, childcare, access to reproductive technology and the like, then the Republic is clearly not a women’s issue. But it is an issue for women in as far as “constitutional change” is a topic in which women should have a keen interest. Constitutional change is the only way which women will achieve lasting change for themselves, starting at the top, which will benefit them in the long term and enshrine their rights and status as equal citizens.

The next time the Australian population considers becoming a Republic, it is most likely that we will be dealing with a republican constitution created out of a series of Constitutional Conventions. In a republican constitution, women will want to see their rights spelled out. Experience has taught us that we need to see such things written down. A new republican constitution will start to change the power structure and move away from models of territorial power in our institutions and change the country to how the people want it to be.

Women will be leaders in both the creation of and the impetus for change. And it will be done in a women’s way – by talking and consulting, through planning and preparation, without bloodshed or the need for such things as civil wars. It will be inclusive process because women will demand that it is.

Women will have to take the lead because no one else is likely to present themselves. We will be able to do this because the move to a Republic, although a “political issue” is not party political as we saw during the referendum campaign. Any woman can participate so an opportunity presents itself that requires neither experience nor party membership. It is a special opportunity for women to be politically active and influential. In moving Australia to a Republic, there is plenty of future use for our herstory of personal and political activism since the 1970s.

Women’s Role in the Republic Debate since 1999

Women have already been very active in reformulating the republic campaign since 1999 and have been prominent participants in events intended to rekindle interest in the issue. Women who supported direct election, have joined with other Republicans to plan the way ahead. Women have argued strongly for information and education campaigns to increase active and informed citizenship for all and to draw on exercises such as the Deliberative Poll which took place just before the vote. They are promoting inclusive ways of taking the issue forward.

There is, in fact, no shortage of women’s interest in the Republic and the future governance arrangements for the country at a grassroots level. As seen on recent streetwalks, women remain keenly interested in the Republic, are thirsty for knowledge and information about this and other constitutional matters and form a vast, untapped reservoir of support for change to achieve a vision of what our country can become. In December 2000, Women’s Electoral Lobby adopted a national policy on the Republic for the first time.

New designs for the Republic are appearing (5). Women and women’s organisations are being invited to contribute. This is a big change from pre 1999 when women’s opinions and interests were considered to be largely irrelevant to political issues of this type because they were not seen to have any gender perspective.

Republican groups are reforming and refocussing. In 2001, the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) influenced by women in its highest forum started its own women’s network that succeeded in attracting increased numbers of women members. Now around 38 percent of ARM’s membership is female and women are increasingly represented in ARM’s official decision making positions. ARM has a Women’s Forum and a women’s contact in each State and Territory. An independent website devoted to women’s views on the Republic has been maintained since 1999 while most other online republic sites have disappeared (6).

But where women really made their mark recently was at the Corowa Conference in December 2001 (7). This was a meeting open to the public attended by 420 people at which processes were discussed to kickstart the move for an Australian Head of State. 32 percent of the participants were women representing a wide range of views on this and other constitutional issues. Corowa was a community event and women with no previous involvement or firm views on the issues also attended. The processes selected for debate were all developed by men but women spoke for and against all of them. They sought their right to equal airtime. When this did not occur, they actively pursued their grievances from the floor of the conference – and they were successful. Afterwards, they were outspoken about the lack of women on the committee to work on further development of the chosen model (8). ARM even wrote officially, urged on by its women members.

Women are here at this Constitutional Convention discussing the Republic. Men are not doing this, why not? Why are women doing this – because we think it is an important matter for our future. An increasing number of young women in my experience identify the Republic and constitutional change issues as things that they want to be involved in. This is also a big shift since 1999. There are good leaders and thinkers among these young women. They will be good for the cause; their views and commitment will be influential. We should not disappoint each other.

How can women become involved in the Republic and Constitutional Change?

  • Start talking. Let us communicate with each other and particularly with young women
  • Get information and explanations – find out what you don’t know about
  • Form your own views on the Republic and express them – tell your local members and community leaders
  • Define the contentious issues and establish positions – does your organisation have a policy or view on the Republic? If inviting a guest speaker, ask a republican along. Let us not be frightened about talking about “political issues”.
  • Start working in your community– link up with the ARM in your area or establish a group of your own
  • Join the ARM: if you don’t have the time, donate your money
  • Let’s find out what other women think about the Republic now – this is what is relevant to moving the issue forward; let us invest in some research
  • Let us write a women’s constitution. This would be a very influential document. In the absence of anything similar, it would form the basis for change and create impetus for change
  • The Republic is a complex issue – as well as the country being a republic, we will have to have processes for selecting a Head of State, there’s plenty of room for women’s input into this and other matters associated with being a Republic
  • Start talking about women candidates for Head of State; plant the seed in women’s minds; make sure that the men know that there are good women candidates around
  • If you are already active, insist on being included in planning and process for the Republic and constitutional change.
  • Lobby for Constitutional Conventions – when they come around, work to get women delegates elected.
  • Let us rediscover our republican past and women republicans – we can draw inspiration from the far-sighted women who went before us like Adelaide Ironside, Louisa Lawson and all the mothers who told their children throughout the 20th century that Australia should be truly independent of Britain (9)

In fact, trust the women.


Republicans did not fade away after the 1999 referendum. They are in their refuges planning and thinking, holding on to their ideals and vision for the future of our country. Many of them are women. But not enough of them are women – join them and become actively involved. Practise personal politics in an arena which needs leaders and which is non party political. The time for the Republic may come sooner than we think, or even hope. In hindsight, it appears to be impossible to say if women were accountable for the NO vote but the next time around, we – and our sisters – will want to be better prepared and involved in all aspects of achieving a high vote in favour of the Republic and a woman as our first Australian Head of State.

Sarah Brasch

National Convenor, Women for An Australian Republic

Prepared for the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002

Canberra, 13 June 2002


  1. Further data from in the September 1999 ANOP poll:
  2. Susan Mitchell writing on the Opinion Page of ‘The Australian’, 15 November 1999
  3. An interesting account of the Constitutional Convention from an ARM republican’s point of view can be found in Steve Vizard’s book, “Two Weeks in Lilliput” Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1998.
  4. The theme of monarchy as a symbol of continuity during times of change is taken from the editorial in ‘The Guardian Weekly’ 6-12 June 2002 reflecting on Queen Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee celebrations.
  5. The most recent, in May 2002, came from a Sydney based group called Democracy First Group which involved the National Council of Women in developing a new republican model: a directly elected Head of State and a 36 member Constitutional Council acting as a buffer between the Prime Minister and the Governor-General.
  6. The Women for an Australian Republic website is at
  7. The Corowa Conference was organised by Robert McGarvie, a former Governor of Victoria and a constitutional lawyer who participated in the 1998 Constitutional Convention where he proposed a model for a minimalist republic. The holding of the conference in Corowa was symbolic because it was the Corowa Conference of 1893 that had renewed the impetus for the States to form an Australian federation.
  8. The outcome was the Royal Hotel Resolution, see Appendix B
  9. More information about Australia’s republican history in the 19th century and our women republicans can be found in Audrey Oldfield’s book, The Great Republic of the Southern Seas”, Hale and Ironmonger, Alexandria, 1999.



Australian Electoral Commission, Report on the 1999 Referendum

Sourced from the AEC website at, 24 May 2002

Miscellaneous Information

  1. There were 12,361,694 electors on the roll; the voter turnout was 95.1%
  2. 20% of electors had never voted in a referendum before; it was 11 years since the previous referendum
  3. 12.9 million copies of the referendum booklet were printed; it was the largest printing job ever undertaken in Australia
  4. 53,871 ballot papers were issued overseas
  5. There were four legal challenges to the referendum – one was taken by a woman
  6. The cost of the referendum was $66.2m. $50m of this amount was for two items: $33.2m for “elections management” and $16.8m for printing.

The Vote on the Referendum Question


45.13% voted YES

54.81% voted NO

No State voted in favour of the Republic

The vote on the Preamble Question

39.34 voted YES

60.66 voted NO

Voting on the Republic by Electorate (based on House of Representatives seats)

State/TerritoryNumber of ElectoratesYES (%)NO (%)
NSW5015 (30.00)35 (70.00)
Vic3718 (48.65)19 (51.35)
QLD272 (7.40)25 (92.60)
WA141 (7.15)13 (92.85)
SA123 (25.00)9 (75.000
Tas51 (20.00)4 (80.00)
ACT22 (100.00)0
NT101 (100.00)

 YES/No Overall by State or Territory

State/TerritoryYES (%)NO (%)

 Highest YES and NO Votes by Electorate by State/Territory

State/TerritoryYES (%)NO (%)
NSWSydney (67.85)Gwydir (72.21)
VicMelbourne (70.92)La Trobe (71.22)
QLDBrisbane (57.28)Maranoa (77.16)
WACurtin (55.49)O’Connor (71.92)
SAAdelaide (56.39)Grey (67.67)
TasDenison (52.38)Braddon (67.76)
ACTFraser (64.46)Canberra (37.92)
NT – single electorateNANA



Joint proposal by:

Bill Peach A.M., Professor George Winterton, Dr Walter Phillips, Dr Bede Harris

(“The Corowa Four”)

This conference resolves that:

  1. A multi-party Commonwealth Parliament Joint Committee should be established to consult the community and constitutional experts in order to prepare a plebiscite asking the following key questions simultaneously:
  2. (i) Should we become a republic with an Australian Head of State?
    1. Should the Head of State of the Australian Commonwealth be called:
    2. Should an Australian Head of State be:
  3. The Commonwealth Parliament Joint Committee shall outline the core features of the models in 2(iii) and prepare neutral information for the plebiscite
  4. An elected Constitutional Convention be convened to draft a constitutional amendment reflecting the will of the people as expressed in the plebiscite.
  5. A referendum be held under s 128 of the Constitution to give effect to the amendment proposed by the Constitutional Convention.