Since the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September 2022, numerous changes in the United Kingdom and Australia took immediate effect. As a Commonwealth country, Australia’s legal industry was impacted by Her Majesty’s passing (and King Charles III’s ascension to the throne) in a number of ways.
Straightforward and administrative changes in the Australian Courts include the ‘R’ in proceedings that once stood for Regina, Queen in Latin, was immediately replaced by Rex which is Latin for King. With the monarch now being ruled by King Charles III, senior barristers in Australia that were known as Queen’s Counsel, or QCs, will known be known as King’s Counsel, or KCs, effective from the date of Her Majesty’s death.
Unlike the immediate changes since King Charles III has been proclaimed as the new sovereign, it can be expected that the republican movement, for Australia to leave the Commonwealth and have an Australian head of state, will become a more prominent discussion. For that to happen, there are a number of steps that the Government must take. Whilst this is an interesting argument given that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke of his republican views in the recent years, he announced in the hours following Her Majesty’s death that his focus is not on the republican movement, but is focusing on paying his respect and gratitude to the late Queen Elizabeth II.
If in the future Prime Minister Albanese or his successors choose to move Australia toward becoming a republic, a referendum will need to be held in accordance with Chapter VIII of The Australian Constitution. A referendum with the very question of whether Australia should become a republic was last held in November of 1999, with majority voting to not establish Australia as a republic.
A referendum is the only way that The Australian Constitution can be amended, as set out in Chapter VIII. The way in which a referendum unfolds is that the proposed revision of The Australian Constitution be passed through each House of the Australian Parliament with absolute majority agreeing to the amendment. Should this step be successful, the amendment will then be proposed to each of the State and Territory electors qualified to vote for the election of members of the House of Representatives. If majority of electors vote ‘Yes’ to the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the proposal will then be presented to the Governor-General, who is now the representative of King Charles III in Australia, for his assent. A referendum for an Australian republic would mainly transform the structure of the Executive branch of Australia’s institutional structure. What continues to be a complex aspect of becoming a republic is the implications of a new head of state. To transform a monarchical system, there are two main options: transfer power to a cabinet responsible to a popularly elected legislature to create a parliamentary system, or substituting the monarch for a democratically elected head of state to create a presidential system.
One of Prime Minister Albanese’s first campaign promises to Australia was that he would propose a referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament following the Uluru Statement of the Heart in 2017. Prime Minister Albanese committed to holding this referendum in his first term of holding the Prime Minister title and said that he would turn his attention to a referendum on an Australian republic during his second term of Parliament if successful.
Republican and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously stated that he believes the Australian public were supporters of Queen Elizabeth II instead of the monarchy, or in other words “Elizabethans” instead of “Monarchists”.
Prime Minister Albanese has not vocalised this same view, but it will be of great interest to those who strongly support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as to whether Prime Minister Albanese attempts to change his referendum promises and propose a referendum on an Australian republic during his first term as Prime Minister following the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.