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'On The Cusp Of Glory': Why The Republic Referendum 'Backfired' And What's Next

Peter FitzSimons admits it has been two decades of "the winter years" since the failed republic referendum that preserved the British monarchy's place in Australian society.

"There was so much disappointment after 1999, there was a real struggle in the first decade of the 21st century to keep it moving," the Australian Republic Movement Chair told 10 daily.

"Twenty years ago we were on the cusp of glory, of actually making this happen. The promised land lay ahead."

But the promised land would stay just out of reach. The Malcolm Turnbull-led campaign went down in flames, consigned to the scrapheap of constitutional history.

Current ARM chair Peter FitzSimons. Image: 10 daily

The charismatic author, TV personality and former rugby international has talked a big game about the republic movement both before and after he became its head in 2015. However, he isn't too concerned to call the decade-and-a-half after the 1999 referendum — where the national vote came back 55-45 in favour of preserving the constitutional monarchy — “the winter years”.

A brief respite in that winter came in the late 2010s, as Labor's then-leader Bill Shorten -- thought to be a shoo-in to win the 2019 election -- promised a referendum in his first term. That result, too, didn't go the way the ARM hoped.

With the current PM not in favour of putting the republic question back in front of voters anytime soon, and even FitzSimons himself agreeing there is a greater political appetite for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people, this country seems in no danger of becoming estranged from the British royal family anytime soon.

But recent and ongoing developments in England are all playing a part in how the various sides of the Australian republic debate are mustering strength and plotting long-term strategy for another referendum, which seems only a matter of time.

The popularity of the Queen and the younger royals is helping the monarchist argument. Image: AAP

Brexit, the stratospheric popularity of the younger royals, the consistently sluggish popularity of next-in-line Prince Charles, and the age of the seemingly indefatigable Queen Elizabeth are among the factors in play. These could play a part in deciding whether our head of state in another two decades is an Australian dignitary or a British king.

"There's so many cards in the air," FitzSimons said.

What went wrong in 1999?

"On the republican side, there was probably too much information," Philip Benwell, national chairman of the Australian Monarchist League, told 10 daily.

He led the organisation through the 1999 referendum. At the time it was a far smaller organisation than today's more prominent Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, which now claims to be "the largest member-based monarchist organisation in the country".

Monarchist League chair Philip Benwell. Image: 10 daily

"Both sides did too many lectures, too much wordage. The short, sharp points about the value of our constitution got through," Benwell said.

"Having a lot of politicians involved would have been a negative. Having a lot of celebrities involved turned out to be a negative [for the 'yes' side], and almost the entirety of the media on the side of constitutional change also turned out to be a negative."

What happened in 1999?

The proposal offered to voters in the referendum was clear enough -- a straight switch-out of the monarchy for an Australian:

To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament

Benwell claimed the proposal was "overwhelming" and that "people felt they were being pressured into voting for a republic".

At the time, former Governor-General Bill Hayden described the model put to voters in the referendum as "half-baked" .

Despite a mammoth advertising campaign, a coalition of supporters across the political spectrum, and what British politician and journalist William Deedes alleged was "shameless bias" of the media supporting change, the vote failed.

Then-PM John Howard in 1999. Image: AAP

It became the 36th referendum, out of 44 since 1901, rejected by the Australian people. Needing a majority of people in a majority of states to pass, zero states backed it -- the Australian Capital Territory was the only jurisdiction in favour  -- and just 45 percent nationally voted for change.

"It's very difficult to get a referendum up unless you have the Prime Minister right behind it, putting his or her shoulder to the wheel and saying 'I want this'," FitzSimons said of then-PM John Howard's support for the 'no' campaign.

The Liberal Party leader was an avowed monarchist, but agreed to put the republic question before voters after saying he recognised "the desire on the part of the Australian people" to consider the question.

Turnbull would later call Howard "the prime minister who broke this nation's heart", the PM managing to internally split republic supporters by pitting those who wanted a popularly-elected president against those backing the ARM's model of a head of state appointed by parliament.

In an interview released by ACM on the eve of the referendum's 20-year anniversary, Howard said the media's full-throated support of the republican side "backfired".

"The old Australian Celtic suspicion asserted itself. The more they sang in unison, the more the average Australian thought there must be something odd about this," he claimed.

Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh votes in the 1999 referendum at The 'Gabba in Brisbane. Image: Getty

Benwell made the case more simply.

"There was no immediate threat to our system of governance," he said.

"People are fed up with politics and politicians, but as far as the constitution is concerned, it's working. There's no need to change it...  it’s a big change, and the majority of people are quite comfortable with their way of life in this country."

Benwell claimed both sides of the debate in 1999 were "a bunch of amateurs", just "fiddling around trying to make a case". Despite the comfortable final numbers, he said the result was not clear in the lead up.

"I don't think anybody on either side could be confident, because it was new ground for all of us," Benwell said.

"Eventually everybody got their act together but it took some time. Even on the night, nobody could be certain. We had people on polling stations that came in ashen-faced because they were on the blue-rinsed Liberal electorate polling stations which voted for a republic, and they thought it was all lost."

"Then the votes came in from the outer suburban Labor electorates which were overwhelmingly against a republic."

What now?

Both sides are still working quietly to advance their respective causes, in anticipation of another referendum -- perhaps not anytime soon, but both monarchists and republicans feel it is inevitable.

Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy with Peter FitzSimons at the ARM's 25th anniversary dinner in 2016.

FitzSimons admits there is a "strong feeling" in federal parliament that the next referendum should be on Indigenous constitutional recognition, but he isn't going away.

"All we need to do is get politically engaged enough and talk common sense to our fellow citizens," he said of the ARM's current game plan.

"The house is not on fire, it's not a matter of extreme urgency. But it is something, as a nation, that can help bring us together and say 'we can do better than this'."

Tomorrow on 10 daily: Would Australia Still Vote 'No' In A Vote To Become A Republic?