The republic referendum:
a view from the left
What it tells us about modern Australia
The results were much too close for comfort for the
conservative side of politics
By Bob Gould
The modest republican constitutional change proposed in the
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
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
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.
To better 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,
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
In NSW, Victoria and Western Australia the seat that topped
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
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
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
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 Wollongong.
Nationally, the five seats with an overwhelming Yes vote
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 Toorak.
Nearly two-thirds of the 30 seats with the highest Yes vote
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 Anglo-Australians.
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
state where a number of votes are cast on election day for each
The result for these five categories is very illuminating.
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
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.
The last grouping, the small but significant sample of people
outside their own electorate at capital city Town Hall polling booths,
shows by far the highest Yes vote of all. An obvious inference is the
existence, in the referendum result, of a strong tendency for younger
cohorts of voters voting Yes and older cohorts voting No.
Those voting at the capital city Town Hall polling booth for
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
The tendency for the young to vote Yes and the old to vote No
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
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
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 younger cohorts.
It also ought to be said that the older cohort are also the
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
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
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 significant.
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
The absentee voters, many of whom voted in electorates quite
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
The Yes vote, migrants and ethnicity
There is no question that there was a strong Yes vote from
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
This is also one of the major explanations for the
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 Sydney.
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
All of this suggests that the widely distributed cultural
migrant ethnicity was a major factor in the very strong Melbourne Yes
In NSW the contrast in the results between the Newcastle and
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:
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
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 vote.
Sydney's voting pattern
In Sydney there was a striking geographical divide, starting
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
There were some striking but significant local idiosyncracies.
distinctively individual, slightly isolated communities, with a strong
local identity and a larger old, established Anglo component, seemed to
vote heavily No. Two examples that jumped out at me were Kurnell in
Sutherland Shire, which voted almost two thirds No in fairly sharp
contrast with the rest of that electorate, where the No vote was lower.
Another striking example was Riverstone-Schofields, an old
working-class, largely Anglo community, where the meat works was closed
some years ago, which showed a No vote approaching 70 per cent, much
higher than the No vote in the rest of that electorate, a Labor
electorate, where Yes did quite well in the other areas.
These kinds of results suggest strongly that there is some
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
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
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,
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
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 No.
One of the more entertaining small sidelights of the
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
The Labor electorates that had a No majority, in the outer
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
In Country Party and Liberal seats in rural areas and
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
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 vote.
A referendum day vignette. Fun and games at Newtown
A curious experience of the republican referendum campaign was
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
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
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 Socialists.
Conclusions about the current shape of Australia and future
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
The angry social and political undercurrents in rural,
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
The monarchists achieved the immediate electoral result that
desired on the republic by a very populist and very public appeal to
the discontent of these social layers against political and commercial
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
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
The other problem for the conservatives at the level of
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
The current electoral backlash against the conservatives is
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.
On the Labor-Green-Democrat side of politics, the electoral
prospects are a good deal more promising. The only thing in question
here is whether the Labor leadership has enough foresight and courage
to adopt a more leftist, populist economic policy, which is obviously
required, to appeal to the discontented social layers who were so
obvious in the referendum result.
The age polarisation that showed up in the referendum will
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 politics.
Their use of New Class rhetoric indicates that the
conservative side of politics is bleeding electorally
There has recently been an energetic outburst, emanating
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
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
This showed up during the referendum campaign in the
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
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 further increase.
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
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.
January 10, 2000