The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Aussie republic? In queen’s namesake town, they won’t drink to that.

Roger Sherrington, on his front porch in the town of Windsor near Sydney, put his Australian flag at half-staff in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

WINDSOR, Australia — When Queen Elizabeth II is buried in Windsor, England, on Monday, this small town with the same name on the opposite side of the world will be watching — and worrying.

“The queen has been fantastic for the past 70 years,” said Mikki Piirlaid as he ordered a beer at the Royal Exchange pub, where televisions showed scenes of mourning more than 10,000 miles away in London. “She’s given us stability and good values — values that we’re now losing.”

“Australia is probably going to go away from the monarchy,” he added somberly between sips of Iron Jack lager. “And I don’t think that’s a good thing for our country.”

From the Caribbean to the Pacific, Elizabeth’s death has reignited debates over whether countries should remove the monarch as their head of state. For some, the accession of the less popular King Charles III — extending the reign of the House of Windsor — has sparked discussions of colonial history and what independence truly means.

While some people have expressed sorrow and nostalgia over the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, others are still stung by the colonial past of the British Empire. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

As Elizabeth gives way to Charles, realms consider severing ties

But Australia has been here before. In 1999, a failed republican referendum revealed a nation deeply divided over the issue. Many urban areas voted in favor of the proposed republic, while more conservative places like Windsor rejected it. What killed the initiative, however, was that republicans couldn’t agree on how to choose an Australian head of state.

With center-left Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hoping to hold another referendum on the issue within six years, there is still little sign of consensus.

“The crown has done a lot of damage,” particularly to Indigenous people, said Ayeesha Ash as she waited outside a popular vegan restaurant in Albanese’s area of inner-city Sydney. The 30-year-old, who has Caribbean and Maori ancestry, said Australia becoming a republic would be a “good first step toward getting out from under the thumb” of those responsible.

Colonized by Britain in the late 18th century, Australia became a sovereign nation in 1901 but retained the monarch as its head of state. The crown plays a limited and largely ceremonial role, but it nonetheless became controversial in 1975 when the queen’s representative in Australia, the governor general, exercised his power to dissolve a gridlocked Parliament, triggering a constitutional crisis and stoking republican sentiment.

Memories of “the Dismissal,” as it’s called Down Under, lingered when Australia held its republican referendum. Polls showed around 57 percent of people supported becoming a republic. But the referendum only garnered 45 percent of the vote because many republicans disagreed with the proposed model, in which Parliament would choose the governor general’s replacement.

For Indigenous Australians, painful colonial past mars queen’s legacy

“Those republicans wanted direct election of a head of state, so they campaigned against the referendum,” said Anne Twomey, an expert in constitutional law at the University of Sydney. “They thought, ‘Next year, we’ll get our version up.’ It never happened. We’ve been waiting a very long time since and most of them have died and never got to see the republic that they really wanted.”

The Australian Republic Movement has tried to build support since then for another model in which the legislatures of each of the eight states or territories would nominate a candidate for head of state, who would then face off in a national vote.

Elizabeth’s death has thrust the issue back into the spotlight, while also making it temporarily hard to address, Twomey said.

“On the one hand, the death of the monarch and the automatic accession of a new king without any action being taken at all in Australia is a little confronting,” she said. “We would like to think we control these things in Australia in a political way, so that may start people thinking about more about a republic. And also the loss of a well-respected queen might seem an appropriate end of an era and time to start thinking about change.”

Yet, Elizabeth’s death has also stirred some royal nostalgia in its far-flung former colony, she said, and the Australian ethos of giving someone “a fair go,” or opportunity, means many here will be reluctant to write off the new king.

“There is going to be a battle for public sentiment,” Twomey said.

Albanese, who is in England for the queen’s funeral, has said that now is a time for mourning, not for debating whether Australia becomes a republic. He has suggested he could take up the issue in his second term — should he win one — and only after holding a different referendum on creating an Indigenous “voice,” or advisory body, to Parliament. If that referendum fails, then it’s unlikely Albanese would pursue one on a republic, Twomey said.

Referendums rarely succeed in Australia, and the last time one did was nearly half a century ago. There is a sense of political inertia in this wealthy and stable country, where preferential voting pushes governments to the center and administrations are often voted out — due to mistakes — rather than in.

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Queen Elizabeth II
Laid to rest
Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.
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That inertia is strongest in places like Windsor, Australia’s third-oldest colonial settlement about an hour’s drive from Sydney. In 1999, 56 percent of people in the area voted “No” to the proposed republic.

“For many of us, she’s the only queen or monarch we’ve ever known,” said Sarah McMahon, mayor of the city of Hawkesbury, which includes Windsor and other nearby towns. “I think that does bring about some sort of sadness, because people always do question what change might bring, and what that will do for Australia.”

McMahon, a member of the conservative Liberal party, sits beneath a portrait of the queen in the city council chambers, where she recently led a minute of silence for the late monarch.

The river town was branded Windsor in 1810 because it reminded a colonial official of the royal town in England. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Elizabeth became the first monarch to visit the Australian spot sporting her last name.

Workers cut out a section of the fence surrounding the town’s sports ground so that Elizabeth and her husband could inspect a parade of cows and horses, according to the local newspaper. Around 3,000 people also crowded around St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, where the royal couple made a brief visit. The site is now marked by a small plaque where, on a recent day, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed with a card addressed: “To her late majesty.”

Downtown, an Australian flag hung at half-staff outside the house of Roger Sherrington. Sitting on his front porch with his retired greyhound, Digger, the 77-year-old declared himself a proud monarchist. He’d been born near London at the end of World War II, when a teenage Elizabeth had worked as a British Army mechanic, before moving to Australia in 1962.

“She was squeaky clean, no scandal,” he said when asked why he revered the queen so much he kept a portrait of her in his shed. “There was all sorts of trauma going on around her and she kept her cool.”

Australia would become a republic one day, he admitted. But he hoped it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

“It wouldn’t be disastrous,” he said as he took his graying greyhound for a walk. “But if the system isn’t broke, why would you want to change it?”

Some republicans in Windsor wrestle with that question. Down the street at the Macquarie Arms, one of Australia’s oldest pubs, Ben Sullivan said he had voted “No” in 1999 because letting Parliament pick the head of state was “crazy.” Even now, the republican said his vote would depend on the details of another referendum.

“The queen hasn’t really done anything wrong,” he said. “So you have to give people a good alternative.”

But in Albanese’s district of inner-city Sydney, where almost two-thirds of residents voted “Yes” in 1999, there is less sympathy for the crown.

“It’s sad the queen died, but we need to get on with things,” said Ash, who added that she couldn’t forget accusations of racism against the royal family. She viewed the moment as an opportunity for Australia to start “forging our own identity.”

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“We should have been a republic years ago,” agreed Jack Horton, 71, as he sat in the Charles Dickens Tavern in downtown Melbourne, where 71 percent of people voted “Yes” in 1999.

One thing most Australians do agree on is their dislike for Charles.

Back in Windsor, at the Royal Exchange pub, Piirlaid said he feared a few years of the new king would lead his country to cut its ties to the monarchy.

“You don’t like Prince Charles?” asked the owner from behind the bar.

“He’s basically an adulterer,” Piirlaid, 44, said with a scowl. “I’m more of a traditionalist.”

Frances Vinall in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.