Australian republicans demand satisfaction

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'Baby republic' by Chris Johnston. Artistic impression of the royal baby sitting on a cracked map of Australia beneath the slogan 'If it ain't broke don't fix it'In the tsunami of syrup that gushed from the world's media in the wake of the royal baby announcement, a few enlightened flames briefly spluttered.

There was Private Eye's reality-check headline 'Woman has baby'. And here in the remote Antipodes, there was constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey's reality-check answer during an interview with Michael Rowland of ABC News Breakfast. Noting that it might be 70 years before the new prince, as third in line of succession to the Queen, becomes king, Twomey added the sensible caveat: 'What are the prospects of Australia still having the king of the UK as its sovereign in 70 years time? I sort of suspect not great.'

Take the long view and the absurdity of an independent nation retaining a foreign monarch as its head of state is instantly apparent. But it's absurd now, too, and for the same reasons as it would be absurd 70 years from now.

Even avowed monarchists know it's absurd. Remember the 1999 referendum, when no one mentioned the Queen? Monarchists — then a minority — posed as defenders of the constitution ('if it ain't broke don't fix it') rather than the monarchy, while the rest of us argued about whether the republican model on offer was sufficiently democratic. The three-way debate felt acrimonious at the time, especially to those of us publicly engaged in it, but in retrospect it seems bizarrely polite. No one mentioned the Queen.

The oddity of Australia's republican debate is that so many people readily agree that becoming a republic is desirable and even inevitable, while in the same breath insisting that it can't, or shouldn't, happen yet. This preference for deferred satisfaction, so strange in a political culture in which almost every demand is for immediate gratification, is the chief reason that the republic hasn't happened yet. If the preference persists, 70 years from now Australians might well be subjects of King George VII.

Deferred satisfaction is now the default position among Australian politicians who call themselves republicans. Whatever else Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have disagreed about, they've always been in accord on this. The 2020 summit, which the first Rudd Government convened in 2008 'to help shape a long-term strategy for the nation's future', placed the republic at the top of its recommendations for reforming governance. I have never heard a prime minister sound less enthusiastic about a proposal he notionally supports than Rudd did about that one.

And Gillard, when asked about the republic during her tenure, always found reasons for answering 'not yet'. In her case and in Rudd's, 'not yet' effectively means 'it's not worth the effort', which as a line of argument is close in spirit to 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'.

The most common form of the delayed-satisfaction argument is associated with Coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull, who led the Australian Republican Movement during the '99 referendum. Turnbull hasn't given up hope: he and former deputy Labor leader Wayne Swan have contributed forewords to Project Republic, a book of essays aimed at rekindling the republican cause. But he now thinks that the republic will have to wait until the death of the present monarch, because we apparently hold her in such high regard.

The thought is encapsulated in a neat Turnbullian turn of phrase, which he has used in several speeches and repeats in Project Republic: 'There have always been many more Elizabethans than monarchists in Australia'.

Have there? Perhaps. But respect for the way in which Elizabeth Windsor has conducted her office, and even affectionate regard for her as a person, were also widespread in Australia during the referendum campaign in 1999. Republicans did not then think of such sentiments as an obstacle, and the reluctance of monarchists to mention the Queen suggests that they agreed. So why should they be treated as an obstacle now?

No one, in 1999 or since, has been in any doubt that the referendum failed because voters did not like the model. The result had nothing to do with lingering affection for the Queen who did not get mentioned in the campaign. In 1999 polls indicated majority support for a republic and a wider majority in favour of popular election of the head of state. In other words, even some voters who preferred the status quo wanted to be able to participate in choosing the head of state if the system was going to change.

If the referendum model had matched the popular mood, offering an elected rather than an appointed presidency, Australia would be a republic now.

Fourteen years on, support for a republic has dropped below 50 per cent. The appearance of Project Republic, whose contributors range across the political spectrum and across the elected/appointed presidency divide, is a welcome sign that republicans do not intend to let support drop even further.

The book is not without rancour: Turnbull and some other contributors blame direct electionists who supported a 'no' vote in 1999 for the languishing of the republican cause. Theirs was a dishonest campaign, Turnbull maintains, for they promised they would continue to advocate a republic after the referendum but have done nothing.

I know from personal experience that this accusation is false. I and other direct electionists did continue to write and speak publicly after 1999, and in doing so we made common cause with many who had supported a 'yes' vote, including contributors to Project Australia such as the historian John Hirst and the late George Winterton, the constitutional lawyer who was the principal architect of the referendum model. It is the politicians who have been largely absent from this debate, and who consign the republic to irrelevance each time they say 'yes, but not yet'.

Until there are political leaders who are willing to treat the republic as a matter of urgency, it will remain in the too-hard basket and voters will continue to lose interest in it.


 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Republic, Queen Elizabeth, royal baby, Malcolm Turnbull

 

 

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Existing comments

Many Australians retain an emotional tie to the monarchy. And, as a form of government for this country, constitutional monarchy has, for the most part, worked well - with the notable exception of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government by G-G John Kerr. If Australia were to become a republic care would need to be taken about choosing a president and the constitutional amendments put in place so a Kerr-tastrophe couldn't happen again. Another stumbling block for a republic may be that, looking at the dysfunction of US politics, may put us off forever.
Pam | 03 August 2013


Australian society is multicultural but it also retains British ways, not just in politics but in planning and social rules, as a matter of first principle. They are so entrenched we don’t even notice them. Even the way in which the republican debate is conducted is along the lines of an Oxford debate. Australia is a republic in all but name, really. It runs its affairs with little or no reference to Great Britain or its monarch, even though all the lines of command are in place and are kept to every day, meticulously. We drive on the left side of the road, we build homes on square blocks, we do not drink tea like the Turks. When one (one, note) returns to a place like Melbourne from overseas one notices that it is (1) an Australian and (2) a British city, even today. It’s time (as they say in the classics) for Australians to recognise the uniqueness of this character, or just to recognise the reality. I am not placing a value on this, quite, only saying that the republican debate lacks momentum because it has not paid enough attention to its European patrimony. When Prince Charles says a country may choose to become what it wants if it has sufficient maturity, he is sending a powerful message to those who want a republic today. One of the most memorable things about the 1999 debate was hearing politicians warn of the dangers of republicanism because, didn’t we know, the nation was leaving the outcome in the hands of politicians. This was not a reassuring message, coming from our own leaders, and behind it lay centuries of British political memory.
PHILIP HARVEY | 04 August 2013


I am republican who has respect for the queen as a person, but cannot support the hereditary aspect of monarchy. The Kerr-tastophre mentioned by Pam was probably not as bad as portrayed because the matter was immediately put to the electorate. In a monarchy, we have to accept what is served up to us (with or without ability) by the reproductive capabilities of one family.
case Y | 04 August 2013


Further question: why are Australians resistant to a republic? Oliver Cromwell. At the Restoration in the middle of the 17th century, a propaganda machine came into being through royal statements, the emerging press, and also in the history writing about the period, that warned against the dangers of regicide, republicanism and puritan damage to the body politic. This same propaganda, if that’s the word, was the main storyline for all settlers in Australia, and for builders of Empire. They weren’t simply fearful of the “worst excesses of the French Revolution” (Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’) but of a return to a state of civil war as experienced under Cromwell. The Irish hated him even more than the English, and for good reason. They were taught not to abandon the monarchy for fear of something worse. Republicanism was equated with chaos, political division and loss of identity. Unconsciously, as well consciously ofttimes, this remains a residual memory that Australians find hard to shake off.
PHILIP HARVEY | 04 August 2013


Ray, you say: "No one, in 1999 or since, has been in any doubt that the referendum failed because voters did not like the model. The result had nothing to do with lingering affection for the Queen ..." The first point is obviously true because the referendum result showed that. The second point is what you may like to think but we have no objective evidence to either support that opinion or to oppose it. What you maintain is an absurdity, the Queen as monarch (NB the G-G is our Head of State) is your opinion but by no means obviously so to many others. Being an ideologue may make one feel good about oneself, but the pragmatic approval of a system that works may explain why there is so little enthusiasm for change to an unspecified proposal.
Father John Fleming | 05 August 2013


Why wait until the Queen has died? We could have a referendum now, for a republic which will not come into effect until then.
Michael Grounds | 05 August 2013


Traditions typically continue to reign until circumstances demand, or stir up sufficient energy to bring about change. The tradition of Pounds, shillings, and pence held sway long after the advantages of the decimal system were realised. The names of the days of the week still refer to the seven ’gods’ of pagan religions. The names of the final four months of the year still connote out-dated traditions. So the 9th month is called the7th -,September; the 10th month is still called the 8th,- October; the 11th is called the 9th - November, and the 12th is called the 10th . -December All because the ancient Roman year had only 10 months, starting in March, and simply ignoring the winter months, when nothing much happened. If evolution had not foisted change on us; and if we had adopted the mindless slogan, “If it isn’t broken , don’t fix it”, we would still be swinging from the trees.It takes mental energy and resolution to up-date.
Robert Liddy | 05 August 2013


So what`s so wrong with a bit of absurdity in national life? Eccentricity is a major spice of life! Enjoy! Republicanism is really really boring, ,especially when it will end up with a superannuated pollie in place. Andora has a joint HoS between the bishop of Bilboa and the President of France but neither are allowed to visit...works brilliantly and is very cheap , Just like our system. And, Ray, you need to differentiate between The Crown (our abstract conceptual HoS...also works brilliantly) and the titular monarchy, which doesn`t too well , but they all live a long way away and in reality don`t bother us too much, apart from entertainment value at someone else`s expense. Lighten up!
Eugene | 05 August 2013


Another view: Thinking of the way that nationalism has been such a curse to the world, what could be the most anti-nationalist thing that could be done? How about a handful of developed, prosperous, western countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada borrowing some other country's monarch as their titular head of state? It gives a clear signal to those around the world who are getting their political knickers in a knot over nationalism that perhaps nationalism isn't all that important.
Bob Faser | 05 August 2013


Ah, music to my republican ears. Please, if not now, when? When. The once and future republic. When a foreign Anglican is no longer the most important and equal of all Australians. Please. Now.
Peter Goers | 05 August 2013


Ray - you say "Take the long view and the absurdity of an independent nation retaining a foreign monarch as its head of state is instantly apparent. But it's absurd now, too, and for the same reasons as it would be absurd 70 years from now." Fine - perhaps the same logic might be applied to the Catholic religious structure; is it not time to disconnect from the foreign papal state, the Vatican, and its Papal control - what's the difference ? After all, all of the Orthodox christian institutions have done so via schisms over the millenia and they all look to be in good shape with their local heirarchies and local 'Popes'. They have maintained their liturgical/scriptural traditions very well indeed, in fact I would say better than the Catholic or Protestant communities. And they hold the line strongly on many moral/ethical issues notwithstanding their diverse heirarchies. They communicate with one another regularly in an informal to formal conference practice. The various Catholic ethnic/cultural/national entities might separate but still stay close within an equivalent 'Commonwealth of Nations' just as we might as a Republican Australia remain with the CofN; so a CofCCs - 'Commonwealth of Catholic Communities'. Individually we might do a lot better than the Vatican heirarchy has done in too many areas - just as the Orthodox individualities have done. We might start with the 'married priests' option, for example. A bit too revolutionary ?
Lawrence A P Wilson | 05 August 2013


Anyone interested in a republican proposal which addresses the real problems in our Constitution will find it at www.advancingdemocracy.info. A republic is not about identity. It is about power, and how we bring the exercise of power under democratic control.
Philip Howell | 06 August 2013


Now we know Ray Cassin's views of the monarchy, and I'm sure he must feel much better for having let us know. So we "need political leaders who are willing to treat the republic as a matter of urgency". Why is it urgent?
Jack Martin | 09 August 2013


The republican agitators maintain we should become a republic with "urgency". There are suggestions ranging from misleading "indicative plebiscites" (without the bothersome integrity of a referendum type case being made and double majority requirements) to implementing legislative changes to bring about a republic by stealth and without a vote. What these have in common is that republicans seem utterly convinced that they and only they are correct and that the republican end justifies whatever undemocratic means may lead to dumping our constitutional arrangements. This should be warning enough that the last people you'd trust to implement an Australian republic, are Australian republicans.
JohnB | 29 July 2017


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