Aussies shouldn’t have to wait for a republic
Julia Gillard is right that Australia should ditch the monarchy. But it should do it now, not when the queen dies.
Since Saturday’s cliffhanger federal election, five men and women have been busy negotiating Australia’s future: the prime minister Julia Gillard, opposition leader Tony Abbott, and three conservative-leaning independent MPs who could deliver power to either side. Both leaders look likely to win 73 seats each, but 76 are needed to secure an absolute majority. The result couldn’t have been closer, nor the stakes higher. Aside from battle-lines being drawn over asylum seekers, industrial relations and climate change, there is another fascinating existential question at stake: should Australia finally become a republic?
The positions of the two leaders couldn’t be more different. In the dying days of the election campaign, Julia Gillard restated her support for a republic and declared that if re-elected she would want to see her country begin the process of deciding what form of republic it should be. Her one caveat was that Australians should wait for Queen Elizabeth II to die before making the changeover. Nonetheless, she is the third Australian PM out of the last four who has come out unequivocally in favour of a republic (along with all state premiers and most former prime ministers). Abbott, on the other hand, is a staunch defender of the monarchy and Australia’s ties with British royalty.
As a British republican with Australian citizenship, I find the whole debate fascinating, not least the residual support there is in Australia for retaining constitutional ties with a foreign country - constitutional ties which speak to feudal values that simply have no place in modern Australian society. Of course Australia has close social and historical ties with Britain, but the percentage of Australians who can trace their roots to the UK is diminishing with every passing generation and every planeload of new arrivals. And, despite some glaring exceptions, Australia is generally a very egalitarian society - certainly in its cultural and social outlook and in its treatment of its own (if not always in its economic policies or its treatment of outsiders). Australia is also a very proud nation, acutely aware of its identity as a self-made country.
So why does this proud, egalitarian nation keep hold of a foreign monarch and retain ties to its colonial past?
Although Australians have kept the monarchy, it is, far more than here in Britain, a very marginal and largely symbolic element of their constitution. Their political system is generally superior to ours. Their lack of deference and a clearer sense of equality and citizenship add a strong cultural element to a good constitutional set-up. Despite its ties to Britain, Australia is a free and independent society with no higher authority above it. The monarchy is the only serious blemish.
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I say the monarchy is a blemish because, as a symbolic head of state, it is all wrong. As a symbol, the Crown represents backwardness, deference, the unfair, unequal hereditary principle, ties to past values which no longer reflect the values of modern Australia, and a lack of progress towards full maturity as an independent nation. Australia’s head of state - and Britain’s, too - should represent something far more important and better than those outdated values: he or she should represent democracy and the values that underpin it.
Founded on a sense of equality and fairness, democracy should be a treasured principle. It is a profound statement of trust between citizens; in a democracy, we trust each other to take an equal share of power and to take collective decisions. It is also humbling, as we accept the views of others and live by the decisions of others even if we disagree with them. And we accept the right of others to disagree and campaign against the views of the majority, as part of the process of social discourse and debate that helps our society grow and develop. Democracy is, in my view, the most profound innovation of human history. Our constitution and our highest representative (the head of state) should not only deliver on our commitment to democracy in a meaningful, practical way, but should also embody its symbolic elements.
Despite the monarchy’s marginal role Down Under, Australia has had a very real experience of the constitutional shortcomings of having a monarch, an experience which, for many Australians, was the founding moment of their contemporary republican movement. It was in 1975, when the queen’s appointed representative in Australia, the governor general John Kerr, summarily dismissed the prime minister. It was something of a shock to the Australian people to discover that this unelected official and representative of the queen could take such anti-democratic action, without any accountability.
Australia has had a chance to dump the monarchy before. In 1999 it held a referendum on the issue, but the vote was defeated. Then prime minister John Howard, another staunch monarchist, engineered a process which ensured the electorate had a very limited choice: keep the status quo or adopt a deeply flawed republican model. Even many republicans campaigned against saying ‘Yes’ to the republican model on offer, believing that a better choice could be worked out for a future referendum. Many other Australians saw the monarchy as something of concern only to the small-l liberal elites of Sydney and Melbourne. On top of that, Australian referendums are always hard to win, particularly without bipartisan support, because they require a double majority: the backing of the majority of the nation, and a majority in a majority of states.
However, if Gillard holds on to power this week, with the support of the pro-republic Green party in both houses, then the debate is back on. If not, then the debate will only be put into suspended animation, until the unpopular Charles Windsor gets close to becoming king.
The case has been made - the failure to deliver has been political. Australians want their own head of state and only a minority now actively supports the monarchy. I don’t agree that Australia should wait for the queen to die; that is too passive and it could mean waiting another 20 years! Republicanism is about making a stand now on fundamental questions of sovereignty and independence. It is a rejection of all that the queen represents. Now is the time to make the change. Gillard’s promise is just one more step along the path to a republican future for Australia
Graham Smith is campaign manager for the British-based Republic, which calls for the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of an elected head of state. Visit Republic’s website here.