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With the debate raging afresh over Australia becoming a republic, the main players seem stuck in 1999 and First Nations people remain largely ignored. By Mike Seccombe.

The flawed strategy for a republic

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex meet fans in Melbourne.
Credit: Chris Putnam / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

One thing can be said for the contribution of monarchist Josh Manuatu to the renewed debate about whether Australia should cut its constitutional ties with the British monarchy and become a republic: it was provocative.

In a recent debate on ABC Radio, Peter FitzSimons, chair of the Australian Republic Movement, challenged Manuatu to declare if he really believed “that being a member of the royal family makes someone special … that you are automatically finer and wiser than an Australian”.

Yes, said Manuatu, who is both president of the Young Liberals and a national councillor in the Australian Monarchist League.

“Well, Peter, as you know as an historian, as you are, there is a divinity of the sovereign –”

FitzSimons cut in: “A divinity? Given by God? Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” said Manuatu, who went on to explain that “the Church of England and Christianity generally” believed the sovereign was “gifted that [role] by God”.

“I’m a member of the Church of England, so, yes, I do believe that,” he declared.

FitzSimons, a one-time player for the Wallabies, swooped on the loose ball and ran with it.

He pronounced himself gobsmacked and proceeded to grill Manuatu about his belief in the divine right of royalty, and that an Anglican God ordained Australia’s existing constitutional arrangements. So absorbed did the program become in Manuatu’s views that it let FitzSimons off the hook about his own views, which appear to be decidedly dated themselves. The host almost forgot there was a third panellist – Tanya Hosch, general manager for inclusion and social policy at the AFL and former director of the Recognise campaign – who had concerns to raise on behalf of Indigenous Australians about the push for a republic. Concerns neatly summed up by historian Professor Mark McKenna in his recent Quarterly Essay: “The only republic worth having is a reconciled republic.”

FitzSimons is an advocate of the so-called minimalist model of reform, whereby Australia’s head of state would be the governor-general, instead of the monarch. Rather than being the monarch’s representative, the governor-general would be nominated by the prime minister and approved by two-thirds of the parliament. Nothing else would change.

That is, FitzSimons supports the same model that was put to Australians in a referendum in 1999 and defeated. In large measure, its defeat was due to the success of opponents who argued the minimalist model would give Australia a “politicians’ republic”.

As one of the leaders of the “No” campaign in 1999, Professor David Flint points out that the referendum not only failed to win the required majority of votes in a majority of states – it got just over 45 per cent of some 11.7 million votes cast nationally – “they lost in every state and also in 72 or 73 per cent of electorates, which shows how concentrated the republican vote was”.

Flint is still the national convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, and still is mounting the same argument in response to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s promise to revisit the republic issue with a plebiscite in the first term of a Labor government.

“They appear to be adopting the Eurocrat policy that the people have to keep on voting until they get it right,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“They are still looking at grafting some sort of politicians’ republic onto a constitutional monarchy.”

And if Labor and the likes of FitzSimons are going to dust off the same old model, Flint is happy to dust off the same old persuasive lines against a “politicians’ republic”, such as the claim that it would give Australia “the only republic in the world in which the prime minister could sack the president without notice, grounds or right of appeal”.

And while Flint is sure the Republic Movement, under the energetic and well-connected leadership of FitzSimons, is “flush with funds”, he remains confident in his arguments.

“They were flush with funds in the ’90s. We ran on the smell of an oily rag and still managed to campaign effectively,” he says.

He has grounds for optimism, too. A majority did not want a politicians’ republic in 1997 – polling at the time showed 70 per cent preferred a president directly elected by the populace. And that remains the case. Consistently over 20 years about two-thirds of people, give or take a few per cent, have opted for direct election of Australia’s head of state when presented a choice of models.

The other encouraging thing for Flint and his fellow monarchists is that a whole new generation of popular young royals has come along since 1999. This week, a Newspoll found support for a republic had fallen to the lowest level in 25 years. The survey of 1800 voters found “a huge drop in support for a republic since April, with just 40 per cent of Australians saying they are in favour of cutting ties with the British monarchy, down from 50 per cent seven months ago”.

The story in The Australian credited the recent visit to by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – Prince Harry, and his wife, former actress Meghan Markle.

The news was not as bad for the republican movement, however, as the headline number suggests, for a couple of reasons. First, the poll showed support for a republic was stronger among younger voters. More importantly, the reality of royal succession is that Harry is only sixth in line for the throne. Prince Charles is next when the Queen, now 92, expires, and he is not very popular at all. When he and his wife, Camilla, visited Australia for the Commonwealth Games in April, it did not inspire any bump in monarchist sentiment.

The poll then was perhaps more indicative of excitement about the young royals rather than entrenched community sentiment. Still, it is a worry for those committed to the republican cause. The young royals are exciting, and the minimalist model for reform is not.

That is why Michael Cooney, national director of the Australian Republic Movement, disagrees with FitzSimons and favours a directly elected head of state.

“The republic campaign has always been strong on making the patriotic argument that it’s wrong that the head of state’s not an Australian citizen,” he says.

“But that’s not enough. We need our system to be more democratic and for people to have a say. I think it’s also important that we make an argument that Australians want a symbol that’s larger, more dignifying and prestigious than the governor-generalship can be.

“We need a solution that is positively patriotic, citizen-based and inclusive. That means, for a start, a head of state that is chosen by citizens.”

Cooney sees it as a protection against “the rise of bad, race-based patriotism” manifested in the growth of ethnic nationalism and the “perpetual identity seminar about Lebanese kids and Somali kids et cetera settling in to our country and signing up to the values implicit in our citizenship”.

It is simply unacceptable, he says, that modern multicultural Australia remains bound to “an institution – not just a symbol like the monarchy – an institution that strongly says Englishness is privileged…”

And that brings us to the elephant in the constitutional room, the most historically excluded group in the country, Australia’s First Peoples.

Twenty years ago, when Australia previously seriously considered the republic question, the first Aboriginal member of federal parliament, Neville Bonner, made a passionate speech in opposition to a republic.

“I cannot see the change we need. I cannot see how it will help my people ... I cannot see how it will ensure that indigenous people have access to the same opportunities that other Australians enjoy,” he said.

The same concerns have been echoed through the years, even among those who support a republic in principle.

Megan Davis, professor of law and pro vice-chancellor Indigenous at the University of New South Wales, put it powerfully in a recent piece for The Monthly:

“We run the very real risk of a republic that renders the First Peoples invisible in the same way the constitutional monarchy did,” she wrote. “And when we object they will blithely say, ‘That was under the old system, this is the new Australia.’ And for many mob … the morning after a successful referendum nothing will change.”

This makes things complicated for a political party committed to a republic and meaningful constitutional and legal reforms to improve the circumstance of our First Peoples. But Matt Thistlethwaite, Labor’s assistant minister for an Australian head of state, insists both things can be done, if taken carefully.

Labor has committed to spending $160 million on a plebiscite at some point in its first term – if it wins the next election – asking the threshold question of whether Australians want an Australian head of state. Assuming the answer is yes, and Labor wins another election, there would then be a convention to decide on the model, and finally a referendum.

The long timeline on the republic, says Thistlethwaite, would allow Labor to address Indigenous concerns.

“We’ve said if we’re elected we will legislate to establish an Indigenous voice to parliament [as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart]. We’ll prove to the Australian public that it can work, and then work with the Indigenous community and the rest of the community to enshrine it in the constitution,” he says.

“Hopefully at some stage we will be successful in separate referenda on both those issues.”

Indigenous senator Pat Dodson – who, incidentally, was part of a delegation that took concerns about a republic to the Queen 20 years ago – is rather less vague about the timing of the two referendums.

It is “absolutely” the case, he tells The Saturday Paper, that the recognition issue has to come first.

“The first step is to deal with the question of recognition. Then from that position of a voice to the parliament, there will be further debates as we go forward about if we will change our constitutional status. And it won’t just be about having recognition in the constitution [but about] other matters raised [in the Uluru statement] about agreement making, treaty making, truth telling.”

Dodson acknowledges the complexities, and the high risk of failure if the public is not sufficiently prepared.

“That’s certainly the commitment of the Labor Party to us as First Nations people, and I don’t see that changing. I work well with my colleagues who have the republican responsibilities. And there’s no confusion between us.”

Dodson says he has made the priorities clear to Peter FitzSimons and “he has no problem with that”.

Still, it’s a long way from being a minimalist situation. Years of complicated work, negotiation and education lie ahead. Fending off those who still believe in the divine right of kings will be the least of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Republic disturbance". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.