Complacency reigns for republicanism
An awkward question faces those wishing to achieve an Australian republic: is it a goal too difficult, just too complicated to digest and resolve? Last time around, the project would never have gathered as much momentum as it did without the leadership of Paul Keating. He was a true believer who understood that things don’t just happen, they have to be made to happen. Without Keating, the republican movement would have been left with nothing more than a good idea. John Howard, who came to power in 1996, let the push for a republic run its course but under terms and conditions that limited its chances for success. No conspiracy there, just politics as one should expect. The republicans took a calculated risk and ploughed ahead, only to fall at the last hurdle with the 1999 referendum.
These events remind us that there is nothing inevitable about the Australian republic. Yes, it is true that history would appear to be on our side – the move to nationhood, one of our own as governor-general, an end to appeals to the Privy Council and the Australia Act all indicate a continuing move to true and meaningful independence. The argument for change is powerful but when it comes to a republican constitution it’s that much harder. It’s not just that a referendum will be required but also that it represents a “last stand” for the monarchists. As we saw, they will fight hard – and even harder if necessary – to defend their beliefs. They aren’t just “living in the past”, as we republicans like to say, they are powerful advocates and relentless campaigners for their cause.
To my mind, a significant hindrance to the republican cause is this belief that it will be “inevitable”. It leads to complacency about the efforts that will be required to achieve the republic. It leads republicans to think that it won’t be a matter of “politics” and that whatever model is put forward, and however it is developed, it will be acceptable to the voting public. This being said, at the heart of the republican vision is a powerful idea whose opposite leaves an empty taste in the mouths of many Australians like me. What’s the point of being in charge if we so radically reduce our options for the future? Isn’t it demeaning to think that when the Queen moves on the current system doesn’t give us a role in choosing her replacement? Do we really believe we couldn’t design a better system?
This is a culture war republicans can win but it needs a properly democratic strategy to back it up. It has now become clear, for example, that the monarchists have added the insights of celebrity politics to their armoury. They have marketed and personalised the royal family in a very clever and contemporary way. We have the Queen (“solid and dependable”), Prince Charles (“eccentric but interesting”) and Prince William (“and Kate and baby George”). In other words the matriarch, the slightly wayward son and the dashing grandson. Why wouldn’t we wish to be a part of all that? It’s fun and it’s something we can share with all others who have the Queen as their head of state.
But we’ve also seen that when monarchists here push their luck too far there is a push back from the general public. It happened with the negative response to Tony Abbott’s move to restore knights and dames to our system of honours and also to his decision to swear allegiance to “her majesty” and not just to “the Australian people”.
This takes us to the republicans, particularly those in the political class. Time and time again they are sent a clear message – it’s the people who “own” the constitution, whose views need to prevail if change is to be achieved and who don’t like it when the issue is treated as a political football. We need a republican means to determine a republican model for the future, and that means deliberative democracy, random selection to achieve representativeness and proper facilitation to ensure deliberation. Recent examples here and overseas confirm the practicality and effectiveness of this approach. In Ireland, for example, a government-appointed chairman, 66 randomly selected citizens and 33 legislators from across the political spectrum have been meeting to recommend on a range of specified matters. Among other things they have recommended amendments of the constitution to replace the offence of “blasphemy” with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred, to include an explicit provision on gender equality and to allow for same-sex marriage.
I’m confident a democratic deliberation along these lines and focused on the selection and powers of an Australian head of state is capable of doing two things: first, breaking the back of community resistance to top-down initiatives defined and controlled by the political class, and, second, producing an effective working model for an Australian republic.
The fact remains, however, that putting the republic on the agenda and initiating a process such as this is currently seen as a bridge too far. Some are opposed in principle, some worry about opening up the debate, and many just don’t care. It’s become a symbol for much that is Australian politics today – limited and limiting, distrustful and destructive, adversarial and alienating. This takes us into that “don’t care” province about which much has been said in recent times. However, “not caring” and “not wanting to care” are two different things. Ask people to care about the position of head of state in our constitution by formally involving them and they will – they want more engagement not less.
It is leadership to this end – what we quite properly call republican leadership – that is needed for the cause of the Australian republic to advance.
This piece is based on the 2014 John Curtin Memorial Lecture.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Complacency reigns". Subscribe here.