John Warhust, prominent spokesbeing for the Australian Republican Movement, was deeply grateful for the royal wedding in April. ‘The marriage of Prince William and Miss Middleton has given the ARM the first decent whiff of oxygen it’s had in years,’ he explained. ‘It’s not easy to maintain your enthusiasm and call yourself a “movement” when the entire membership can fit comfortably inside the packing carton for a washing machine. I don’t mind telling you, boys and girls, this is the first time in months I’ve discussed an Australian republic with anyone except Carruthers my stuffed dingo.’ Okay, so that’s not what Professor Warhust said to the National Schools Constitutional Convention. But he’d do himself a favour if he borrowed that line about the stuffed dingo. It would give his next audience something they haven’t heard before.
Today is the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. There will be some celebrating here in Australia too, and I’d not be surprised if Warhurst or some other ARM bugle gets a snippet of air time. Their message will be familiar and painfully predictable: the Great South Land should stand on its own two feet, begin acting like a mature nation, and cut the apron strings that tie it to Buckingham Palace. I should have unlimited wealth and a riverside mansion, too. No, really, I should. A household staff of Gina Elise clones would make my joy complete. Is this likely? Probably not. Against the near-total indifference of the Australian citizenry to calls for a republic, however, my chances of realising my desire are considerably better than John Warhurst’s for his.
On the day that the US marks its break with the English monarchy, I will try to explain why we in the Antipodes have not followed down that path.
P the First: the Political System.
In 1999 the ARM and their associates seriously understated the changes required to bring about the Australian republic. They concentrated almost exclusively on the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in Canberra. The minimalist republic, they argued, would require only small changes to our Constitution: a quick search and replace and bingo! Goodbye monarch, hello president. Yet all Australian states still maintain their State Governors. The office of State Governor was established during the 1800s, when each state was a separate colony – predating that of the Governor-General, which was not established until Federation.
During the lead-up to the referendum the role of the State Governors was, so far as I recall, completely overlooked. There was a great deal of “It’ll be all right on the night” in the pro-republican attitude, an air of give us what we want and everything will fall into place. Their prime objective was doing away with the vice-regal appointment in Canberra. The republicans tried to goad support by insisting that the status quo was both outdated and, worse, a source of amusement abroad. The rest of the world couldn’t take Australia seriously until it had an independent head of state. So the citizens were told, and it came across like a lecture from our betters. But the republicans would have created a bastard hybrid that could only have provoked greater mirth abroad. A President in Canberra with state Governors still being approved in London: shortsighted, much?
Officially both our local left-wing parties support a republic, and certainly Labor had a chance to introduce the necessary changes in 2008. Holding power in Canberra and wall to wall from Perth to Sydney, they could have abolished the vice-regal connections at state level and laid the foundations for a wombat republic. That window of opportunity is now firmly closed. It won’t open again in the foreseeable future – which may be more to the liking of the left than they care to admit. In Kingdom of the Wicked Anthony Burgess described the Gospel-era Zealots as subject to “impotent disaffection – the only condition in which they were truly happy”. That state of mind is still common two thousand years later.
P the Second: the Pro-republicans.
AKA The Usual Suspects. Union leaders, practitioners of assorted arts, leftwing politicians (almost but not completely congruent with the first category) and academics, plus the inevitable supporters of any fashionable cause. The self-assured air of the republican faction was underscored in 1999 by a tangible impatience. Really, Australia, the transition to a republic is inevitable. Its time has come. Can we not just get it over and done with? The impending Sydney Olympics lent the cause convenient urgency. To begin the new millennium with the greatest sporting event and step forward as a fully mature independent state! No sentient Australian could want more! A majority of sentient Australians chose to want less. Brutally deaf to the siren song of a republic they voted No, and the Games went on undamaged to deliver no more than the usual embarrassments of squander and exploitation.
A decade on and the majority remain comfortable with the present arrangement. And republican cheerleaders cannot fail to be irked at being cast deeper into irrelevance by a government of their own inclination. A Prime Minister whose incompetence verges on the unholy will push less pressing issues well into the shade. Indeed, given the reverse-Midas effect that manifests with her every utterance, republicans may well whisper prayers in the dead of night, pleading to whatever gods they pluck at that the r-word be not poisoned by the touch of Jooolya’s lips.
An Australian republic is a matter for the longer term. The hard fact is that the populace are not anxious for change. This will be unpalatable, and likely to bruise many a republican’s ego. To be counted among history’s notables, to have made change happen in one’s own lifetime – this is a potent temptation to vanity. Any republican who hopes/dreams/fantasises about being a player from start to finish should prepare at worst for disillusionment, and at best for a long and frequently interrupted journey.
P the Third: The People.
Australians take pride in hamstringing the governments they elect. We have rarely given any political party control in both houses of parliament at either state or federal level. The debate over the republic has not been immune from this tendency to snatch back what we give. Shocking disclosure: fundamentally, I supported the position of the republican movement at the referendum. A head of state not elected but approved by a joint sitting of Parliament would be in my view the most satisfactory procedure. Nevertheless, in 1999 I voted No. I didn’t care for the people who supported the republic – and I inferred from their rhetoric that they, given the chance, would care even less for me. I threw my lot in with the No cohort but I doubt we had much in common.
Australians then and since have made it clear that a non-elected president does not appeal: such a position, they fear, would become the trophy of the Canberra Clique. A faux crown to be passed around between the members. We don’t want a politician for president, the citizens cry. We will elect our own head of state. That is our desire. So it may be. But there is a name for those who stand – and, inevitably, campaign – for public office. P… O… L…
The republicans have yet to find a way around that roadblock, and there is no present prospect of them doing so. The rest of the country will cheerfully leave them to their struggle and maintain their affection for the royals; the newlyweds make a handsome couple, after all, and most of their family seem nice enough people from here on the opposite side of the world. A key factor in the love of colonials for sovereign may be the distance between them. Like cousins who irregularly share holidays, we’re not close enough for long enough to learn what we dislike about each other. Perhaps, instead of a president, we should snaffle up a monarch we can call our own.