As in international sport, so too in national flags: those nimble New Zealanders have moved ahead of their near neighbours once more. Just as the republic debate in Australia splutters, the New Zealanders have organised a national plebiscite on choosing a new flag to replace their traditional Union Jack and four-starred Southern Cross.
It has been 16 years since the attempt to forge an Australian republic failed. Interest in the project has significantly waned since then. A Roy Morgan poll of mid-2011 showed support for a republic had fallen by 20 points since the 1998 constitutional convention, down to 34%, while the monarchist position commanded a majority of 55%, up 17 points over those years. Other, more recent polls generally show little or no recovery in support.
There are many possible explanations for the loss of support for a republic. As memories of 1975 recede, concern about the danger of having an unaccountable governor-general has diminished. My American friends remain convinced it was their government that pulled off the Whitlam dismissal; they point to Malcolm Fraser’s late anti-Americanism as more proof that he knew the true source of his sudden promotion to the Lodge.
The governors-general since Sir John Kerr have all been excellent, across years of inconsistent prime ministerial performance, further assuaging Australian feelings on 1975.
A second factor is the multicultural one. As Australia becomes a wonderfully more mixed society, the imagined connection with a distant monarchy provides a touchstone for many immigrants and minorities seeking a point of identity. People fleeing oppressive regimes find the Windsors relatively benign. Every time someone suggests sharia law could be used in Australia, British law seems better by comparison.
There is also, I think, a compelling economic explanation. Over the past 16 years Australia has scooted along very nicely in sheer economic terms. Why fiddle with the existing political and constitutional arrangements? When Treasurer Joe Hockey declared himself in favour of reviving the push for a republic last week, the response was to demand he stick to his day job of running the economy.
And therein lies the rub. The best arguments that will work to awaken the republican sentiment in suburban Australia are going to be economic. Arguments about national maturity, political independence and having our own head of state have limited impact in the ‘burbs while things are going well (and while Queen Elizabeth II is alive). There must be an economic argument inside these philosophical arguments.
A declaration of our place in the world
Al Grassby, the colourful Whitlam minister for immigration, tried one. He used to say that the nation’s economic potential would be more fully realised if the creative energies of Australia’s minorities were set free, and that this could be better done inside a republic. It was a nice argument, but not persuasive enough for most Australians.
I want to suggest a refinement of this argument. A republic, I argue, would give us greater independence in a globalised world now criss-crossed more than ever with free trade agreements. We need what our friends in advertising would call “brand recognition”.
Much of our trade is with Asia. For many of our neighbours, our obsessions with the Queen and the Union Jack are anachronistic. What we see as judicially and constitutionally wise, they see as emblematic of the old White Australia.
Two changes are imminent. One is the death of the Queen, a popular figure in Australia. Another is the growing significance of the new economy – those creative, cultural and symbolic industries that will gradually replace Australia’s dependence on mining, agriculture and other old economy enterprises.
As the mining boom recedes, new green technologies will emerge. New ways of educating students from diverse backgrounds around the globe will prosper. New communication technologies will carry our stories to a global audience.
Striking out as a young republic would send a clear message to potential partners in these ventures about Australia’s new confidence in world affairs. A republic tells its own stories, speaks about its own history and charts its own potential futures.
Why a new flag matters
A step towards this new confidence would be a new national flag. Not all republicans want a new flag, but a debate about the style of flag we could adopt would be one way of thinking about this new national “brand” and what it might comprise.
Flags matter. Geoff Gallop, the outgoing head of Australia’s republican movement and a convention delegate back in 1998, is presently travelling in France. He writes that everywhere he goes he loves seeing the potent symbol of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité on all the French government buildings.
Our traditional flag sums up our present dilemma. The Union Jack part is rectilinear, signalling an invasion of the open space of the rest of the flag from the north-west (whence the British came). Yet the heartland of the flag positions us as aspiring to live freely under the Eureka flag.
That Union Jack in the corner of our flag does not help. When young Australians drape themselves in our flag at Anzac Day ceremonies, it is the Union Jack we see, not the stars that make up the Southern Cross. It is our British past, not our Antipodean future.
A new flag with greater prominence paid to whatever Antipodean symbols our cleverest designers can produce would be a useful first step in persuading our politicians that a future republican Australia is both possible and preferable to the monarchist present. The Canadians in 1965 and the New Zealanders today have shown it is possible.
In 1995, Robert Pascoe helped produce a CD-Rom entitled Australia: Reflections on a Republic.