Vive la republique! Why Nicola Roxon’s push for constitutional reform needs supporters

The new Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has made her intention clear to reignite the debate on Australia becoming a republic. On taking up the new position, she took the opportunity to stake out her position…

If the republic is going to be put back on the political agenda in 2012, more will need to step up and talk more about the issue publicly. Flickr/GregTheBusker

The new Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has made her intention clear to reignite the debate on Australia becoming a republic. On taking up the new position, she took the opportunity to stake out her position in stronger terms than any one else in the Labor government, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

But republicans should resist the temptation to be prematurely elated by this statement. It’s good to have friends in high places but more high-profile republicans need to step forward in order to get the issue back on the agenda.

Reform or rhetoric?

Roxon sounded like a reformer when putting her personal position. On taking up the new role she described herself as “a strong advocate of a republic” and she was “looking for the right opportunity to re-invigorate that debate.” Adding that the time hadn’t come yet but it could come during her tenure.

The new Attorney-General has a republican pedigree and was a good friend of republicans during an earlier stint as Shadow Attorney-General. During the 2004 federal election campaign, she took serious steps to call together an informal set of advisers, including people from the Australian Republican Movement to advise the government on what would be needed for a republican referendum.

Republican champions

The republican campaign needs new momentum at the moment, not least because of poor public opinion polls in a year that has featured a royal wedding and a royal visit.

One way for such momentum to be generated is for champions of the republic to come forward to put their shoulder behind the cause. By champions, I mean prominent individuals who not only believe in the cause but are willing to stand up and be involved.

Roxon is a possible champion. To become one in a fully-fledged way she now needs to follow up these passing remarks with some considered speeches and actions. She might be encouraged to do so if she realises that she is not alone.

In fact, the past few weeks have seen other equivalent figures step forward, including outgoing CEO of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout and former diplomat and senior public servant, Philip Flood.

Ridout recently went out of her way to close her recent National Press Club address with a personal plea for recognition that a republic, with an Australian Head of State, was crucial for Australian trade opportunities and in the best interests of a modern Australia. In her view Australia will not have its own brand until we allow ourselves to produce our own head of state.

Flood, who was an Australian diplomat to London at the time of the 1999 republic referendum, took the opportunity in his recent diplomatic memoirs, Dancing with Warriors, to express his view that the British monarchy is no longer compatible with Australia’s sense of national identity.

According to Flood, such a change is a natural outcome of the social, economic and political changes Australia has already made in the century or so since federation.

More action needed

Isolated voices like these, no matter how prominent, cannot generate fresh momentum on their own. What is needed now is a new dynamic in which prominent individuals like Roxon, Ridout and Flood, work together in the political, private and public sectors to put the republic back high on the agenda of the nation.

They need to not just recognise the force of each other’s statements, but also to take comfort and inspiration from them. They each need to become champions within their sectors and to build networks across them.

Champions can help make it happen, but to do so, as in any campaign, they must be the tip of an iceberg. Other political, business and public sector leaders must take the opportunity to join them. Success will need other ingredients, including a stronger Australian Republican Movement, but the rise of more committed champions is a good first step.