Where to for an Australian republic?

14 years after the referendum for Australia to become a republic was defeated, where is the republican movement in Australia going? AAP/Alan Porritt

The following is based on a speech delivered at the launching of Labor for a Republic in Sydney last night.

Let me begin my address this evening with a seemingly obvious point – there is nothing inevitable about Australia becoming a republic. Yes, it is true that “history” would appear to be on our side – the move to nationhood at the end of the nineteenth century, one of our own as Governor-General, an end to appeals to the Privy Council and the Australia Act 1986 all indicate a continuing move to true and meaningful independence.

However, when it comes to the republic it’s going to be much harder. It’s not just that a referendum will be required but also that it represents a “last stand” for the monarchists. 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. All they have to do is get a majority overall or a majority in a majority of states to vote “no” in a referendum. Short of that all they need to do is convince politicians to steer clear of the issue, either in the short run (“out of respect the least we should do it wait for the Queen to abdicate or die”) or in the medium and long terms (“there are many more important issues for Australians that changing a system that works with a minimum of fuss”).

To my mind the greatest 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 “the people” will see “reason” in the face of “tradition”.

It also leads republicans to think that whatever model is put forward – and however it is developed – it will be acceptable to a public hungry for change. Rather, the truth is that the voters-even the republican ones- will need to be convinced that both process and model meet the standards they set when considering major changes of this sort. Someone wanting to be convinced still needs to be convinced.

Let me put it to you this way – vision without strategy is vulnerable and strategy without tactics is empty. Yes, the republican movement will need its visionaries who can define a better future, but so too will it need its strategists and tacticians to take us there.

At the heart of the vision is a truly independent Australia in control of all of its institutions and with one of its own as head-of-state. At the core of the strategy is an agreed process to achieve that goal, one that will involve the people at every step of the way. It will need to be theirs and not just ours, the true believers. On a day-to-day basis it also means not being distracted by issues that create disunity in our ranks and/or which are unnecessary to the propagation of our cause.

Let’s start with strategy and tactics first. It’s now become clear that the monarchists are hard at work “personalising” the Royal Family. We have the Queen (“solid and dependable”), Prince Charles (“eccentric but interesting”) and Prince William (“and Kate and child-to-be”). It’s celebrity politics being played at a high level of sophistication – 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 British Monarch as their Head-of-State.

The truth is we can – Australian republic or not – just as we do with Hollywood and all of our pop idols. It’s not an issue that requires our engagement as republicans. In fact what the monarchists want is to entice us into a debate where we can be framed as “kill-joys” and “party-poopers”. My advice – don’t take the bait, popular culture is what it is and is unlikely to change soon.

The case for an Australian Republic is just that, the case for an Australian Republic. It isn’t about what Britain may or may not choose and who or who not may be their head-of-state.

Nor should we focus all our energies on debates about this or that model. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be thinking about these issues but rather that, as a movement, we shouldn’t let those discussions dominate our work and divide us one from the other.

True, there are good republics, not so good republics and bad republics and the people will be interested in our views on these matters. However, if we think we can – as a movement – have an internal dialogue on this, come up with a model and then take it to the politicians for implementation, we will seriously weaken our chances of success.

This is not like most policy issues. It is a constitutional issue in which “process” really matters and if the electors believe new rules are being imposed on them from above they will be reluctant to embrace, and even hostile towards, change. That’s why the plebiscite should come first and if the vote is yes to a republic we then need to engage the people on what form it should take. At this last stage before the referendum proper involvement of the community and deliberation on the issues will be the keys.

At each point in the evolution the people, or to describe them more appropriately in this context, the sovereign people, should be in charge. Last time around the Constitutional Convention didn’t have the authority it needed to lock in its participants and win over the public to its conclusions. It wasn’t fully elected and those who were elected were so on the basis of a voluntary postal vote. It debated at great length the question of whether we should be a republic and gave too little attention to the form it should take. In some ways it was a case of too much “theory” and too little “practice” and, indeed, this was inevitable given the agenda set for it and the time available to do it.

When it came to the referendum in 1999 a component of the republican movement advocated a no vote, as did the Prime Minister. There was some degree of consensus across the parties but not enough. Note too that the model itself created space for populist-type campaigning that may have been avoided if more time and effort was put into the specifics.

So it was that a decade that commenced with high hopes for a republic ended with a morale-shattering defeat. All in all it was a tragedy. I say all of this without wanting to play the blame game so beloved by some. Those who campaigned hard for change had seen an opportunity open up and they did their best to make it happen. They should be proud of their efforts but at the same time reflective in defeat.

Is time to replace the Queen with an Australian head of state? EPA/Andy Rain

So too, however, might those republicans who campaigned for a no vote – whether minimalists or maximalists – reflect on their efforts. Those with strong beliefs about the “real republic” need to understand that no constitution will ever be a perfect reflection of their position. In any movement for change a degree of give-and-take will always be needed if there is to be progress.

I’m pleased to report that the Australian Republican Movement has been reflective. Our passion for change remains undiminished but we have an open mind on what sort of republic we might create, we have an agreed position on the need for a plebiscite to take us forward and we will work hard to build support within the community, recognising that for many from the post-baby boomer generations this isn’t and hasn’t been an issue high on their agenda.

That’s why we have situated ourselves within the broader debate about Australia and its future as a nation. This is important to all of us, but in particular to young people whose future it will be. It’s a future we should control – as best we can in the interconnected world in which we live – and surely that means ensuring all our institutions are relevant to us and owned by us. Our Constitution and the democratic institutions that have emerged from it have worked well but they aren’t perfect and I’m sure there are many like me who believe indigenous recognition, a charter or bill of rights and a better articulated federalism would add value to what we have.

So too, I can confidently say, there are many like me who believe that we should create a new institution that is an Australian Head-of-State; occupied by one of our own, selected by processes – and with powers and responsibilities – that are developed through a genuine engagement with the people. Should it happen I’m pretty confident that all of us will be surprised by the energy that will be released. I think we all know, don’t we, even the conservatives amongst us, that there is more than a smidgeon of deference - some might say internalised colonialism - involved in our continuing links with the British Crown. Australia should and could do better than that.

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