Roll on the happy republic!
I've never written about the republic before, partly because of the perception that nothing would happen until the Queen dies and that didn't seem imminent back then. But Elizabeth will be 90 next year and we should start preparing now about what will happen when she dies.
I was prompted to write because of the knighthoods Mr Abbott re-introduced and the sheer fatuousness of giving a knighthood to Prince Phillip! A sycophantic knighthood for the husband of the British Queen and the British Union Jack on the corner of our flag must send ambivalent messages to our Asian neighbours about our real independence. New Zealand and Fiji are currently considering changing their flags to eliminate the Union Jack reminders of their colonial pasts.
The republic issue has been quiescent since the referendum held in the dying years of the last century returned a NO vote. There are a number of important arguments why a republic is essential but on that occasion debate became polarized about how the Head of State would be chosen. Prime Minister John Howard cleverly confused the core question of whether an Australian should be Head of State (about which there was unanimity) with the sub-issue of how the Head of State would be chosen, and the vote was lost on this detail.
The republican movement thought the Head of State should be chosen by a majority vote of a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament. In this way it was thought that the person chosen would be acceptable to both parties and above politics, and that they should be a person whose role should be the conscience of the nation in the way that Governor-General Sir William Deane acted as a beacon of humanistic values during the Howard years.
However there was a strong public view at the time that the Head of State should be chosen by popular vote. Many thought that this might open the way for a US type president who might become directly involved with day-to-day politics and this should be avoided as it could lead to conflict with the Parliament in the same way the US President is always at odds with the Congress.
The main argument for keeping the monarchy was largely an, 'if it's not broke don't fix it' one, combined with nostalgia by people with an English background. But a large number of Australians from non-English backgrounds find the idea of the monarchy alien, and republicans think that Australia can only start to become a truly independent country when it breaks this last colonial tie.
It's almost twenty years since that referendum was lost, and the death of the Queen will make the republic an issue again in an Australia with a different generation of young people and a bigger percentage of the population without any emotional ties to England. However despite these demographic changes and Charles' dismal persona, a Newspoll in April 2011 found that support for the republic was 10 percent lower than it was at the time of the 1999 referendum, and even more depressing, only 40% of those between thirty-four and eighteen backed a republic.
On the whole politicians of both parties, whatever their views on the issue, see the republic as a no-brainer, it cuts right across party politics so they only see aggravation in sticking their necks out for something that isn't a strong public issue; to them it all seems just too hard and even those in favour tend to take a 'one day' approach.
I see the Queen as a political figure, whereas increasingly for most people she's simply a celebrity like Oprah Winfrey. Even our current PM Abbott (who is opposed to change) once conceded in a rare moment of candour that,
'If Australians were starting from scratch, we would be unlikely to choose the monarch of another country represented here by a Governor-General appointed by the Prime Minister.'
Over the last few years monarchists have been confident that Prince William's popularity would ensure that the monarchy would be safe in Australia for another century. And support for the republic fell to the lowest level for 17 years after William's fairytale wedding in 2011 and his tour at the time of the Queensland floods. His youth and pleasant personality made his appeal into that of a celebrity.
The Queen's last visit was also in 2011 to open CHOGM, and she drew bigger crowds in Melbourne than Oprah. More popular than either of them however were the Danish Royal couple; Crown Princess Mary was even dubbed 'Australia's Own Royal'. She toured in 2005 with her husband Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark and they got higher ratings on television than the Oscars. What is it about Australians that they behave about royals the way teenagers do about pop stars?
Nothing shows our lack of vision more clearly than the way republicans have simply sat back since the referendum, waiting for the Queen to die and the monarchy to collapse. While a republic was never likely to happen that easily, the dramatic changes in the politics of Asia, the rise of China and India as great powers, and the big changes in Australia's population over the last ten tears, emphasize more than ever why we should become a republic.
Our future security depends on us being independent enough to be able to deal with China, our major trading partner as well as the United States when they both put conflicting demands on us! In my opinion this toughness will only come if we become a republic and are forced to grow up in a difficult world'; refer to my earlier article ' The US-China Syndrome.'
At the moment we have an over reliant attitude that the US will look after us, but all that has got us in the last 50 years is involvement in three stupid, unresolved wars. We have the mental attitudes of subjects who expect some one else to make the right decisions and look after them, rather than having to make the difficult decisions themselves. We have to grow up and become an independent country and can only do this if we shuck off the remnants of our colonial past and become a republic. All Donald Horne's strictures in his prophetic 50 year old 'Lucky Country' are unfortunately still valid.
The Queen's son Charles, next in the direct line of succession, has become a stuffy conservative in his sixties, and despite being educated at Geelong Grammar, doesn't have the same personal resonance with the Australian public as his mother.
He has been involved recently in a controversy in the UK after he wrote to the heads of a number of government departments more or less telling them what they should be doing. There was public shock that one of the Royals thought he could interfere with the democratic political process, the dear old Queen has never interfered with anything, and there were moves to make the letters public. But a court ruled it wasn't in the public interest to release the letters because they might undermine the public's sense of his impartiality once he became King. Nice logic!
My preference is to retain the name Commonwealth of Australia and probably to still call the Head of State the Governor General, the word President seems to have too many overtones, all within a republic that strengthens democracy and places the citizens at the centre of things with a legally protected Bill of Rights.
As distinct from the larger group of convicts who broke the law in some way, we should remember the struggles of the over 3600 convicts who were exiled here solely for their radical political views. It has been their basic attitudes about equity for all that have made this country what it is, with social innovations such as female suffrage, wage arbitration and a minimum living wage being introduced long before most other places. But those initiatives were ages ago and even the steps by Hawke and Keating to float the dollar and make us part of the globalised world were taken over thirty years ago.
And we should stop excusing all our shortcomings because we are a 'young' country. As Don Watson has pointed out we were already a young country when Tom Jefferson was sitting in the back blocks of Virginia writing the American Declaration of Independence about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet over two hundred years later we are still symbolically tied to the English Crown and psycho-logically and politically beholden to the United States!
It's curious that while most Brits largely seem to regard a republic here as inevitable, our government has let the issue lie in the face of general apathy! And while it's unwise to assume attitudes won't change with time, they will not change automatically so more than the normal political actions are required, some lateral thinking is required.
In view of his recent behaviour Charles might create the circumstances that will help shift public opinion by telling us colonials what to do, and the Australian electorate finally deciding that a republic is more desirable than arbitrary directives from an English King!
We should start right now agitating for another referendum for an Australian Republic 12 months after the Queen dies and the celebrity spectaculars of her funeral and Charles' coronation are over.
But that's not enough, of course. To win a referendum, the Republican movement has to learn that it will not be won by worthy philosophic and political arguments, as finding what would sell the idea of a republic to young people.
The polls hardly give cause for optimism without radical rethinking of the republican approach to a referendum. To be inspired that a different approach is possible, wide viewing of an Oscar-nominated Chilean film called NO is recommended.
The film dramatizes how in 1988, under international pressure to demonstrate his democratic legitimacy, General Pinochet agreed to a popular plebiscite where voters would vote "yes" to keep him or "no" to reject him. It was widely assumed Pinochet would win. In the weeks before the election, both sides were given 15 minutes a day to broadcast their arguments on TV.
A young advertising director was recruited to develop the message of the "no" faction and in a fascinating study the film shows the young director and his team tease out a message. They rejected the initial strategy proposed by the old left wing opponents of the General, moral appeals about Pinochet's background of killings and disappearances and torture, in favor of images of happy people having picnics in the park combined with the jingles of modern advertising, and to everyone's absolute surprise, particularly Pinochet, he lost.
In essence their approach had been to make it OK to vote NO. They appreciated that many old people were still afraid of Pinochet and his dreadful past and that the young generation were simply indifferent to the politics of the past. The young Chilean director realized that both sectors had to be given confidence that times really had changed and they could confidently vote No, and it worked!
The Royals are smart enough to justify the use the monarchy to boost British tourism as well as to promote themselves, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June 2012 was a celebrity 'spectacle' in the class of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. With Land of Hope and Glory on a barge in the Thames, the service in St Pauls with the camera hovering on angelic choirboys, and the great pop star concert in the Mall seen from a helicopter, it was PR spectacular for the Windsors. It's stuff the Brits do superbly well, and while it's got nothing do with our political future we should learn lessons from it.
Given the dismal polls, it's clear that we have to learn from the approach of the Chile-Pinochet experience and find the Australian-Republic equivalent of how to convince celebrity struck Australians that 'it's time' to abandon the monarchy.
Clever lateral thinking will be needed to counter the popular emotional appeal of the celebrity royals and sell the idea of a happy republic. The approach should be tailored in each State to ensure there are not only a majority of YES voters overall, but also majorities in a majority of states.
We shouldn't shrink from using modern techniques to win over young people to the republican cause; the end result is too important in the long run not to use every legitimate means possible. And we should start worrying about it sooner rather than later.
Roll on the happy republic!