Waiting for Queen’s death soft option for republic
The republic debate has evolved since 1999. Traditional approaches to the question still have bite, including general arguments for or against monarchy/republic as well as the nationalist appeal of a republic in Australia and the cost to the public purse of constitutional change.
But the recent Senate hearings into Senator Bob Brown’s bill to hold a republic plebiscite at the time of the next election displayed a number of new developments.
The inevitable first new aspect of the debate has been about the meaning of the 1999 referendum result. An important thread of monarchist argument, often tried in letters to the editor, has been that the matter has been decided because the people have spoken. Republicans have had their chance and should abandon their cause.
This argument has no substance at all. The referendum was won by a coalition of monarchists and direct election republicans.
The No Committee was constructed in this way with the participation and even leadership of key republicans including Ted Mack, Phil Cleary and Clem Jones. The slogan was “Say No to this Republic”, not to a republic per se. Furthermore the most comprehensive study of the referendum demonstrates conclusively that republicans actually carried the No vote over the line. Indeed, even a majority of the 55% No voters declared themselves to be republicans.
Secondly, both the Australian Republican Movement and the Labor Party have switched from supporting a particular type of republic in 1999 to a plebiscite-driven process by which Australians themselves would choose which type of presidential selection process would be included in the referendum. This is a change from a top down to a bottom up approach. There would be two plebiscites, one asking a general Yes/No question (as in Bob Brown’s bill) and the second seeking a choice between types of republic such as parliamentary appointment or popular election.
The extent to which monarchists fear the plebiscite approach was displayed clearly at the Senate hearings. Their fear mongering includes the suggestion that such a move would open Australia to circumstances like the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and that a successful plebiscite would be a vote of no confidence in the Australian constitution. Their attacks have also included questioning the constitutional propriety and/or cost of the exercise and daring the ARM to declare its preferred model. The monarchists are running scared.
This method of ascertaining the public’s wishes, favoured by the government, the Greens and the ARM, is a most democratic and highly desirable approach, used around the world, and in Australia previously when choosing the new National Anthem to replace God Save the Queen.
There has also been a considerable hardening of the position of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy that the Governor-General is the Head of State of Australia. The burden of this argument has been provided by Sir David Smith, former Official Secretary to various Governors-General, but taken up enthusiastically by others in the ACM and its supporters (but not by the Monarchist League of Australia interestingly). In a recent speech, Senator Nick Minchin claimed that it was a “lie” to describe the Queen as the Australian Head of State.
This strategy followed a period when monarchists argued that head of state was not a constitutional term, therefore it was inappropriate to use it at all in the republican debate. The new position is an arcane argument that moves away from the more sensible position adopted by the No case in 1999 that the Queen is the official Head of State, while the Governor-General is a de facto Head of State carrying out the role as the Queen’s representative in Australia.
This new strategy has probably been a short-term winner for monarchists in muddying the waters about the central republican claim that only a republic will give Australia its own head of state. But it is a longer term dead end as it reduces the Queen to the much vaguer position of sovereign reigning over Australians. This vastly underestimates the continuing social and cultural role of the Queen and her successors in Australia. It will only accelerate the eventual disappearance of the British Queen from Australian life.
The most recent development in the debate, though it has a long history, is the suggestion that Australians should wait for the Queen to die before pursuing the issue further. Bob Hawke held this view. Now it is gaining more general currency. Gough Whitlam has apparently recently become an adherent. Public opinion polls suggest an electoral logic for this view, given that Prince Charles is far less popular than the Queen.
Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the Yes case in 1999, now holds this view too. This sincerely held belief enables him to reconcile for the time being his republican sentiments and his uncomfortable position within the Liberal Party which remains divided on the question. But no one who holds this position, including Turnbull, has fleshed out what it might mean in practice in Australia.
But the wait for the Queen to die approach is an ill-thought-out soft option that should be unacceptable public policy, certainly to republicans and even to monarchists.
Does it mean the end of public discussion about monarchy/republic until the death of the Queen, whenever that might occur?
Does it mean that the necessary public consultation, including a general plebiscite on the question, so that the nation should be in a state of readiness, should not proceed?
Australians should not have to wait for answers from our leaders. There is an obvious need for brave political leadership. The movement towards an Australian republic should proceed according to our own timetable.