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An Australian Republic is Back on the Cards

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In England there’s a taxpayer-funded celebrity family welcoming a new addition to their brood. In Queensland a breathless Premier speaks to journalists of the government’s deliberations as to how to celebrate. This important matter will be discussed at Cabinet; the Attorney-General, says the Premier, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Royal family, and will have plenty of ideas.

In Queensland, we believe anyone can succeed, given a “fair go”. It would not occur to most of us Queenslanders that we might have a “station” in life; still less, that we ought not try to rise above it. Nowadays we wouldn’t think it necessary to utter Lawson’s words, in a warning to the old, rich ruling class, because the sentiment is assumed: “Hear us dare to say that Heaven gave us equal rights with you, dare to say the world was given unto all and not the few.” But in England, there is nobility, and there are commoners. When a commoner – even one from a wealthy family – marries a prince, it is notable.

The monarchy signifies entitlement through birth; stratified society; the absence of accountability through the ballot box; selection based on entrenched power and wealth, rather than election after submitting oneself to one’s constituency for assessment. Individual royals may be good people, honourable; but their personal character cannot overcome the fact that the meanings of monarchy are inconsistent with modern Australian society.

Are we, or do we aspire to be, pluralistic, multicultural, egalitarian? If so how can we cling a crown constituted by a set of privileged, homogenous, unelected, related rulers?

An unelected crown with birth-based succession is fundamentally inconsistent with our ostensible values of democracy, opportunity and egalitarianism, and it’s an inconsistency that lies at the heart of our public life.

There’s a reason why conservatives like to stamp the monarchy onto our public institutions. It’s an assertion of the dominance of conservatism, and for that matter privilege and wealth, at the expense of labour. In Queensland our newly-minted conservative government replaced our government logo with our coat of arms. It named the new court complex after Queen Elizabeth II. Senior barristers have been offered a ‘choice’ to call themselves ‘Queen’s counsel’. All but three took up the offer. A surge of monarchist sentiment? No. A pragmatic financial decision in recognition that the old order is back in power.

We have a Queen. The Queen’s viceroy, the Governor-General, is appointed, for all intents and purposes, by the elected government of the day, but her authority derives from the crown.

We can imagine a better arrangement for our nation. We can imagine a nation where the head of state does not receive their authority from a foreign sovereign. We can imagine a nation in which everyone can aspire to be the head of state. We can imagine a nation in which inheritance and privilege are not the sole determinants of power.

Labor wants to recognise the first nations in the Australian constitution. Labor’s federal platform has now for some years called for that recognition. Once included the recognition will sit in a document that has its force not because of the will of the people of our nation, but because of a proclamation issued by the sovereign of the United Kingdom. That is an unfortunate juxtaposition.

Why not have a constitution that derives its authority from the will of the people, acknowledges British democratic traditions, recognises a settlement between first nations and more recent arrivals, and has continued legitimacy because it is a national expression of the fellow-feeling between all those who call Australia home?

The arguments against tend to be arguments based on fear: fear of diminution of our Australian identity; fear that our democracy would be less stable without the crown; fear of unnecessary change; fear of waste.

We do not need to be afraid.

We will not lose our national identity, but build upon it. Republicanism does not necessitate nationalism. Republicans want an Australian head of state not out of a misguided view that Australians are inherently superior to others, but because of the representative, democratic, accountable nature of an office that was elected by and from the Australian people. Our national identity of being “British to the bootstraps” is already a relic of the past. Our national military history is hand-in-glove British but we think of those who fought as Australian, not British, soldiers. Severing formal ties with our British sovereign, while continuing to acknowledge our past, would make us more, not less, Australian.

We will not lose our stability. Our nation is capable of continuing as a stable, modern, pluralistic democracy without the crown. We received the Westminster system but it is not perfect – as reflecting on 1975 reminds us – and it is not the whole length and breadth of Australian public life. We were early suffragists. We were early unionists. That original Australian institution, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, showed our preference for stability and our capacity to create it. It is within our talents to bring into existence an Australian republic that has the best features of an Australian constitutional monarchy.

Our Republic is long overdue. And there’s a move on. When Wayne Swan and Malcolm Turnbull put the Republic back on the nation’s agenda in June, they did so on the back of a new collection of essays on the topic from leading authors and commentators, Project Republic: Plans and Arguments For a New Australia. Daniel White and Senators Singh and Thistlewaite have established Labor for an Australian Republic, to call on Labor to work towards an Australian Republic. Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are beginning to seem very isolated; Kevin Rudd is an avowed republican, saying as much a few hours before meeting the Queen for the first time. Labor’s platform is unequivocal:

“Labor believes that modernising our Constitution also entails a transition to an Australian Republic, with an Australian Head of State, who can fully represent our traditions, values and aspirations as a nation.”

Monarchists may thank John Howard for the referendum defeat in 1999, but that defeat was not the final word on the subject. It is only a matter of time before Australians renew our democracy by consigning hereditary political privilege to the past.

About Terri Butler

Terri Butler

Terri Butler is the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

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