Is a debate on the republic necessary?

February 5, 2016

Do we need to debate whether Australia should become a republic?

After all, it is not just parties that say Australian society should be transformed (Socialist Alliance) or reformed (the Greens) that want a republic. The national leaders of the major capitalist political parties and all the state premiers agree on ending the situation where a British monarch is Australia's head of state.

I suspect this is in line with what most Australians think: who gave birth to you should not make you the head of state, even nominally. So why is there an argument about this?

The current crop of political leaders want a republic to “make Australia a country where at least one qualification to be head of state is that you're an Australian citizen” — in Labor leader Bill Shorten's words. This is “nationalist” republicanism: their issue is national identity, not substantive change to our political system. We could just call it conservative republicanism, really.

In 1999 the Australian Republican Movement, then headed by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, took majority support for a republic, succeeded in getting a referendum that proposed Australia have a president who would be elected by a two-thirds vote in parliament … and lost.

Today Turnbull is once bitten, twice shy. He argues a republic referendum would most likely succeed after the Queen's reign ends, in the apparent belief that the putative Charles III is less than appealing.

But royal families have worked out that since they cannot avoid looking like they are born to rule, they had better get an education, marry commoners like the rest of us and try to look like useful people, such as grandmothers, charity workers and conservationists, or even a helicopter rescue pilot. Sometimes, governors-general and state governors, such as Quentin Bryce, Marie Bashir and David de Kretser, are cut from similar cloth.

This is why the monarchist minority are right in a sense and therefore difficult to budge. Identity is not always reality. Australians really do run the country — just don't mention it is the 1%, not the rest of us.

On that basis, the Windsors and their Australian vice-regal counterparts possibly do seem more attractive as figureheads than the major parties' political hacks, the occasional merchant banker or whoever else we imagine they would choose as a “political president”.

The thing is, while the political class is not constitutionally born to rule, they still think they should rule. From their point of view, a republic is about what is best for the “common” good — that is, for them and the rest of the 1%.

Partly that means removing from the constitution the remaining — faint — possibility that the foreign head of state could contradict their interests for national reasons. Partly, they want to continue to convince the rest of us to allow them to “live the life”.

But what could a republic mean for us? Perhaps we would like:

• The political system to better reflect who we are, a multicultural society — if not yet one that has tackled its own racism. Either way, a British monarch as nominal head of state does not help.

• Greater human rights and a more egalitarian society. Because serious republicanism questions any claim about a right to rule, it brings these to mind even if it has not brought them about.

• More of a real say in our lives, which cannot happen if the way the political system is organised prevents it. This is what conservative republicans most feared in 1999: not that a directly elected president might become an alternative site of political power, because governors-general are that already — as the sacking the Whitlam government in 1975 showed — but that he or she might be more susceptible to popular pressure than democracy as it is now. At the time, many people decided that if there would not be a directly-elected president, they would rather have none.

You cannot, in fact, separate the question of a republic from how democracy works — at least, not if you are concerned about what serves the interests of the vast majority of people, not only the tiny, wealthy, minority.

Should we take their republic now, but also fight on to win the rights and the say in our lives that we want? If we can come together for that, we will surely win a republic, one way or another.

More importantly, we can win a democracy that will matter. Politics would be done altogether differently, because it would be built up by us, on the basis of our popular participation through engaging in the struggles for change from the everyday to the world-transforming.

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