Ho-hum for the republic
Ignoring calls from Prime Minister Paul Keating for an unemotional and non-inflammatory debate on the prospects for a republic as the findings of the government's Republic Advisory Committee were handing down on October 5, some leading conservatives displayed a passion shared by few other Australians.
National Party Senator Bill O'Chee warned there would be blood in the streets. Shades of the Eureka Stockade!
Former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen reminisced that as a lad, "I could recite the table of the kings of England ... I could do nothing with a table of Australian prime ministers." A table of prime ministers would indeed be enough to put anyone off their dinner. But doesn't Elizabeth Windsor rate even a mention at Sir Zelman's table just because she's the wrong sex?
But aside from Neanderthal royalists, there was not much interest in the report. This is because the committee was limited to considering Keating's "minimalist" position of changing little but the name of the head of state.
So the only surprise in the committee's major finding, after some four months' deliberation and many thousands of dollars — that "a republic is achievable without threatening Australia's cherished democratic traditions" — was the cheerful assumption that such traditions do in fact survive.
For the most part, the committee occupied its time with questions such as whether a republican head of state should pay tax. A thorny problem indeed: if the head of state has to pay, people might expect parliamentarians, or even entrepreneurs, to do so too.
The committee did suggest that the position should be more "egalitarian" than the current governor-general's office, which it considered too closely associated with royal pomp. It even questioned the need for extensive domestic staff, two official residences and the associated red carpet treatment. Sadly, it stopped short of recommending putting him or her in a Housing Commission flat in western Sydney.
The committee's finding could leave one thinking that the republic "debate" equals the choice of the future head of state and nothing more — which is what Keating wants us to think.
But a republic worth bothering about needs to include, at the very least, a Bill of Rights guaranteeing fundamental political and social rights, such as the right to a job, to health care, housing and education. It needs to provide means to redress the scandalous income inequalities that have intensified over the past decade. It needs to put an end to the "royal" treatment of giant companies, which are allowed to despoil natural resources that should belong to all of us, including future generations.
In 1983, the Labor Party campaigned on a promise of three r's: "reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction". Rather than deliver on the promise, a decade later the government substitutes for them a fourth "r": republic. That's a pledge by the Labor government to continue sacrificing the wages, social welfare and environment of the many for the benefit of big business. No wonder there's no excitement about Keating's republic.