Republican call to arms falls way short

July 16, 2013

Project Republic: Plans & Arguments for a New Australia
Edited by Benjamin T Jones & Mark Mckenna
Black Inc, 2013
251 pages, $29.99 (pb)

If the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) represents those who wish to make Australia a republic, yet the ARM sends congratulations to the Queen last year on her 60th year of rule from London, what hope is there for Australia becoming a royal-free zone?

Not much, must be the conclusion, after reading the ARM’s call-to-republican-arms book, Project Republic.

Republicanism has large public support (48% in favour versus 39% in a poll last year) despite the defeat of the 1999 referendum. Then, a monarchist prime minister and conservative republicans, including the ARM, opted for the referendum question on a republic to decide on the highly unpopular model of parliamentary appointment of a president, rather than direct election.

When republican “direct electionists” made the politically short-sighted error of advocating a “No” vote to a republic in the mistaken assumption that a direct-election model would be put at an imminent second referendum, the majority republican sentiment (75% at the time) was split. The referendum lost (45% voting Yes), ushering in a long and continuing period of “indifference and silence on the republic”.

To re-ignite republican fervour, Professor Mark McKenna and comedian Julian Morrow, in their contributions, adopt anti-monarchical irreverence. This is frowned upon by the ARM's national director David Morris, who frames republicanism as being about “patriotism” and not criticising the Queen or the other royal bludgers.

Obsequiousness towards the monarchy peppers the book, including the opening salvos by erstwhile political opponents, the Liberal’s Malcolm Turnbull (admiring the Queen for a “lifetime of service”) and Labor’s Wayne Swan (loving the Queen for her “unfailing record of public duty”).

Both also chummily agree that another word for republicanism is patriotism.

Quite how this lame royalty-reverence and limp nationalism will help the republican movement to “find a new language that will connect with the electorate” and fire the republican imagination is not immediately apparent.

McKenna notes that today’s republicans have shed their historical image as “radical, atheist, anti-British left-wingers hell-bent on revolution”. But, in thus “normalising the republican case”, they have “sanitised the argument to the point of blandness” ― narrowing the vision to “minimalist” constitutional change that replaces the Queen with an Australian head of state.

The reaction of many people to this minimalism, says Aboriginal law professor Larissa Behrendt, is “a collective yawn”. The republic must be about more than token symbolism, Behrendt says, and any constitutional revamp must embody values of democracy, multiculturalism, fairness and equality.

Decorative symbolism is only important for the substance it adorns, agrees Henry Reynolds, who grasps the political nettle. Monarchy “cements in place at the apex of the political system the principles of hereditary power and privilege which … are profoundly undemocratic”, Reynolds writes.

Biology should not decide who sits at the top of the power heap, he says. The res publica (“people’s space”) should.

Unfortunately, nearly all contributors to the book content themselves with waffly sentiment about an Australian head of state instilling some variant of nationalism (“national identity”, “national dignity” or “national pride”.)

Whether a hereditary, foreign royal or an elected Australian citizen occupies the post, the occupant should not have the present, coyly termed, “reserve powers” ― most notoriously the ability to sack an elected government, as happened in 1975.

Abolishing the British monarch as Australian head of state, remains an essential immediate democratic reform. Wiping out one undemocratic bastion of privilege should, however, be just the overture to tackling other fortresses of class wealth and power in Australia.

The politically tepid Australian Republican Movement and its book ― which often gets lost in arcane constitutional ponderings ― can help with the former but not, one despairs, very much, if any, with the latter.

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