The release of the Keating Cabinet papers was an opportunity for the Left to salivate over one of their politico-cultural icons. But I remember the Keating Era differently.
Keating gave Australia the recession we had to have. He presided over 17.5 per cent interest rates making home ownership an impossible dream. Far from being an economic reformer Keating’s victory in the 1993 election set back the cause of tax and industrial relations reform. And for all the laudatory press for the Working Nation program, Keating left office with 8.1 per cent unemployment and 34 per cent youth unemployment. He told uni students to ‘Go get a job’ but there were none. Keating left Australia $96 billion in debt and a $10.5 billion budget deficit which he sought to keep quiet about during the 1996 election.
Rather than addressing these issues, Keating seemed to have lost the plot and could be found in the middle of the day padding about in his pyjamas listening to Mahler – ‘Captain Wacky’ his own people called him.
This week we got a taste of the full Captain Wacky as Keating lambasted his successors for doing nothing about his pet project – the republic; championed as a cynical diversion from the economic problems he was unable to deal with.
But Keating himself was noticeably absent from the republic debate in 1999 largely because he was so personally unpopular that the republicans tried to hide him. So why would Keating try to revive this debate?
For most Australians the republic is a tenth order issue – evidence that politicians are not focussed on issues that matter to them. Of the top 20 most marginal seats in the federal parliament only two of them voted Yes in 1999.
In all but two of those seats the No vote was at or above the national average of 55 per cent. Voters in marginal seats overwhelmingly rejected the republic.
Politicians who bring it back risk an electoral backlash.
Like happy pants, grunge music and the Spice Girls the republic is a relic of the 1990s. The Zeitgeist has changed.
In the 1990s as Australia approached the Centenary of Federation we were consumed by a self-indulgent debate about our national identity. Today after rejecting the republic we are much more confident of who we are. We see this in support for Anzac Day and the popularity of the flag. In the 1990s superannuated diplomats told us we couldn’t do business in Asia unless we became a republic.
Today after rejecting the republic our position in Asia is secure with an historic Asian investment boom and nine free trade agreements. Internationally we founded the G20, pioneered the New Colombo Plan and hosted the best ever Olympic Games – all with Queen Elizabeth on our coins.
In the 1990s the Royal Family was in disarray. The Queen described 1992 as her annus horribilis as the failed marriages of three of her children were splashed across the worlds media.
Today Prince Charles is married to the woman he loves. Prince William married the girl of his dreams and has two cute children in Prince George and Princess Charlotte with another baby on the way. While Prince Harry’s marriage to the refreshing Meghan Markle reminds people anyone can be a princess.
Who would want to trade all of that in for some boring bureaucrat in a cardigan, some ambitious member of the spivocracy like Kyle Sandilands, Kevin Rudd or some ne’er-do-well from the PC thought police like Peter FitzSimons, Gillian Triggs or Yassmin Abdel-Magied as your president.
It is easy to say you want to get rid of the monarchy. It is harder to put something better in its place.
Republicans lost the last referendum because they spent ten years playing the xenophobia card, telling people to ‘Kick out the foreign Queen’, but almost no time drafting a Constitution and developing republican consensus.
Ironically, the differences between republicans are greater than the original dispute between monarchy and republic.
Since the 1999 referendum there has been no real attempt to bridge the divide between republicans and engage in serious constitutional drafting, debate and consensus building.
Republicans refuse to answer key questions:
– How should a president be appointed?
– How should he/she be removed?
– What do you do with the reserve powers?
– How do you deal with the Crown at the state level?
– How much is this all going to cost us?
– And to what benefit?
But why bother when they can tell us at high levels of generality that flowers will smell sweeter, beer will taste better and Australia will win the Rugby World Cup if only we become a republic!
Instead they want us to have a series of costly plebiscites to delegitimise the Constitution as a subsitute for the hard work of designing a model which still may not pass in a referendum.
Any plebiscite which delegitimises but does not amend the Constitution is very dangerous – what notice would an activist High Court take of such a move?
I believe we should stop trying to bring down our current system of government and instead celebrate what we have.
Australia is one of the six oldest continuous democracies in the world.
Our Constitution provides stability.
Queen Elizabeth has seen 14 Australian prime ministers and 12 US presidents.
Our political environment is becoming increasingly volatile. While Australians can’t say who the next PM will be, we know who the monarch will be for most of the next century.
The certainty of monarchy means that at the apex of our system of government there is one role that is not subject to political intrigue and factional infighting.
The Governor-General is not elected and has no mandate. He or she is only there to represent the Crown and conduct himself in accordance with the conventions and the traditions of the Crown.
Churchill said: ‘The Monarchy is important, not for the power it wields, but for the power it denies others.’
We are lucky to have the Queen; she has been an exemplary monarch. And as republican and Keating’s NSW Labor Right colleague Bob Carr has written of her successor ‘Charles would be a good monarch. My republicanism wobbles.’ So should everyone else’s.
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