Bill Shorten has committed to holding a referendum for a republic within his first term if he becomes Australia’s thirty-first prime minister next. With an alliance of activist groups, and the rich (and old) leftie resources of the Australian Republican Movement, ‘project republic’ will no doubt be a well-organised campaign to fundamentally restructure Australia.
Given our age of ‘disruptive politics’, one must not mistake royal celebrity enthusiasm with an endorsement for our current system – a framework so easily taken for granted but that has served us so well.
As an individual proud of our heritage and wanting to see our current system unchanged, below are my brief responses to ARM claims (available on their website). National debates like this – such as the 1999 referendum – are inevitably divisive. Ultimately, however, regardless of what side you’re on, a promising outcome next year may offer a timely and reflective debate on what has made our country a success.
Republican claim: Our head of state should live here and be proud to be Australian. Anyone who holds public office in Australia should be an Australian citizen with allegiance to Australia.
Peter Cosgrove is an Australian who lives at Government House in Canberra. The previous Governor-General – Quentin Bryce – is a proud Australian who also lived there. In fact, every Governor-General since 1965 has been an Australian.
Before this, the office was largely held by earls, viscounts and barons – a practice unthinkable today. If one goes back to the First Fleet – 1788 – the position of governor was held by a string of distinguished and highly-cosmopolitan naval men – perhaps more well-travelled than most Australians today. Toward the end of the nineteenth-century the position was expected to support itself so, according to the late Richard McGarvie, “Aristocracy and affluence became necessary conditions of office.”
Today, an Australian Governor-General is a great example of one of the many ways Australia has customised a British institution – filled by only a British citizen – and made it into our own. I find great examples even in some of our State Governors, such as Sir Douglas Nicholls in South Australia (serving from 1976-1977) or that states current Governor Hieu Van Le.
Republican claim: An Australian head of state would better represent the things we stand for – fairness, equality, merit. Our head of state should not be chosen because of who their mother or father is or where they were born.
Anyone who looks at Australia can’t go past the fact that hereditary privilege has played very little part in our formal history. Life on the frontier – and it was certainly not an easy life – meant it was impossible to impose a stuffy class structure on colonial or Australian society. It was tried but shut down by people liked Daniel Daniehy and many others, who railed against a House of Lords forming in the colonies.
Terms like ‘merit’ and ‘equality’ don’t quite go in the same sentence, while ‘fairness’ is not a far leap to intervening concepts like ‘social justice’. Standing up for these values, while honourable, is a task better contested through politics and not so much by the Governor-General intruding into issues of ‘equality’.
Instead, I much prefer our Governor-General standing up for the values cited by prime minister Billy Hughes when he spoke of the British Empire. “The Australian people see in all that our gracious empire stands for,” he said, “the deathless spirit of liberty, of progress, that distinguishes it from other Empires, ancient and modern.” I would much prefer our Governor-General represent these things over picking winners and losers.
Republican claim: Australia’s head of state should be chosen by Australians. It’s wrong that Australians cannot become our head of state and that we have no say in who does.
In 2018 it is a brave move asking for more and not fewer politicians. It doesn’t take being a prime minister to know that electing someone to any position – not even in politics – inevitably makes them ‘political’. This is especially so when they’re called upon to be an intervening figure ensuring ‘fairness, equality and merit’.
Republicans also have the added difficulty of choosing what model of republic they think best. Some want to simply get parliament to endorse the Governor-General, while others want a highly select Constitutional Council to deliberate and then go to parliament. This is exchanging a system that has served us well with an intensely bureaucratic and unnecessary procedure.
Republican claim: Australian should be fully independent. It’s not right for Australia’s democracy to be subject to a foreign monarch.
Like most Australians, to hear lawyers argue when our true legal independence from Britain took place is not exactly riveting stuff.
But here one will find no shortage of examples from our best legal minds. For example, Bob Hawke’s 1988 Constitutional Commission found full independence took place sometime between 1926 and World War Two. Others argue it was in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster. Some will say even earlier.
However, whatever the exact date, legal expertise is not needed to observe we have become our own independent nation. An example of this I am fond of is from a 1942 booklet given to the two million American Servicemen deployed to Australia during wartime. “A member of the British Commonwealth, Australia is a British dominion, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations – but that doesn’t mean Britain owns or rules Australia,” the pocketbook reads (italics mine). “The Australians govern themselves, as a separate nation, sending their own diplomatic representatives overseas and managing their own relations with foreign nations. At the same time, there are certain traditional ties with Great Britain which the Australians value.”
Royal visits are a great example of this, broadcasting us as a nation with strong traditional ties but managing our affairs with complete independence. Indeed, it is a great show of heritage and adaptability over time.
Perhaps the biggest folly of the republican movement is to say we are a great nation but not explain why. “Australia is one of the world’s most successful countries,” the ARM claims. “We are independent, diverse and proud of our achievements.” Indeed, there is no mention that we have reached such heights while also being a constitutional monarchy and sustaining our attachment to the crown. To dispose of this would unravel and not enhance our national success.
Sean Jacobs is a member of the Australian Monarchist League and author of Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian.
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