Australia's connection with the British Crown is an artefact of history; there is a clear majority for a republic. But the referendum has revealed the growing gulf between the elite and ordinary Australiaby Nicolas Rothwell / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
In one of those strange half-echoes that resound through Australian history, the prime minister, John Howard, a conservative populist and staunch supporter of retaining the British monarch as his nation’s head of state, has chosen 6th November, the day after Guy Fawkes’ night, as the date for the long-awaited referendum on Australia’s constitutional future. Republic or no? That would seem to be the question, but as always in this country’s placid-surfaced public life, further unasked questions glint in the background.
As the campaign reaches its low-key climax, it appears that the referendum has yet to engage the passions. Other events have proved more captivating: the Sydney 2000 Olympics; the 100th anniversary of federation-the formal attainment of independence-on the first day of 2001; and, most immediately, the East Timor intervention. Opinion polls show one third of voters still undecided as to whether they should opt for a president or remain with the Crown, that surprisingly serviceable abstraction at the apex of Australian life. Do you agree, the referendum will ask them, to an Act “to alter the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and governor-general being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth parliament”-and there is the rub. Ever since the constitutional convention held last year in Canberra, it has been evident that the republican movement’s preferred model for selecting a president-a vote by the federal parliament-is unpopular. Australians have always had a vivid, well-advertised disrespect for authority. To this has now been added a mistrust, even a dislike, of their political class unmatched anywhere in the English-speaking world. There is a widespread view that if Queen Elizabeth II is to be replaced, then the new figurehead should be chosen by direct popular election: “Let the people decide.” On the face of it, it is a difficult argument for the “mainstream” republicans to oppose, especially when the objection to the constitutional monarchy is that the continuing, if purely formal, role of the Crown in Australian life is anachronistic and undemocratic.
High sensitivities surround the question of the role and ultimate authority of the head of state-largely because of the scars left by the constitutional crisis of 1975, when the Queen’s governor-general, John Kerr, removed the reformist Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, from office. This gave birth to the present republican movement, and its ghost lies behind much of the anguished debate over constitutional powers. Not only, then, is the referendum an overt choice between Crown and president; it is a skirmish in a greater contest: what kind of president? Serving at whose pleasure? Beyond even these concerns, the campaign is part of a wider argument to shape Australia’s trajectory. Fluid, amorphous, low-key in culture and national identity, Australia today is under the impress of competing visions-rival currents that discreetly seek to engineer its future. One, which you might label the “sophisticated” model, is the product of the elites of Sydney and Melbourne. This camp wants to escape the confining shackles of the past and move away from the chafing legacy of Britishness. It seeks a compact of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people; dreams of greater economic integration with Asia (a dream which Indonesian events have damaged but not destroyed); and advocates a multicultural society. For much of the past decade its main goal has been the achievement of a republic by the anniversary of federation. The countervailing “populist” perspective is harder to define, partly because it is less articulate. But in essence, it stands for all of the above, only much less so. It approves reform, and change, but in small doses. Its advocates are not profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo; in fact, they rather like it. This tendency is regionalist or suburban in emphasis; and distinctly middle-brow. This divide-instinctual, profound and determined by vague inclinations and chains of attitudes-is the defining fault-line in contemporary Australia. It is also the fissure against which the republican question is posed.
Those in favour of the republican camp are broadly from the progressive side of public life, while those in favour of the present set-up are conservative-but this is not an absolute rule. Some members of the centre-right governing coalition are tactical republicans, and some are republicans by conviction. On the other hand, some firebrands of the left so dislike the republic model on offer that they would prefer to see it defeated. Here is how the spectrum breaks down.
The dominant force for change is the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), which has succeeded in ensuring that its model-a president appointed by parliament-will be the option presented to the public in November. The ARM is an establishment group. Its dynamo, Malcolm Turnbull, is the Sydney lawyer who rose to prominence more than a decade ago, when he defeated the British government’s attempt to stop Australian publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. Turnbull subsequently became a successful merchant banker and made a well-publicised fortune from his business dealings. His drive and determination were the weapons of the ARM’s infancy; his abrasive, lesson-giving manner is now one of its main liabilities. At his side is an endless parade of media darlings: business luminaries such as Janet Holmes ? Court or durable public figures such as the stylish former premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran. Most Labor politicians, and many “wets” from the Liberal party which dominates the governing coalition, favour the ARM model. A different strand is represented by a group of more impatient republicans, including Pat O’Shane, the country’s best-known Aboriginal magistrate. This group supports the ARM model but only as the best means of making progress towards the ultimate goal of a directly elected head of state. Also in the “yes” camp, but for precisely opposite reasons, are the Conservatives for an Australian Head of State, led by the former director of the Liberal party, Andrew Robb. With their strong business support, these republican conservatives complement the ARM’s somewhat modish, inner-city image. They argue that direct election of a president would be so destabilising a change that it is best forestalled by voting for the minimalist alternative.
This is a broad, impressive “yes” coalition, backed by an array of writers, rock stars, sports heroes and media personalities. What stands against it? The pro-status quo group, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), is led by a moderately persuasive young teacher, Kerry Jones, and can muster a roll-call of old, mostly conservative politicians. Perhaps the only member with real weight is the former Labor opposition leader and former governor-general, Bill Hayden, whose free-thinking ways have seen him thrust out from the politically correct paradise of modern-day Labor. A small, die-hard band of supporters of Queen Elizabeth, the Australian Monarchists’ League, battles on beside the ACM, but the more intriguing de facto allies of the constitutional monarchy are the Direct Election Group. They have been advocating a “no” vote on the grounds that preventing the creation of an appointed presidency is the best route to securing their true aim: an elected one. This faction boasts a high profile cabinet minister and possible heir to the Liberal leadership, Peter Reith, but its overall flavour is non-aligned and faintly idealistic. Aloof from this inchoate alliance, yet standing firmly in the status quo corner is Prime Minister John Howard, who will not campaign actively, but has let his opposition to a republic be known at every turn, and whose instinctual understanding of the Australian people seems much more finely tuned than that of his left-of-centre opponents.
if the public were voting for the charisma and the media profile of these two teams it would be no contest. Why, then, is the contest still too close to call despite a late drift towards republicanism, helped by the Labor opposition’s offer to hold a second referendum on the direct election model if a republic is supported on 6th November?
One reason is that Australian referendums usually fail, and an absolute majority plus a majority in four of the six states is required for passage. But this is not the only reason. A republic would be desirable, many seem to feel, but would you buy one from these people? Who, in fact, are they? There are no visionary figures to champion the cause of change. Instead, the “yes” team offers a plethora of the great and the good, and a series of aggressive arguments impugning the present system. In debates the republicans usually win their case: constitutional change in consonance with national pride and Australian distinctiveness seems attractive; the monarchy has a faded, threadbare feel about it. The Australian newspaper has been running a series of well-attended public forums, in imitation of the conventions held to discuss federation 100 years ago. The proponents of change carry the day-but a certain unease lingers on. Australians feel that the question of the republic has become irremediably political, and resent the fact.
This impression has been reinforced by the protracted partisan arguments which preceded the campaign. The original phrasing of the referendum question sparked a fight which reached its bizarre apogee when the republican movement’s Malcolm Turnbull suggested that the word “republic” should not even figure on the ballot paper. A second question is also, after much wrangling, to be voted on: it will ask Australians if they agree to a new constitutional preamble, the drafting of which has been a year-long farce. At the outset, John Howard enlisted the support of Australia’s great poet, Les Murray, to help him devise the wording. Murray, an unclassifiable bard who describes himself as a “redneck,” obliged with a preamble which mentioned that quintessential Australian virtue: “mateship.” Mateship? Yes, of course, said the prime minister, to the horror of feminists and urban cosmopolitans who would like to regard their Australia as far beyond such blokey, old-fashioned virtues. A ferocious battle was fought on this front and on another issue: how to refer, in the preamble, to the Aboriginal people? Where did they, the holders of a newly-granted, still contentious “native title” property right, fit in? Were they to be called the “custodians” of the land, or only the first occupants? It would be hard to exaggerate the passion which this issue arouses in the hearts of politically aware Australians-a passion matched only by the indifference it meets with in less enlightened circles.
Eventually, Howard compromised: no mateship, and Aboriginal “kinship” with the land, rather than custodianship. A preamble of glowing modishness has now been agreed: God, democracy, Aborigines, immigrants, the environment, achievement, equality of opportunity-it misses nothing except brevity and elegance of phrase. Its prime ministerial architect hopes that the electorate will assuage their feelings of negativity as they vote down the republic proposal by giving a serene “yes” to the preamble’s boilerplate. The republic’s advocates, though, are having to call for a “yes” vote on both questions, despite their reservations over the issue of Aboriginal kinship, for fear of confusing the public with a split recommendation.
Tactics, then, is king, and the campaign has failed to throw up anyone with the grand style and oratorical brilliance of Alfred Deakin, the main inspirer of federation a century ago, for whom continental union was manifest destiny. But men like Deakin (the only prime minister in history to be fined by a policeman for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk on his way to work) are in short supply today, and his arguments of national mission hauntingly absent. There is an important reason for this. Unlike the federation movement, which was inspired by visions of a shared and glorious future, the republican movement takes much of its energy from the politics of the recent past. Republicanism has only figured strongly on the national agenda since the 1975 constitutional crisis, a defining episode for the generation now in power. For its proponents, a republic would exorcise that memory and ensure that no foreign, colonial, British figure could ever, even as a symbol of ultimate resort, wield such force again. No matter that the governors-general since 1975 have all been models of discretion, that the current incumbent is a champion of Aboriginal causes, or that the Crown is nothing but a shadowy underpinning of unused authority: a republic would heal the wounds inflicted by “the dismissal,” and promise a new dawn. The last hint of compromise would be removed from Australia’s independence. If a 1975 stand-off were ever to recur, the outcome would be the opposite: sacked head of state, prime minister triumphant. (Today the prime minister, in theory at least, has something like this power to remove the governor-general, but there is a vital, delaying circuit-breaker; he must give formal advice to the Queen, who then ponders for a while before exercising her reserve authority. She is outside the circle of domestic power.)
Critics of the republic model who favour a directly elected president point out that no self-respecting figure would ever accept appointment to such a toothless post: an instantly removable head of state with the status of a junior minister without portfolio. Why not, then, make the president a real actor on the stage: choose him at the polls, and let him serve as an alternate focus of power? Such a transformation would shift Australia away from a derived form of the Westminster system and towards an American or French style of presidential republic: a development that would certainly sit neatly with the country’s drift from the British into the American economic and cultural sphere of influence, but one that would go far beyond the simple replacement of the Crown.
A directly elected president, object the mainstream republicans, would be a political strongman, chosen on the basis of a US-style political campaign, and nominated by a political party. Paul Kelly, of the Australian, and one of the most eloquent mainstream republicans, says: “There is one great advantage in the proposed republic model. It means the president will be impartial; the presidency will be a focus for unity; above all, the president cannot be a politician.” But he or she can, and will, be chosen by politicians, and that in the eyes of many is just as bad. Most Australians do not share the obsession of the political class with the events of 1975; and a significant number are too young to remember them. But there is a brooding conviction, as the implications of the republican model sink in, that power of decision is being snatched away by the usual suspects-the elite.
underlying the jumble of divisions on the republic question lie the deeper, unspoken fault-lines in Australian life: ethnicity, confession and cultural background. After two generations of immigration a homogeneous Anglophone society has been transformed into something very different. At present, some 55.5 per cent of the 18m population is of “Anglo-Celtic” background-English, Welsh, Scots and so on; and some 15 per cent are of Irish origin, with that stripe’s tinge of oppositional memory and self-identification. Of the remainder, only about 2 per cent describe themselves as Aboriginal, and the Asian component is now the fastest-growing, accounting for half of all immigration over the past decade. How does this translate into constitutional politics? Here, the wisdom breaks down. Many Anglo-Celts are fierce republicans; some Irish-Australians like the status quo. Background is not a safe predictor of how people will vote. Aboriginal people have some reason to hope for benefits from change, but also good reason to view the Crown as a better friend than the settler. The substantial immigrant communities of southern European origin are often strikingly monarchist, while their thoroughly assimilated children may have advanced republican leanings. Asian migrants may have some sympathy for the republican cause; but many left their countries of origin precisely because of political turmoil. Above all, ethnicity in Australia is not so strong a forcefield of identity as in the US: even if the republican push is associated with the New South Wales, Irish-flavoured right-wing faction of the Labor party, that is far from translating into a bloc vote. The allegiance patterns are more intriguing: the finest orator on the monarchist front is a young Greek-Australian lawyer, Sophie Panopoulos, while many an old-school Bush aristo has firm republican convictions. This illustrates one of the more striking aspects of modern Australia: the society’s ability to wash out the traces of its members’ foundational cultural assumptions.
But if the multiple divisions of ethnicity and origin seem to cancel each other out, the constitutional debate has highlighted that bigger gulf between the values of the middle of the road majority and those of the well-placed professionals-people for whom the republic is a key aspirational issue, the knowledge workers, the public servants and academics, the “new class” of the informed and informing well-to-do, those surfing ahead on the crest of Australia’s impressive economic reform wave. This gulf, familiar in other western nations, is natural and in some respects fruitful. But in Australia there is a case for regarding it as a grave tear in the social fabric. Its effects can be traced in a range of disputes over national policy-and above all in the reluctance of the enlightened to allow free reign to popular opinion. The “sophisticates,” for reasons of idealism and self-interest, want such things as an open economy, a multicultural society, more immigration. Most Australians want the reverse of-or rather less of-these things. The brief, hysteria-attended rise, and comical eclipse, of the right-wing One Nation party led by the colourful Pauline Hanson demonstrated the discontent of the ordinary public. More than 1m voters delivered a protest vote for One Nation at the general election a year ago (the party, thanks to the preferential voting system, won one seat in the upper house of the federal parliament, and has since all but self-destructed).
Australian politics reflects the tension between these two world-views: the naturally working-class Labor party is at present a vehicle for elite preoccupations, while the supposedly establishment Liberal party, the dominant force in the governing coalition, is led by a prime minister whose appeal is to conservative working men and women. Many of these voters respond to the prime minister’s strangely humdrum form of patriotic rhetoric, and avert their eyes from Labor’s missionary nationalism. There is a chance that this culturally conservative bloc will vote against the republic, on the grounds that it is a child of privilege; and each frantic warning that a “no” vote would be a national betrayal will only enhance the delight of these rebellious souls as they strike it down. Spiritually such people are already republican populists and they may prove it by voting down a republic.
It comes down to this: will these so-called “battlers” vote for a republic, any republic, because they feel a keen sense of their nationality and a resentment of the mother country’s long-eroded yoke? Or will they vote against one because they resent the model on offer, the style of those offering it and the increasingly heavy scare tactics being used to sell it? The last minute polls are volatile, and the Australian army role in East Timor could play either way: reinforcing support for Australia as a fully-independent regional power or, alternatively, casting doubt on the republican project of integration with Asia.
Curiously, if the campaign has revealed one thing it is this: the connection with the Crown is now an artefact of history; there is now a majority in favour of a republic, of a final, sundering act of autonomy and independence. It has already happened in people’s minds: it is broadly acknowledged that there is, in the long run, no serious alternative to constitutional evolution. Whether it happens at the ballot box, this time or next, is a technicality. Which is why the battle on 6th November is not between republicans and monarchists, but between anti-politics, the fastest growing political tendency in all advanced democracies, and a dutiful republicanism.