The visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to Australia has been delightful, especially since the happy surprise that they are expecting a baby. Back in Britain, however, there is reportedly growing impatience at Australia’s uncomfortable impasse on whether to become a republic.
According to a new book, Buckingham Palace is frustrated that out of misplaced respect for Elizabeth II some in Australia are delaying discussion of becoming a republic until after her death. The book calls this approach a “death watch”.
Tying Australia’s political debate to this unhappy event is indeed gruesome and guarantees prolonged uncertainty. Queen Elizabeth is now 92 but perhaps she will become the first centenarian monarch.
From the Queen’s point of view, it is also bad for her successor. If Australia delays this debate until after her death, the reign of Charles III will begin under the shadow of the loss of one of the monarchy’s crown jewels.
Queen Elizabeth, who at every stage in her reign has shown a total sense of responsibility to her duties, would be the last to want to shirk the burden of managing that transition.
The republican debate has been put on the back burner in the past decade largely as a result of Australia’s fissile politics. The failure of the 1999 referendum on the republic underlined how hard it would be to move to a republic without bipartisan support and that has been lacking in recent years, even when the prime minister was on side.
With a one-seat majority and then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promising to fight tooth and claw for the monarchy, Julia Gillard first hit on the formula of shelving the republic until after Queen Elizabeth’s death.
Similarly when Australia’s most famous republican, Malcolm Turnbull, came to power in 2015 he did not fight for the cause for fear of antagonising the right-wing of the party where Mr Abbott was still active. Fat lot of good that did.
The next election will pose a significant choice. ALP leader Bill Shorten has promised to hold a plebiscite in the first term of a Labor government on whether to become a republic or remain a constitutional monarchy. If the answer is ”yes” he will then start consultations on the form of republican government to adopt.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not closely identified with the debate, although he seems to favour current arrangements.
What the leak from the palace shows is that it is not disrespectful of the royal family to talk about the republic now. It makes sense to run the debate under Elizabeth, who has the experience to manage it. Her reign coincided with the end of the British Empire.
Nor it is a sign of disrespect to talk about the issue during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. As they travel around Australia, the couple are showing themselves to be intelligent and modern adults. The duchess is an American who would understand exactly why Australia would not want to have a foreigner as its head of state.
The Herald has long advocated that Australia should become a republic as a useful symbol of the reality that the historical ties to England are no longer the focus of our national identity. The republic is not the most important issue on the agenda. But there is no reason to delay it out of protocol.