No guts, no glory in deposing the King

Sep 27, 2022
England Australia distance apart on detailed world map.
Image: iStock

Right thinking Australians ought to want their nation to be a republic led by a president rather than by a protestant King or Queen of England. Even the local self-effacing should want it if only for international and national self-respect.

The case for change has become stronger in recent times. That’s less from the demise of a well-respected Queen and her succession by one less obviously fit to rule. There is that, of course but it is a matter of far less moment than the caution we should have about remaining a barnacle on a dying and decaying British nation.

Britain’s own recent sovereign acts should make Australians shy from further deep association with it. As an empire, as an economy, and as a source of moral or legal leadership to the wider world, Britain has been in more than a century of decline. Its current ruling politicians are contemptible, even by the standards of politicians in the previous Australian government.

Australia is a multicultural nation whose legal, constitutional and cultural traditions are irretrievably connected to British history, Britain, or what ends up remaining in the United Kingdom. That’s our present as much as our past. But Britain itself is unimportant in Australia’s future, even in its legal, constitutional and cultural future. The sooner we cut the links, the better. We don’t want to sink in their ship. Or submarine for that matter.

All that said, it is very hard to make an argument that the energies of Australian citizens should be much absorbed in cutting the link.

The existence of a monarchy, local or foreign based at the apex of our constitutional tree, is of, or should be of, zero practical significance in Australian government. Our Governor-General may be the local representative of that monarchy but is in no way subject to its direction. His, or her, appointment, is now entirely a matter for the elected Australian government.

King Charles III may have all sorts of ideas, good, bad or meddlesome, about how his Australian subjects should reorganise themselves around his ideas. He may seek to terrorise our ministers as he has British ministers. But we can ignore him more easily than the Brits, if only because he’s not here. There is very little Australian history of prime ministers (as opposed to Governors-General) paying any attention at all to what royals think. So far as they think about them at all it is only for calculating political advantage from a royal visit.

The one counterexample which comes to mind is the claim of Tony Abbott that he knighted Prince Phillip with an Order of Australia at the Queen’s suggestion. If that was true (Tony Abbott was never a reliable witness), that was a smart move which cost Abbott the confidence of his colleagues, and ultimately the prime ministership.

The significance of turning Australia into a republic would be symbolic, not practical. The symbolism could be powerful, locally, nationally and internationally. Just as a yes vote (or a no vote) on an indigenous Voice in Parliament would affect how we think of ourselves, and as others see us, as a nation and as a people. Becoming a republic would suggest a new maturity in Australia as a nation state, as a citizen and player in our own region.

Ironically, given that most of our Pacific neighbours and not a few of our Asian ones are, like us, former European colonies, it might also suggest some movement away from the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and European superiority that most of the region is trying to shed. It could be the more effective a transformation given the way that Australia has become noticeably more multicultural and more ethnically diverse over the past 50 years, with a lower percentage of citizens of British or Irish stock.

Many of those who have made Australia their home in that period may respect and revere our freedom and stability of government. They may admire our modern, localised forms of old British traditions. But they are Australian and Australianised now. Modern Australians are unlikely to see or fear that dropping the idea of a king will break up their security and living standards.

A shift moreover could be a new beginning. It might foreshow abandonment of some of the ill-considered Australian foreign policy of recent decades. It could signal, for example, the end of the populist xenophobia, fear of the other and resistance to foreign influences and immigration, which has marked our shameful refugee policies this century. It could be the occasion for adopting a more independent foreign policy. It might help changed perceptions where Australia was again a constructive regional citizen, no longer contemptuous of international institutions, customs and cooperation.

A nation respected for its independence of mind rather than its fears and insecurities, and mistrust of the history, the culture and the beliefs of the nations around us. An Australia which was no longer an international outlaw on matters of the environment, ready to cooperate with other countries in facing the problems and responsibilities of changing climates, including its impact on people movement.

A republic could symbolise a fresh approach with our regional neighbours

All that might be possible, with or without republican status, simply from the change of government earlier this year. The election of the Albanese government immediately suggested a new openness to our neighbours, and new efforts to re-establish or reorientate relationships. Albanese and his foreign minister Penny Wong, seemed to move immediately to address problems caused by a decade of antipathy to Asia, a focus on national selfishness, often dressed up as sovereignty, and significant withdrawal from the international aid scene.

But the momentum of this move has slowed. For domestic political reasons, the Albanese government has felt obliged to stress unchanged attitudes to boat people, boat turn-backs and the theory of consciously cruel policies in our overseas concentration camps. Powerful defence and intelligence lobbies have made sure that there has been no reduction in anti-China rhetoric. Nor in contrived provocations of China or in ambushes and misrepresentations of China by a powerful mainstream media.

Albanese has been slow to be verballed or forced into action when he does not want to go in any particular direction. But he and his national security ministers still seem terrified of being wedged by American-oriented and funded interests determined to prevent any ratcheting down of tensions. They are very reluctant to change Morrison foreign policy – which they have imagined to be an honestly arrived at status quo. Albanese and Wong, determined to avoid any national security debate during the election, went out of their way to endorse nuclear subs and the absurd pretensions of AUKUS as the face of White English-speaking western power in the Pacific and South China Sea.

AUKUS is not a game changer. It’s a public relations stunt, concocted by a tiny group of British and Australian conservative politicians with half-hearted American support. Its two chief sponsors are now out of politics. Successors may not have repudiated it, but it’s not their own baby. There are deeply politicised advisers still lobbying an ideological view of the world as if it reflected objective reality, and Albanese and his defence minister sometimes seem as though they have swallowed the medicine whole and without complaint. But it’s not a workable policy or alliance, let alone one that can endure.

Watching old bad defence and foreign policy being made new again under fresh management invites speculation as to whether Anthony Albanese and his ministers are up to the task of a revitalised or republican Australia. At best they have an ambitious, if narrow, domestic agenda, and some right to claim that their domestic options are constrained by debt and economic recovery. But guts and drive are not part of the package.

Albanese ducked a host of fundamental governmental issues, including tax policy, in the lead-up to the election, arguing, in effect, that his urgent tasks and policies were so urgent in difficult times that he could not be held to timetables of further reform. In the meantime, by implication, existing policies would continue. There have been some PR flourishes, particularly by Penny Wong, to suggest there’s a new US deputy sheriff in town. But there has been no fundamental shift of policy, particularly towards China. It is possible to ask whether Wong is more conservative and dogmatic in her perceptions of China’s malignance than the previous government.

Certainly, we are not getting courage, vision, or political boldness. Nor any sign of any fresh Australian leadership on regional questions (including the region’s own relationships with China). We are not yet re-engaging, and in a more humble and respectful manner, in the regional politics that most preoccupy our friends.

Australia is not the only country coping with continuing pandemic, debt, attempts to reset the economy, and the slowdown of world trade and growth. We have conspicuously come to the party on emission reduction. But only Australians could (and do) imagine that we are now a world leader in the field, or in much of a position to proffer advice to countries doing it much harder than we are.

Our focus on boat turn-backs sends an unpleasant signal that the Australian Navy is mostly pointed at nations we pretend are our friends. By contrast China, marketed as being our enemy, is a nation to be dealt with by propaganda and pointed fingers until a day, two or three decades hence, when we acquire nuclear submarines.

Albanese may have been politically sensible, if hardly showing much in the way of leadership, in virtually shutting Australia, and the parliament, after the Queen died. He was certainly astute in not stirring any republican sentiment, nor using the death to change his political priorities.

Officially, a republic is on the agenda but has been assigned no urgency or priority. Efforts to change the constitution are time-consuming, consumes enormous political energy, and are by no means assured of success. Once the argument is on, it necessarily consumes the energy of an Attorney-General, already consumed with the integrity commission and other projects, the prime minister himself and a good deal of the energy of the whole government. There’s no sign that our current leaders have the charisma, the energy or the debating skill to make the case.

Last time about, republicans were outmanoeuvred and triangulated by John Howard in what was merely a plebiscite. But even if Labor now took charge of the process, one can expect that opponents will use pretty much the same fault-lines as before. Voters, if not Labor, are divided about whether there should be an elected or appointed president, with a font of actual independent political or legal power, or one, like now, more or less obliged to follow the votes of the executive council. It’s hard to see the republican project rising from its present ranking as a third-order issue, to be dragged out rarely only to enthuse the tragics.

An overseas monarchy of foreigners we do not much admire or respect

Keeping a republic project on the books without any attempt to bring it forward reflects the small dimensions of the practical problem. We have a head of state who is not an Australian, a man most Australians don’t much like or respect. But there is no Labor (or coalition) political project unable to be achieved because Australia has a King rather than a president. We don’t need his sign-off on anything.

Right now, there is no policy or program that the Albanese government would like to have which is made more difficult because of our constitutional structure. Whitlam and Hawke actually faced constitutional frustrations because of regular challenges to Commonwealth powers. By Hawke’s time, however, the Commonwealth was winning most such disputes.

Later successive prime ministers, including coalition ones, found mechanisms, including cooperative federalism schemes that allowed the Commonwealth to do what it wanted. Everyone (Morrison with modern fervour after his experiences with his National Cabinet) might agree that a constitution drawn up 130 years ago is not ideally set for modern problems.

But writing and getting popular approval for a new one would be almost impossible, absent a leader of far greater ability than is presently on show. That said, the obstacles to constitutional reform by referendum are such that politicians think that political compromise is better, and quicker, in producing change. Right now, Albanese must deal with mostly Labor states and territories.

He can comfortably shelve any idea of a republic indefinitely, with only token lip service.

But this is not a course he can follow on the Voice question. He has already committed the government to a referendum. Given the softness and vagueness of the actual proposal, and the bipartisan efforts to strike some consensus and goodwill, this proposal ought to succeed. But it may well be in considerable trouble. The electorate is always conservative about constitutional change whenever there is organised opposition.

In this case there is opposition from the Left – from the Greens and some Aboriginal groups, not least those who regard themselves as disenfranchised at the community level by middle-class Aboriginal politics. On the right are groups framing arguments about the proposal’s capacity to create different classes of Australian citizens and the dangers that words intended primarily for symbolism will become a springboard for new legal rights.

Down the track lies the possibility that any groups dissatisfied with Labor actions (or the imagined dread threat of Labor socialism) will be mobilised to use the occasion for a general vote of no confidence in Labor policy.

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