This essay is one in a five part series addressing the issue of republicanism in Australia today.
Although notionally in favour of Australia becoming a republic, as a Bill Shorten government comes more clearly into view I confess to registering some fresh doubts about the whole issue. Not at this point enough for me to swear a new allegiance, but certainly enough to qualify my view.
In my more nationalistic moments, the republic is an unquestioned good. As sundry populisms have sprouted over the globe, there is an unquestionable frisson to contemplating the Australian polity seizing its own destiny, and achieving a level of independence and cohesion that is impossible while there remain a foreign head of state and its concomitant divide between uniquely Australian traditions and the vanishing ones of a transplanted Britain.
But over recent years, my politics have taken on a more conservative colouration, and it would be impossible for me to fail to notice the eminently sane reasons for maintaining our current constitutional arrangements.
There is something to be said for an unelected and somewhat alien head of state who (but almost ‘that’ – for the monarch to us is barely a flesh and blood human at all) can be distantly admired while we busy ourselves with the ever-pressing enterprise of heaping muck on our elected politicians.
There is something to the idea that Australia has been uniquely solid and stable, and that we should be wary of experimenting with our quirky social formula for fear of contaminating the mixture.
And it’s not clear that a flip to a republic would reward us anything tangibly long-lasting after the initial romance had run its course. Australia isn’t a country known for its political romance (all to the good), and whether an Australian president would engender a greater patriotism burning in citizens’ hearts is a possibility with an unclear aspect.
For all that, though, it’s impossible for me to abandon my hopes for an Australian republic. I should hope to avoid the pitfalls of the American-style direct (sort of) election – where the regal and political roles are blended to destabilising effect. My support for an Australian republic would be contingent on its being the most conservative of all possible republics. I would be opposed to the president holding any more powers than those currently exercised by the office of Governor-General. Whether or not this entails significant codification of the powers is beyond my expertise (more accurately, absence of expertise) to say. I could see why this may be worthwhile in the event of another 1975-style controversy, however the introduction of fixed texts makes the devil’s (read: lawyers’) plaything for the professional interpreter, arguer, or casuist.
Having learnt from the 1999 experience, apparently Bill Shorten and the republicans plan to stage the referendum process in two acts. First, a straight ‘Yes/No’ vote on whether Australia should in general terms become a republic. Second – a vote on the precise form a new republic would take. I’m not so sure this will lessen the menace of an inevitable and tough constitutional debate. It could well lead to the sort of limbo in which post-Brexit-vote Britain now finds itself, where the manner by which a decision is to be put into effect creates a more protracted and contentious struggle than that which preceded the originating decision.
A very real threat, too, is that of the republican movement being taken over by a pack of yahoos; I’m here thinking in particular of left-wing political romantics.
If, for instance, it becomes my estimation that 1) Australians will indeed vote for a republic; and 2) the movement is so constituted that a popularly elected president is the most likely outcome, then I will be committed to opposing the process in toto. The danger in being a conservative supporter of a republic is that of helping set the train in motion only to have it steam away from you without opportunity for prudential steerage to its ultimate destination.
But it seems likely to me that the train is already leaving the station.
Perhaps, then, the urgent task at hand is to ensure that when the vote comes the most prudent, conservative option for a republic is fixed firmly in place. If those of a conservative disposition can get ahead of the game, and set the terms for a republic that ensures stability and guards against fanaticism – that is to say, a republic that maintains the virtues of our current constitutional arrangements – then we may be pleased with the resultant product: a restrained and cohesive modern nationalism (or ‘patriotism’ – if the ‘n’ word sounds harsh in your ear).
It is this political calculus that puts me in the conservative republican camp. I think the republic will probably happen, anyway. I could be wrong, but mass political passions are of such a nature – even in a politically temperate country like Australia a solid 20 per cent could easily swing from one side to the other – that once the republican movement gets on a roll, it will be hard to stop.
It would have been my preference for the Liberal Party to get ahead of the issue and exert careful control over its unfolding. But if Labor is the party to force the matter, then it is incumbent upon me, and those of like-minds, to try and shape the future Australian republic in accord with the saner angels of our political nature.
Edward Cranswick is the Editor of The Stone. His work has also appeared in Quadrant, The Australian, and The Spectator Australia.