This essay is one in a five part series addressing the issue of republicanism in Australia today
A recurring argument I have with a British friend, let’s call him McCallister, about Australia’s status as a constitutional monarchy generally goes like this.
Me: ‘It is absurd that Australia’s next head of state will not be from our own country, but instead decided by a competition of who first fell out of a thoroughly boring and uneducated British woman.’
McCallister: ‘The royals are good role models for you lot. They maintain stability and make sure there is another level of authority above the political elite.’
Me: ‘I would much rather our head of state be selected by the Australian people or chosen by a government that has been elected by the Australian people. It needs to be someone who understands the Australian identity and culture.’
McCallister: ‘Having a monarch in place prevents the possibility of a future tyrannical government or having an unhinged head of state. Besides, Australia is still basically a colonial outpost of the UK anyway.’
This is generally where it ends, before we invariably trade barbs about each other’s countries and have a wrestle on Wimbeldon Common. It’s a challenging friendship.
Speaking to McCallister about Australian republicanism is a salient reminder as to why we need our own head of state – people in the UK fundamentally don’t understand the strong sense of national identity and culture many of us feel. We are no longer in the 1950s when Bob Menzies, then-Prime Minister, boasted he was “British to the bootstraps”.
This subservience to the monarchy was a clear indicator of a country bereft of self-belief or national identity, according to another former PM.
“[There was an] awful cultural cringe under Menzies which held us back for nearly a generation,” Paul Keating raged in 1992.
“In school I learnt about self-respect and self-regard for Australia, not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malaysian Peninsula [in World War II], not to worry about Singapore, not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination.”
Mr Keating’s Prime Ministership was, I believe, the first time in our history where Australians could reflect on the great country we had created since 1901. A time where we could start to consider a national identity that was forged on our own shores.
Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with one of the highest rates of pay in the OECD. It is a country that has welcomed generations of immigrants to live in peaceful and prosperous conditions, laying the foundations for a thriving and diverse population. It is a nation that provides its inhabitants the freedom to think, speak and identify in whatever manner suits them.
Importantly, we do not sustain a rigid class structure like in the UK. The palpable sense of class hierarchy is present in most social interactions in London, with accents a dead giveaway as to your upbringing. A similar scenario is, thankfully, not seen on the streets of Sydney or Melbourne. An absence of a rigid class system provides the basis for an egalitarian society that has enforced an aspirational mindset among people of all social demographics. It has also created an innate culture of hospitality and openness.
Underlying our sense of identity is not a British head of state. While our liberal democracy and western values stemmed from our status as a British colony, our growth as a nation was propagated from within our island. Not theirs.
Throughout the 1990s, when Paul Keating and co. were banging the drum for an Australian republic, polls showed most Australians wanted to be freed from the shackles of the monarchy. A 2016 report by The University of Sydney’s Luke Mansillo revealed that 66 per cent of Australians in 1998 believed Australia should “definitely” or “probably” become a republic. However, fast-forward past the failed 1999 republic referendum, and to 2019, and public opinion has vastly changed.
The Windsors are more popular in Australia than they have been for decades, thanks to a blitzkrieg PR campaign centred on the young royals. Mansillo’s report found in 2013 that definite or probable support for a republic was down to 53 per cent. With 20 years passed since the 1999 referendum and support for a republic on a knife’s edge, there can be no better time for a renewed national debate on the topic.
There can be no better time for Australia to step out of the shadow of its monarchist past and to embrace its future as a dynamic middle power. Over the past 30 years we have inexorably pivoted toward Asia in our trade and foreign policy, a trend we must embrace wholeheartedly and unreservedly. A future free trade deal with the UK post-Brexit will be valuable, but in no terms should it take precedence over dealings with growing South East Asian economies. I do not want to hear our position in the commonwealth used as an excuse to prioritise dealings with the UK, because of an anachronistic loyalty to our colonisers.
A symbolic gesture of rebirth as a nation could also help start a new chapter of relations with our indigenous population. With the scars of empire finally gone, perhaps room for a change of psyche toward Aboriginal disenfranchisement and discrimination can also occur. Becoming a republic would not fix the tangible problems facing indigenous communities, however it could get help heal the psychic wounds inflicted on our First Nations population.
Stefan Boscia is a journalist and political writer currently residing in London. His work has featured in The Telegraph, The Spectator Australia, and Crikey. Formerly, he worked for Launceston’s The Examiner.