Sometimes – especially on the eve of a royal tour – old habits are hard to break. Our prime minister, Tony Abbott, has a habit of colonial thinking. The public repudiation of his knights and dames decision showed just how out of step he is with modern Australia. But many have fallen into a habit of postponing the republic debate until another time and have meanwhile become a cheer squad for celebrity monarchy. It’s time to break that habit. Australians are fond of Britain, but we are not colonial subjects anymore. We are ready to be ‘‘ourselves’’.
The ‘‘royal’’ habit is an easy trap into which to fall. Naming a hospital or a park or a street? Should we respect the indigenous place name or come up with a name that honours a great Australian? Often we opt to name everything after a British queen or prince. It’s what we have always done, so no harm done, right? Wrong.
Or in presenting our news and selecting between, say, a score of people dying in a disaster in a neighbouring country or discussing an English princess and the colour of her hat and her ‘‘Marilyn Monroe moment’’, as happened on Monday. No harm done, after all it’s just celebrity entertainment, right? Wrong.
The first step to breaking a habit is admitting you have a problem. And it’s just plain wrong that no Australian can aspire to be our head of state. It’s wrong that our nationhood is defined by our colonial link and not by the sovereign Australian people, in all our diversity.
The second step is weighing up the advantages of breaking the habit. For a multicultural, equal opportunity country, surely we should have a head of state who can unite us all and represent us all? The British Queen represents Britain and perhaps Mr Abbott but she doesn’t represent me.
Surely we should expect all Australians to pledge their allegiance to this country? That’s what new citizens pledge but when he was sworn into office, Prime Minister Abbott swore allegiance to the Queen. Where is the advantage in that? It was divisive, deliberately so, when previous prime ministers have sworn allegiance to Australia.
Business leaders and diplomats know that our standing in the 21st century will be so much greater as a constitutionally independent nation. That will take self-confidence, a new focus on our potential here in our part of the world and an end to the colonial cringe.
The third step in breaking the old habit is to come up with a process to make the transition. This doesn’t mean we should not honour the past. We should. So no more talk of “dumping” this or “trashing” that. We honour where we have come from but need a mature debate about where we are going. A debate that gives the citizens of a free country an informed choice between the options we have before us.
It is true there was a reluctance to raise the republic during the tumultuous Rudd-Gillard period. It’s probably just as well, as we really do need bipartisan and visionary leadership to have this debate in full swing. The time will come and perhaps soon. I predict that Mr Abbott will be the last prime minister who will choose to swear allegiance to a monarch instead of to Australia and its people. If Australians are to be given a choice, now is the time to begin the debate.
Mr Abbott might not have intended it, but his oath of allegiance to the Queen and his knights and dames decisions have driven thousands of new supporters to the Australian Republican Movement. By drawing such ridicule for his anachronistic thinking, Mr Abbott might just embolden republicans on both sides of parliament to think about where they really stand, with the people or with the past?
We can warmly welcome the royal visitors next week while also backing an Australian republic. We look forward to the day when our friends in Britain warmly welcome the visit of an Australian head of state. It will be a powerful day indeed and will mark the end of colonial habits of mind.
David Morris is the national director of the Australia Republican Movement.