Whatever happened to the republic? It was front and centre in the national debate a decade and a half ago, with support across the political divide. The republic was part of the narrative of a nation. Then it was put on the shelf, to gather dust, postponed until some unspecified date. This year, the Australian Republican Movement is back, getting organized again, starting to lay the groundwork for a new national conversation. Why, though, have progressives dropped the ball on the national narrative and will progressives embrace the republic when it returns to the agenda?
Once an issue takes hold of the popular imagination, like an Australian republic has with roughly half of the community, it doesn’t go away. But it does await political leadership before such an issue can be resolved. And that political leadership has not emerged on the conservative or progressive side of Australian politics, even though many on both sides claim republican values.
It is certainly not easy to attempt constitutional reform. Political parties are well aware from their focus groups, on which they base policy these days, that there is a large “don’t know, don’t care” attitude and a raft of misapprehensions about Australia’s national institutions.
Some say it is a good thing, others a bad thing, that we are not a nation like the United States, where most citizens can recite amendments to their Constitution and important national milestones like their Declaration of Independence. Is it the curse of colonialism that we know more of the “motherland” than our own achievements? Australians struggle to name our first Prime Minister and hardly noticed when the Australia Act in 1986 made us independent of Westminster, leaving only the monarch to be removed to make us a fully independent nation.
We of course have no independence day. We have our national day on the day we were colonized, when the original Australians were dispossessed. It is an outrageous day to celebrate a nation, but most of us are too busy at the beach to give it a second thought.
Nevertheless, for a while there, in the 1990s, it looked like we were going to take the next step and become a fully independent nation, with our institutions fully in our name and accountable to us. We were ready to bury, once and for all, the cultural cringe that had gripped earlier generations. We had a narrative about the direction Australia was taking. We were attempting to reconcile with First Australians, embracing our diversity as a successful migrant nation, engaging with our region. With each step, we were moving away from a derivative, colonial view of the world, and developing a distinctively Australian approach.
Back in the 1990s, so many of us thought we had something to celebrate when the Australian Republican Movement unveiled its theme song in its campaign “I am, You are, We are Australian.” Indeed, the 1999 referendum on the republic could have been a defining moment for the new, confident and inclusive Australia, in which the people are sovereign and not a privileged person in a castle on the other side of the world.
But we all know that the referendum failed. Republicans divided on how to make the change, some full of hubris that there would be a second chance within a year or two. Monarchists sowed fear and misinformation that resonates to this day. Worst of all, the referendum was actively undermined by the Prime Minister who, as Malcolm Turnbull said at the time, broke the nation’s heart.
Then what happened?
After 1999, both conservatives and progressives gave up on the national narrative.
New issues of trans-national importance have of course, captured the attention of progressives, from climate change to human rights. Conservatives also have looked to international issues, from fighting global terror to globalized economic policy, rather than a national vision.
Yet the nation remains the primary unit of decision-making and the highest level of democratic accountability. The nation is just as important as it has ever been. It is the nation that goes to war, that taxes, that funds education and hospitals, that determines most of the laws and social norms by which we live every day. It is the nation that embodies culture and community values.
And the nation is made up of its citizens, or at least that is what my republican values tell me. So just as our debates on environmental, social or economic policy are important day to day, surely our discourse about the nation is important to our long term social cohesion, values and place in the world?
So why have progressives neglected the republic?
It cannot be a values-based decision. There are no progressives I know who would argue that an institution as elite and undemocratic as the British monarchy should maintain its exclusive hold over our nation’s sovereignty. That no Australian can ever aspire on merit to be head of our nation is surely anathema to any progressive.
It also cannot be an identity issue. Surely no progressive would say Australia should forever define itself as part of an “Anglosphere” from which many in our multicultural society feel excluded. A republic would confirm that Australia’s identity includesall our people, which you would expect progressives would embrace enthusiastically.
And what about our place in the world? Again, you would expect progressives to embrace an Australia that stands comfortably in this part of the world, equal with our neighbours, rather than projecting an image of a colonial outpost suffering the tyranny of distance from our spiritual home. Our spiritual home is here.
So if progressives are republican on all of the reasons “why”, they must be stuck on “how”. That means we are left with politics. Is it all about politics and not principle?
Is it just that Australians were so utterly divided in 1999 on how to select a Head of State, that progressives are forever frozen on the issue? Can it really be so hard?
If we leave policy development to focus groups and apparatchiks, of course, it is all too hard. A republic will never be a top of mind, urgent priority of a focus group or a media adviser looking to the next 24 hour news cycle.
But is it really beyond the capabilities and imagination of Australians to design a new institution to reflect our national identity and national sovereignty? It wasn’t beyond us when we designed the other unique elements in our Constitution more than a century ago.
Of course, politics is on the nose and part of the problem could be that the republic is framed by the mainstream media as being all about politics. Exactly the place where it has got stuck.
But the republic is really about our values, our identity and our place in the world. And if we get people talking about it on those terms, we just might find we can design some new politics around the common ground issues that make us Australian.
Imagine if we involved the Australian community in designing the republic, to live up to what’s best about Australia. Imagine a community debate about how to select one of us as Head of State, on merit – not governed by money or inheritance or big business or political parties. Imagine a selection process that was built on community values and community trust at each step of the way. Imagine involving the Australian people in carefully designing and defining the role’s powers and purpose.
The result, to use a political analogy, might look more like the recent result in Indi rather than the process that filled the latest NSW Senate vacancy.
When I lived in Dublin for a time, I witnessed the transformative impact Mary Robinson had as the “working President” of Ireland. Elected on a platform of “President with a purpose”, she carefully avoided day to day politics while uniting citizens of Ireland around their values and promoting their nation to the world. I am as optimistic that Australia’s first working Head of State will be as transformative for us.
Making the people sovereign and having our own Head of State should of course appeal to Conservatives because a true Conservative believes we should take responsibility for ourselves. And it should appeal to Progressives, surely, as a way to rediscover a national narrative that lost its way.
At the end of the day, love of country and the freedom that comes from true independence, can be a liberating and uniting force. Becoming a republic can strengthen our values and our identity in a way that celebrates us all as Australian.
If progressives want to influence the nation, it is time to start telling the story of the nation. Patriotism is not a dirty word; it is our social glue. We have much to be proud of and many chapters of the Australian story yet to write. If progressives want to help write the next one, the republic offers the narrative that has been lost in our recent politics. It speaks to the community about our values, our identity and our place in the world. We can back Australia and, in doing so, we can achieve an Australia closer to our ideals.