Easy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Australian liberals missed their opportunity to vote for a monarchy-free state; it may be a while before the chance for a republic comes around again

Australasia Dispatches
Royal courtesy: Australia's Labor prime minister Julia greets the Queen with a bow (not a curtsey) (Andrew Meares/AP)

When Queen Elizabeth paid her sixteenth official visit to Australia in October, some sage at Reuters predicted that the royal tour would “reignite debate about whether the nation should become a republic”. Seasoned students of Australian republicanism knew this would prove to be poppycock; and so it did. As things turned out, the Queen’s visit sparked much discussion about her aqua hat, and her wattle brooch. When our prime minister bowed to her instead of curtseying, there was some talk of whether that constituted the diplomatic equivalent of a headbutt. But the only discussions of republicanism I heard concerned how little everybody was talking about republicanism.  

Australians are used to hearing predictions about a resurgence of the republican spirit. But the dog of Australian republicanism keeps failing to bark. I wonder if we need to examine the possibility that it is dead. If it isn’t, it’s certainly in a very bad way. A recent poll found that only 34 per cent of Australians now favour a republic. Polls should always be treated with caution, but few Australians would doubt the veracity of that one. All you need to do in order to confirm it is stick your head out the window and listen to the sound of silence. Nobody talks about the republic any more. And this is an age when people are ready to talk and tweet and blog about pretty much anything. 

Even republicans go out of their way not to discuss the subject. Australia’s current prime minister, Julia Gillard, is a committed republican — or so she says. And the Labor Party, which she leads, remains officially in favour of a republic. But Gillard is on record as saying that Australians are so fond of the Queen that it would be improper to resume talking about a republic until a new monarch ascends the throne. Considering her woeful standing in the polls, Ms Gillard is distinctly unlikely to be still on the scene when that happens. This makes her a fairly typical neo-republican: she believes the right time to deal with the issue will be when she isn’t around to deal with it.     

What happened to the republic? There was a time, during the 1990s, when an Australian republic seemed not just inevitable, but imminent. Back then, Australia had a Labor prime minister whose republicanism was hands on. Paul Keating is still remembered, and in some quarters reviled, for having very lightly placed his hand on the Queen’s lumbar region during an official meet-and-greet. Keating wasn’t afraid to kick the monarchy when it was down. His fomenting of the republican cause in the mid-Nineties coincided with a dreadful run of PR for the House of Windsor. The shenanigans of Charles and Diana didn’t go unnoticed in Australia. When Fergie’s toe was sucked by Stanley Tucci’s doppelgänger, Australians were kept hideously in the loop. Indeed, it’s conceivable that Australian republicans were the only people in the world able to view those photographs with relish.   

In 1999, at the end of that heady period, Australia officially got the chance to become a republic. A specific proposal for change was put to a national referendum. But although the polls had unfailingly said that most Australians wanted a republic of some kind, voters balked at the particular model of republic on offer. Only 45 per cent of people went for it. Moreover, not one of Australia’s six states voted in favour of the model. And a referendum requires the approval of at least four states, as well as a majority of the national vote, to succeed. The result was a stunning defeat for republicanism. The movement has never recovered from it, and the enthusiasm of the general public has been on the wane ever since.  

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that Australians have had ample time over the last decade to recover their appetite for a republic. But it doesn’t feel like that long ago, not to those of us who lived through the campaign. It was like spending two or three years rolling a boulder to the top of a hill — or almost to the top of a hill. One reason it didn’t get there was that there were people pushing on the other side of it. Some of them were monarchists, which was fair enough. But many of them were renegade republicans, who felt that the republic on offer was the wrong kind of republic. Their combined weight sent the boulder crashing all the way back to the bottom of the hill.

A decade later it’s still lying there, with the limbs of many a squashed republican protruding from underneath. Who’s got the energy to get it moving again? We all know, now, how devilishly hard it is to become a republic. It isn’t enough — it isn’t nearly enough — that the bulk of Australians should vaguely agree that the country needs an Australian head of state. Getting one of them means changing the constitution; you can’t change the constitution without passing a referendum; and you can’t hold a referendum until you have a detailed proposal about what sort of republic Australia should become. Should the president be popularly elected, for example, or should he or she be appointed by the federal parliament? This question caused a disastrous and bitter cleaving of the republican vote back in 1999. Before there can be a serious prospect of another referendum, republicans need to sort the answer out. They must find a model of republic they can all live with, and then they must all join hands and get behind it. 

If they’d done that last time, Australia would almost certainly be a republic right now. But they didn’t and it isn’t. The question of the republicans’ preferred model had ominously raised its head in 1998, during a “people’s convention” sponsored by the Liberal government of John Howard. Keating had been voted out of office in 1996, but he had successfully put republicanism on the front burner. His conservative opponents, some of whom were more royalist than the Queen, were obliged to deliver the constitutional convention as a concession to the general republican mood.  

At the time, the convention seemed a glorious moment for Australian republicanism. An array of Australia’s most eminent statespeople and jurists was in attendance, supplemented by a sizeable contingent of celebrities and ratbags. (My own invitation went astray owing to a tragic postal mix-up.) Republican delegates heavily outnumbered zero-change advocates — a fair reflection of public opinion at the time. Inevitably, the convention reached an in-principle agreement that the republic question should be put to a referendum. 

But after that fleeting triumph, republican delegates had to thrash out the ugly specifics of the matter. What model of republic would Australians get to vote on? The dominant faction of republican delegates favoured a so-called “minimalist” model. Australians, they reckoned, wanted an Australian head of state chosen on merit, rather than by an accident of birth. Beyond that, the minimalists didn’t think the constitution should be tinkered with. They rejected the idea of a popularly-elected president: they thought such a radical change to the current system would scare off potential support at the referendum. Instead they wanted a ceremonial president who would resemble the familiar figure of the governor-general, minus the latter’s ties with the crown. This figurehead president would be selected by the prime minister and approved by a two-thirds majority of parliament, after write-in nominations from the public had been whittled down (goodbye President Shane Warne) by a committee. 

Leftie delegates, naturally, scorned such moderation. They wanted a president directly elected by the people. They assailed the minimalist model as elitist and undemocratic. But the radicals’ model, on inspection, was not without drawbacks of its own. It raised questions of authority, for a start. In a parliamentary system, not even the prime minister can claim to have been directly elected by the people. Wouldn’t it be superfluous, if not a bit risky, to grant such a mandate to a figurehead president? Nobody, or nobody sane, wanted an American-style president with executive powers. So how crucial was it, really, that a ceremonial president should be elected by popular vote? 

Well, not that crucial, according to the bulk of republican delegates. The convention voted in favour of the minimalist option, which therefore became the proposal put to the referendum. But the radical republicans, with a few exceptions, conspicuously failed to take this defeat on the chin. When the referendum debate got going, they joined forces with the monarchists, and made a noisy and almost certainly decisive contribution to the “No” campaign. So zealous was their republicanism that they preferred no republic at all — at least in the short term — to the imperfect republic on offer.  

Listen to Phil Cleary, fervent republican and (naturally) strident campaigner for a “No” vote, speaking a week before the referendum: “I have no problems voting against this particular model, especially given that I think it’ll galvanise republican forces and will put a better one up and we’ll get a real republic.”

By “real”, of course, Mr Cleary didn’t mean something like “tangible”, or “non-imaginary”. If he’d meant that, he and his cohorts would have endorsed the republic that was tantalisingly within reach. No: what be meant by “real” was ideal. According to the radicals, the ideal, wrinkle-free republic would be offered up to Australian voters at some not-too-distant point in the future, once the unreal republic that was actually on offer had been rebuffed. People like Mr Cleary believed, or said they believed, that the government would be kind enough to let republicans have another costly and acrimonious referendum almost immediately, as a reward for sabotaging their own cause the first time round. 

Even at the time, this seemed an implausible argument. Twelve years on, it stands revealed as an outright fantasy. The defeat of the 1999 referendum didn’t galvanise republican forces; it pulverised them. And far from radicalising the rest of the population, it gave everyone a chance to mellow out on the whole issue. 

Each wing of the republican movement, during the course of the campaign, had exposed the flaws of the other wing’s model all too consummately. The radicals suggested our duly elected parliamentarians couldn’t be trusted to select a president. They said that any president who emerged from such a process would be just another politician, and therefore deeply suspect. The moderates retorted that a directly elected president would be the biggest politician of them all. The rest of us were left to reflect that if our elected politicians were so reprehensible, perhaps there was something to be said, after all, for our current head of state, who is so far above politics that nobody gets to vote for her. If even radical republicans were prepared to retain the status quo when they had a golden chance to get rid of it, then how bad could the status quo really be? The radicals’ efforts to destroy the republic in order to save it had met with emphatic success.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” said Shakespeare’s Brutus, while addressing an early gathering of the republican movement,     

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Back in 1999, Australia’s republicans had the tide. Rather than ride it to victory, they bickered about the construction of the boat. Then the flood went away. Republicans only had one chance to convince people that becoming a republic was a matter of urgency, and they blew it. Now everyone knows that the matter can be put off indefinitely and nothing drastic will happen. 

Non-urgent questions have gone out of style in Australian politics. If they ever come back into fashion, maybe republicanism will get a serious second wind. But the revival will have to be led by people too young to remember how it all happened last time, or else too idealistic to believe it would all happen the same way again.