By Andrew L. Urban.
It is not the idea that our system is broke but the emotive plea “our Head of State should be Australian” that drives the movement for an Australian republic. It needs no explanation and brooks no challenge. It just IS what Australia needs. And if you disagree, you are an out of date monarchist, cow-towing to Britain and its age-worn royals. You are not modern Australia and not proud of Aussie values.
Much of the recent (late January 2015) anti-republic media commentary – by both professional and amateur commentators (readers) – hangs on the argument that our system isn’t broke, so don’t fix it. That ignores the fact that most republicans are not arguing for a fix (they don’t have a working model of a republic): they argue for the abolition of our symbolic link with Britain through the monarchy. They argue from the emotional pits of their bellies for an Aussie head of State. They argue for the cause, not for any republican reality.
Many of them also argue that like an Australian republic, the Australian flag should not genuflect before its historic past and it should appear without the Union Jack. Australia is now old enough to be seen as a bold young nation, not an ex-colony.
But nobody (seriously) suggests that Australia should jettison English as its official language – just downplay the English heritage and disconnect the loyalty to the crown. The Union Jack is the equivalent of the ‘family name’ of Australia, it is the symbol of its ancestry. When children leave home, they don’t change their family name.
In 1999, I voted for the republican model, without knowing what that model would be. I saw it as an emotional attempt to assert maturity. I have reconsidered the issue and no longer think that Australia should sever its ties to the English Crown. It may be mature enough and individual enough, but the current political system allows for all that to be manifest without having to be destroyed.
The defining qualities of inherited royal power as the English monarchy plays it under the constitution is its ambiguity: it is the power that the people confer on the royals which the royals return to the people. Isolated from the violence of political electioneering, the Crown is the one eternal anchor in a political system that has grown out of centralised power in the Monarchy to democratic power WITH the Monarchy. The people and the Monarch govern in tandem, the former in the democratic system, the latter in recognition of it – as an active symbol of a people’s continuance, a people’s overarching values.
That moral compass is what England’s Crown represents – to all the Crown’s subjects; it is a task no politician can ever perform. Throughout England’s history, royalty has been buffeted by competing claims, foreign enemies and internal divisions. But it remains a force for morality and humanity, notwithstanding its parade of human frailties and follies. And they have earned respect in spite of those failings, thanks in large part to the dignity and common sense of the Queen … and her late mother.
Which brings up the other great attraction of a monarchy: perseverance and continuity, a stability even in times of chaos. Buckingham Palace may at times have behaved badly in some ways, but the modern Crown has never betrayed the people.
Australia is a geopolitical child of England; it may wish to rebel and show its independence, but it should note that this rebellion is rather redundant, a mere show, since it does have independence. It is not a colony any more. Australia should be quietly grateful it has this powerful link to its past, to its origins as a culture and society. It is the past that provides the anchor and relevance for the present.
The Palace of Versailles is a valued monument to the French monarchy – and to the artisans who built and decorated it. Despite all the sins of the French aristocracy, it has not been bulldozed to prove that France is now a republic.
The overt romanticism of fighting for a republic is fine, but what would Australia actually do with a head of state? Would republicans be like a dog chasing the proverbial car? There is no point in having a head of state who is not ‘regal’ and thus not beyond the political dogfight. What powers would s/he have? Why have a head of state who is elected when we have a prime minister who is elected? What other than regal powers to veto a bill can a head of state properly and valuably exercise? Settling for a symbolic figurehead is foolish, pointless and expensive, not to mention inherently divisive. (Even the latest Australian of the Year is a source of controversy.)
The American republican system is too awful to contemplate with its multi-billion dollar election campaigns that suck out the nation’s energy, resulting in a President with very little real power (other than to veto) and overburdened with expectations. As if Australia could simply switch to that system, anyway.
So from a pragmatic, realistic point of view, for Australia to become a republic is not only spectacularly challenging but unnecessarily divisive – and more an empty gesture to make republicans feel (temporarily) good.
Maybe Australia should just issue Queen Elizabeth II an Australian passport, which her children successors to the throne can inherit.