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Republican leadership in Australia

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In Brief

The debate as to whether Australia should become a republic or remain a constitutional monarchy is at a paradoxical stage.

A majority of leading Australians in the private and public sectors support the change from a constitutional monarchy under the British crown to an Australian head of state. But many citizens remain undecided, after rejecting this constitutional change by 55 per cent to 45 per cent at a national referendum in 1999.


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Both sides of this paradox have been on display in Australia over the past three months, during which Queen Elizabeth II made a successful and generally well-regarded tour of Australia, including Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. The tour was built around the Queen’s official visit to Perth, where she opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in October.

But in a recent address to the National Press Club, leading Australian businesswoman Heather Ridout — possibly the closest business leader to the current Gillard government — went out of her way to close her address with a heartfelt plea for an Australian republic. As CEO of one of Australia’s largest business lobby groups, the Australian Industry Group, and a recent appointee to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s board, Mrs Ridout stated her view that while support for a republic in the polls is currently insufficient for a successful referendum to be held, the cause would eventually re-emerge as the mainstream view, due to ‘the importance for our opportunities in the Asian century of us having an Australian head of state’. Mrs Ridout is far from alone and would speak for most of the Australian business community’s top end — though they may be wary of speaking out just yet.

Days before Queen Elizabeth arrived in Australia, Philip Flood — a former Secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) — made similar personal comments in a memoir of his diplomatic career, Dancing with Warriors: a Diplomatic Memoir. Mr Flood, also a former ambassador to Indonesia and high commissioner to Bangladesh, was Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom at the time of the 1999 referendum.

In his memoirs, Mr Flood affirms that the British monarchy’s role in Australia is ‘no longer compatible with our sense of national identity. An Australian head of state, an Australian living in Australia, who is exclusively our own, would unequivocally represent and symbolize our nation’. He concludes: ‘A change to a republic is part of the natural evolution of our nation, a natural outcome of the changes we have made over the past century’. Mr Flood represents the views of a long line of republicans at senior levels of DFAT, including Richard Woolcott. Mr Woolcott was also formerly Secretary of DFAT and Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, and firmly described the British monarchy as an anachronism in Australia. In his own memoirs, The Hot Seat, Mr Woolcott wrote that an Australian republic is fundamental to the nation’s future.

The republican cause in Australia is often seen as a symbolic issue and relegated in importance behind other bread-and-butter political issues, such as the economy. Yet both Mr Flood and Mrs Ridout point to the practical benefits in terms of representation and identity in international diplomacy and trade. They do not overemphasise this element of the argument but they are firm about it. According to Mrs Ridout: ‘we will not have a truly Australian brand until we allow ourselves to produce our own head of state’. She quotes with approval Paul Keating, the former Australian prime minister who has done most to advocate an Australian republic, that Australia must cease being ‘the branch office of Empire’.

Mrs Ridout concluded her press club address by referencing an editorial in the Adelaide Advertiser, noting that an Australian republic ‘better reflects our place in the global economy and system of government, [and] in due course, a republic is in the best interests of modern Australia’. Many leading Australians share this conclusion. It is up to them to play a role in convincing the nation at large.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

3 responses to “Republican leadership in Australia”

  1. This rather hackneyed article, while naming Ridout and Flood as among “many leading Australians” who are republicans, is somewhat short on argument.

    The only assertion made is that “we will not have a truly Australian brand until we allow ourselves to produce our own head of state”. The author then proceeds to note that Ridout quotes with Paul Keating with approval. This we’ve heard before.

    It’s a shame for the author, therefore, that the majority of Australians in every state overwhelmingly rejected his republican ambitions at a referendum. It is an even greater shame for him that the percentage of the population supporting republicanism has actually fallen in the intervening 12 years.

    So much for the claim, made at the time, that republicanism was inevitable because the only people supporting the Monarchy were old and dying out!

    Perhaps the author, as a political scientist should instead focus on why popular support for republicanism is diminishing. May I suggest it is in fact because of the arrogant and elitist view that “leading Australians” know better than the rest of the population how our constitution should work.

    The fact is that while ordinary Australians admire the intellect of people like the author, they don’t trust them with the constitution.

    Not only does the majority of the populace see through the shallowness of these republican arguments, but they very much dislike being to be told how to think by their supposed betters.

    The great irony is that constitutional arrangements around the Monarchy don’t leave the decision making to the elite. The only real power held by the Governor-General or the Queen in the event of crisis is to sack the Parliament, and return decision making to the people.

    The people know this, and won’t be fooled. Until republican apologists can come up with something that gives more, not less power to the people – and they can’t – then they will continue to fail. And they will continue to be out of touch.

  2. I’m not sure if I have found the entrenchmet clause in our constitution (perhaps I should read it again), but isn’t the only way for us to become a truly republican nation is to go to war with the Brits? We can have a referendum all we like, and even if we change the constitution, isn’t there a clause that keeps a loophole for the Brits to sneak in the back door somewhere, thus making a declaration of war the only way to break from the monarchy?

  3. This article highlights the main problem for the cause – it is ‘leading Australians’ more than others that want a republic.

    Or say they do – it is almost de rigueur for high profile Australians to say that they want a republic.

    If a republic is a natural progression, then it will occur when it has to and there need by no urgency in its approach.

    If it isn’t a natural progression then all the forcing in the world will do nothing except divide the country.

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