There is nothing amiss with Australia enjoying affectionate ties with Great Britain, but there is every reason to blush a scarlet hue whenever the issue of the republic arises – particularly when there is a fawning conservative government in Canberra.
The latest example of Australia as the forever awkward adolescent too uncertain, or afraid, to assert its maturity, much less its independence, comes courtesy of Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. The issue was not the republic, but the Australian flag, and in particular the place of the Union Jack.
Quizzed on BBC radio, while in London for meetings with UK government ministers, Bishop was asked if Australia would be following the lead of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key who has promised to hold a referendum on the future of the NZ flag.
“Believe it or not it’s not an issue that actually draws much attention in Australia,” Bishop responded. “I believe we will stick with the flag. There’s no great demand to change it and many Australians have fought and died under that flag, sadly.”
Even by Bishop’s standards, this was an insipid defence of the national flag. Rather than a full-throated, heartfelt endorsement of the flag, Bishop’s principal reason for retaining it appears to be people’s indifference. Her response to the BBC interviewer might easily have been: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
It’s an argument, such as it is, that constitutional monarchists are fond of. “There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes,” then Prime Minister John Howard said during the republican referendum of 1999.
The case for the retention of the monarchy in Australia is rarely sophisticated or nuanced. The typical conservative response to change is to argue “better the devil you know”, dressed up with a few platitudes, and for good measure an aspersion or two directed at the proponents of change.
The issue of the flag is often entwined with the future of the constitutional monarchy in Australia – no doubt because of the prominence of the Union Jack. This is not an unreasonable association, but these are ultimately separate issues.
MONARCHY BY DEFAULT
The republic, perhaps more than any other issue, highlights just how gutless and puerile our political leaders are when it comes to change. In the absence of any leadership on the issue it is true that there is no groundswell of agitation for a republic; but remaining a constitutional monarchy by default is hardly a resounding endorsement of the institution.
Paul Keating stands alone as a leader who stood up for his vision of Australia as a confident, independent nation with the maturity to break free of its colonial shackles. He convinced reluctant Australians to confront the anachronism of having a British royal as Australia’s head of state.
Keating paid the ultimate political price for his courage on this and other issues of identity, but he paved the way for the referendum on the republic – and Australians voted to retain constitutional ties with the British monarchy. The referendum was widely considered to have been sabotaged by Howard, a fervent monarchist. He ensured that the vote was not a simple yes or no on whether Australia should be a republic. Instead, Australians were asked to vote on a specific republican model:
“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”
The monarchists’ tainted victory (54.9% v 45.1%) – won with the support of republicans who did not favour the proposed model – was predicated on preserving the status quo by default. (Malcolm Turnbull famously predicted that Howard would be remembered as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. It will be interesting to see whether Turnbull will be true to his republican convictions should he ever become PM.)
“We should not lightly put aside something that has worked so well and helped give us such stability,” Howard said during the referendum campaign.
This is a familiar argument for remaining a constitutional monarchy. Yet, despite this claim being made repeatedly, I do not recall ever hearing an explanation as to how having a British head of state has provided this much vaunted stability.
Conservatives’ anachronistic relationship with the British monarchy reached its obsequious zenith under Howard, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is proving no slouch when it comes to tugging the forelock. (I am more forgiving of Sir Robert Menzies’ pilloried ode to the Queen in 1963, “I did but see he passing by. And yet I love her till I die”. It suited the times, perhaps only just, and it was also a very personal tribute from the ageing statesman to his young sovereign.)
WHEN TONY MET HARRY
When Prince Harry, the fourth in line to the British (and therefore Australian) throne was in Australia in October 2013 for the navy’s centenary, Abbott, who is no Menzies, was excruciating in his devotion to the young prince.
“Prince Harry, I regret to say not every Australian is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist,” Abbott gushed. “You grace us as your family has graced our nation from its beginning, as the Crown is a symbol of our stability, continuity and decency in public life.”
The depth of Australia’s relationship with the royal family, and the institution of the monarchy, these days depends not on popular sentiment, but on the political hue – or the political cowardice – of the government in power.
Abbott knows that Australians are at best fair-weather monarchists; that the extent to which crowds respond to the visits of young royals has more to do with celebrity than deference. Just because Abbott happens to be an ardent royalist does not suddenly make Australia a nation of monarchists, and it certainly does not give him the right to impose his ardour on the rest of the country.
If Abbott was the true leader of vision and substance he imagines himself to be, he would be occupying himself with the task of ensuring that Australia embarks upon the necessary constitutional reforms to prepare it for the challenges that lie ahead in the “Asian Century”.
Instead of concerning himself with shaping Australia for the future, Abbott is more interested in playing fairytale kingdoms. But brace yourselves for more vomitous fealty from the Prime Minister. If we thought Abbott was over the top in his cloying attempts to impress Harry, just wait until William and Kate (and baby George) hit our shores in April.
Grow up Australia? Not while Tony Abbott is PM. Unfortunately, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is in no hurry to disturb the status quo either. While supporting the retention of the flag, Shorten prefers to play it safe on the future of the constitutional monarchy: “The republic’s a different issue … I think that’s one which the people of Australia sort of have to show a level of interest in.”
No, Bill, it’s an issue on which somebody who would be Prime Minister sort of has to show a level of leadership. We know where Abbott stands – or kneels – on Australia’s constitutional future. But where do you stand?