Waleed Ali, a Melbourne lawyer, is distinctly pessimistic about Australia becoming a republic. The title of his piece in The Age on 22 March, 2006 (a link may be found on the ACM site) sums up his conclusion: “Republican rift ensures Queen a long reign.”
His argument that there simply aren’t that many monarchists left in Australia cannot go unchallenged.
It is similar to the curious observation made recently by Ms Nicola Roxon, of HM Loyal Opposition, which we noted in this column on 13 March 2006. She said that “no new monarchists are being born.”
These views are of an Australia seen through the narrow prism which limits the vision of our cultural elites. They see what is in their milieu, and think this is the real Australia. They would say to one another that no one they know is a monarchist, just as some say they know no one who voted for John Howard. (Not those monarchists necessarily vote for John Howard)
If the prevailing sentiment in Australia is so republican, as Mr. Ali claims, why is the Australian Republican Movement languishing, and why are there so many more supporters of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy? Why is it that polling consistently indicates that the young a less interested in republicanism than the baby boomers? In fact when we reported Ms. Roxon’s remark, we referred to a poll which concluded that only 37% of those in the 14-17 age group were in favour of a republic. Some prevailing sentiment!
While the united republican front between the elites and media in their long juggernaut campaign led to a landslide defeat in the referendum, it had its effect It made people reluctant to admit openly to anything but republicanism, it made monarchy unfashionable and politically incorrect. A Canadian journalist pointed this out to me when he said that t unlike Canadians, he found Australians were embarassed to admit they quite liked the monarchy.
As to attaining a republic, Mr. Aly says there are two conditions for success in any future referendum. First, the proposal needs bipartisan support. He says no Australian referendum has passed with meaningful opposition from a major political party. He should not forget the minor parties. DLP opposition ensured the failure of the nexus referendum in1967. He says the support of the prime minister is crucial because the prime minister will enjoy saturation media exposure in any referendum debate. But John Howard’s contributions to the 1999 debate were few, measured and careful. And he campaigned for the referendum on the preamble which was defeated.
Mr. Aly says that it is the prime minister can easily sabotage the framing of the referendum question. This echoes that lame excuse that the 1999 referendum was lost because John Howard fixed the question. Far from sabotaging the question, John Howard ensured it was fair. It was the republicans who tried to manipulate the question by ludicrously having the words “republic’ and “president” removed. The constitutional monarchists asked that the crucial and unique way the president could be dismissed be included. Both proposals were rejected. In any event, the question in a referendum is not as important as in a plebiscite. The reason is that with a referendum, all the details are on the table, and it is about them that the debate should be directed. That was the clear intention of the Founding Fathers.
Mr. Ali says the second key to a successful referendum is that the proposal be “clear, simple and unequivocally safe.” He thinks that a republic in which the people elect the president attracts knee-jerk support. He says it is not surprising that “most republicans” favour this. This is an interesting observation. Mr. Aly distinguishes between “republicans” and “the “people”.
Perhaps he, unconsciously, knows that republicanism is the prevailing sentiment only among…republicans!
He suggests what we all know – “most republicans” are constitutional opportunists. They are not worried about the disastrous consequences of trying to graft this model onto our constitutional system. They just think it will get through this time.
Mr. Ali recognizes the dangers, and is honest enough to say so. The direct election model would be a “constitutional wrecking ball” which would fundamentally alter the dynamic of our constitutional arrangements. It would risk turning our symbolic head of state into “a political behemoth.” This model is, he says, a “scare campaigner’s dream”.
So he thinks only the most modest republican model is likely to be successful. He says such a modest model “failed famously” in the referendum. But the 1999 model was anything but modest. It represented a power grab by the politicians. It was the politicians’ revenge for Jack Lang, Gough Whitlam, and the vice regal delay in giving Malcolm Fraser an election in 1983. It was their revenge for all those governors daring to challenge questionable advice. The 1999 model would have destroyed a significant check and balance on the politicians . It would have replaced the Governor- General with the Prime minister’s poodle.
Mr. Ali says it was defeated, not by monarchists, but by republicans. Not being part of the campaign, he does not understand that the greater part of the No campaign was run by the monarchists.
The population is made up of a solid and large band of strong constitutional monarchists. At the other end there is a small group of monarchy-haters who will support any form of republic , no matter how damaging it would be. Because of the massive media campaign, many of those in between will feel obliged, if they are put on the spot and asked , to say they are some sort of vague republican. In fact most are not that interested. They don’t dream about a republic, they probably never think about it unless they are forced to. They respect The Queen, and find princes and princesses attractive and interesting. They understand that Australia has a remarkably successful constitutional system; they are, in brief, constitutionally relaxed and comfortable..
Mr. Aly and I would agree on one point, although he would be less forthright than I am. Republicans will never be able to agree on a model. He concludes, and I suspect that he is a little sad about this, that Australia’s formal transition to a republic seems hopelessly distant.