The republicans do not know what to do. They fear the Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd, will be as good as his word and will not move on their agenda in this term, “if at all.”
The republican movement, described variously by serious journalists as “comatose” and “on life support,” has been reduced since the 1999 debacle to saying they still want a republic but admitting they haven’t the foggiest idea what sort of republic they actually want.
But as David Koch, the presenter of the high rating channel 7 'Sunrise' programme pointed out when they launched their ill fated “ Mate for a Head of State” campaign in January, 2006, they can hardly expect Australians to take them seriously unless they tell them precisely what they want to do.
So knowing they are likely to lose another referendum, the republicans are desperately trying to circumvent the constitution with a costly and quite fraudulent plebiscite, or plebiscites.
On 30 December, 2007 Tony Stephens wrote a piece in The Sydney Morning Herald which was, as the headline (“Lovely woman, shame about the royal plural”) indicated, about The Queen of Australia.
With a reserve unknown about other figures, he wrote that Her Majesty is “said to be” in good health, and still undertakes more than 400 official engagements each year. He cited Robert Hardman’s interesting piece (“The older the Queen gets, the more she changes”) in The Spectator on 5 December, 2007:
"At an age when all of her contemporaries have long since retired, she has, very quietly, been something of a royal rebel. You might imagine that an institution governed by a woman of 81 (and with a husband of 86) would either be slowing down or handing on. The monarchy is doing neither."
Tony Stephens, who is an excellent journalist and a charming and witty man, no doubt shares the values and attitudes of most in his profession. If he is not exactly a passionate republican, it is extremely unlikely that he is a constitutional monarchist. He says it is impossible to defend the system against the claims of merit or the pursuit of equality, but it is easier to defend it because it has adapted to change.
Reflecting the fact that republicans are beginning to accept what constitutional monarchists have long assumed –The Queen will not abdicate, he says her reaching the latest milestone “prompts questions about the succession.” This, he says, “concerns” many of her subjects. Many? “It brings renewed stirrings of republicanism,” he warns.
Australians, he says, are not ready, and may never be ready, for King Charles and Queen Camilla, a line pushed by Neville Wran and others during the 1999 referendum. “The idea borders on incomprehensible, “says Mr Stephens. Perhaps it does at Fairfax, but I doubt if it is much thought about in the kitchens and living rooms of, shall we say, “working families.” Even if the next reign were on their minds, polling indicates it only causes minor changes to republican preferences, which are declining anyway.
Tony Stephens recalled that Clem Jones, the man credited as Lord Mayor with turning Brisbane from a bush capital into a modern city and who led the rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, died two weeks ago after having said he wanted to see a republic in his lifetime. Before the federal election he wrote to all federal parliamentarians urging them to begin work on the issue.
Clem Jones had campaigned in 1999 for a republic where the head of state was directly elected by the people, and campaigned against the model proposed in the referendum. He was appointed to the official Vote No committee chaired by the then ACM Executive Director, Mrs Kerry Jones.
ACM was criticised by some for this, but the appointments to that committee were made by the Prime Minister and were based on the first preference votes to the 1998 Constitutional Convention where ACM predominantly and then the independent republicans who wanted a directly elected President attracted the highest votes of all the groups who argued against the Yes case. ( Of the constitutional monarchist first preference votes at the election for the Convention, ACM secured 83.95%)
Mr. Jones has left funds to advance the republican cause.
Tony Stephens admits that Australia has much more pressing issues than the question of a republic. He lists three factors which he thinks will cause that debate to resurface.
The first of these is when The Queen heads towards another milestone. That will be on 10 September 2015, at 89, when Her Majesty will pass Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history. (In the interim she will pass King Henry III on 6 March 2008, King James VI of Scotland on 11 October 2009 – he came to the Scottish throne in 1567, well before he became King of England and King of Ireland in 1603 – and King George III on 12 May 2011.) So applying Mr. Stephen’s first factor, nothing will happen until 2015, which in our federal electoral cycle is two terms away.
The second factor is the Rudd Government working through its agenda. But apparently not this term. So nothing before 2011.
The third factor, is “a growing number” of Australians who are “ puzzled” by their nation's links to a monarch who lives on the other side of the world and who is “as foreign to them as the Queen of Sheba.” Well, Her Majesty is not a foreigner, and anyway, support for a, note that, ”a” republic is falling . And as to a “growing number,” polling on some sort of a vague republic suggests the number is actually falling. So this factor will not apply.
So, scratching his head as to why the monarchy remains high in popular esteem, he thinks one reason why Australians might retain the monarchy is “sentiment.”
They may simply like it, he admits, quickly reminding the reader in case they have forgotten that the Royal Family of its “recent dysfunctional nature.” Saying that may well remind many readers that their marriages too, may not have worked out. It may even happen to journalists .
This “dysfunctional” factor is of course no more than republican fluff; the essential question is our highly successful constitutional system at the centre of which is our oldest institution, the Australian Crown.
The second reason not to cut the link is it “would not be worth the trouble.” Or as some would say, Mr Stephens, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
While his republicanism tells him that neither “holds much water these days,” you get the distinct impression that like so many republicans Mr. Stephens just does not understand why the passion for republicanism is not contagious, unlike say the magic of monarchy.
In the meantime the interest in and respect for our Queen and the Royal Family has in no way abated. Much to the profound irritation of the Daily Telegraph’s clearly disgruntled social columnist Fiona Connolly, who could hardly believe that half a million people had watched it, the number of viewers of The Queen’s Christmas Message on the Royal “You Tube” Channel and embedded sites will most likely exceed the one million mark by the New Year.
To this should be added the 100 million or so who watched The Queen on television and on podcasts, others who heard it on radio, or on other audio formats as well as the countless many who saw heard or read extracts.
Work that one out, my dear columnists.
God Save The Queen, Merry Christmas, as the season still is, and a Happy New Year to all our readers.