BENJAMIN T. JONES and MARK MCKENNA (eds)
Black Inc., 2013, 251 pages, $29.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
If the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) represents those who wish to make Australia a republic yet the ARM sends congratulations to the Queen in 2012 on her sixtieth year of rule from London, what hope is there for Australia becoming a royal-free zone? Not much, must be the conclusion, after reading the ARM’s call-to-republican-arms book, Project Republic.
Republicanism has majority public support (48% versus 39% at last count in 2012) despite the defeat of the 1999 referendum when a monarchist Prime Minister and conservative republicans, including the ARM, opted for the referendum question on a republic to decide on the highly unpopular model of parliamentary appointment of a President as Australian head of state rather than direct election by all voters.
When republican ‘direct electionists’ made the politically short-sighted error of advocating a No vote to a republic in the mistaken assumption that a direct-election model would be put at an imminent second referendum, the majority republican sentiment (75% at the time) was split, the referendum lost (45% voting Yes), ushering in a long and continuing period of “indifference and silence on the republic”.
To re-ignite republican fervour, Professor Mark McKenna and comedian Julian Morrow, in their contributions, adopt anti-monarchical irreverence although this is frowned upon by the National Director of the ARM who frames republicanism as being all about patriotism and not criticising the Queen or the rest of the royal bludgers.
Obsequiousness towards the monarchy peppers the book, including the opening salvos by erstwhile political opponents, the Liberal’s Malcolm Turnbull (admiring the Queen for a ‘lifetime of service’) and Labor’s Wayne Swan (loving the Queen for her ‘unfailing record of public duty’). Both also chummily agree that another word for republicanism is patriotism (Turnbull – a republican is “simply, purely, patriotic”; Swan - an Australian republic will be better positioned to “take advantage” of the region during the ‘Asian Century’).
Quite how this lame royalty-reverence and limp nationalism will help the republican movement to “find a new language that will connect with the electorate” and fire the republican imagination is not immediately apparent. McKenna notes that today’s republicans have shed their historical image as “radical, atheist, anti-British left-wingers hell-bent on revolution” but, in thus “normalising the republican case”, they have “sanitised the argument to the point of blandness” and narrowed the vision to ‘minimalist’ constitutional change (replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state).
The reaction of many people to this minimalism, says Larissa Behrendt (Indigenous Law professor), is “a collective yawn”. The republic must be about more than token symbolism, and any constitutional revamp must embody values of democracy, multiculturalism, fairness and equality.
Decorative symbolism is only important for the substance it adorns, agrees Henry Reynolds who grasps the political nettle - monarchy “cements in place at the apex of the political system the principles of hereditary power and privilege which … are profoundly undemocratic”. Biology should not decide who sits at the top of the power heap. The res publica (‘people’s space’) should.
Even at the level of limited democratic reform, republicans need to be bolder and to consider issues of popular, democratic power instead of contenting themselves, as nearly all contributors do, with waffly sentiment about an Australian head of state instilling some variant of nationalism (‘national identity’, ‘national dignity’, ‘national pride’, etc.) to the office.
Whether a hereditary, foreign royal or an elected Australian citizen occupies the post, the occupant should not have the present, coyly termed, ‘reserve powers’, most notoriously the ability to sack an elected government (as happened in 1975). As head of state, a republican President would still be the head of a state (police, courts, bureaucracy, army, etc.) that serves the Australian capitalist class and will dismiss a government they fear, rightly or wrongly, will harm those class privileges.
Abolishing the British monarch as Australian head of state, nevertheless, remains an essential, immediate-term, democratic reform. Wiping out one undemocratic bastion of privilege should, however, be just the overture to tackling other fortresses of class wealth and power in Australia. The politically tepid Australian Republican Movement, and its book (which often gets lost in arcane constitutional ponderings), can help with the former but not, one despairs, with very much, if any, of the latter.