Freedom? Yes, no, maybe, from Canberra to Holyrood

Seventeen long years ago, Scottish nationalism stumbled upon a champion with a truly global profile; a gobby warrior hero smeared in sky blue, with the face that launched a fistful of blockbusters throughout the 1990’s. The liberties Braveheart’s producers took with history have provoked some controversy, but its success proved to be manna from Hollywood heaven for Scotland: the year after the release of the film and its Oscar triumph, tourist numbers skyrocketed. The Wallace Monument in Stirling saw visitor numbers explode from 40,000 to approximately 1,000,000 in 1996, the year after the film’s release. Mel Gibson may well have drawn and quartered his own acting career and reputation since then, but at least for a time, Scottish independence had a modern, universally recognisable personage that they could rally behind as a nation. The freedom that Gibson fought for on cinema screens, with his shaggy hair, and his abominable attempt at a Scots accent, was still a freedom that seemed worth fighting for.

Contrastingly, it would seem that the jury is still out on the particular brand of freedom that Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is fighting for. On Monday 15th October, the Scottish National Party leader signed an agreement [PDF] with Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh sanctioning a “yes/no” referendum to be held on the question of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom before the end of 2014. The referendum represents a “once in a generation” opportunity for Scottish people to decide whether or not they should remain part of the United Kingdom. As an Australian, it is difficult not to compare the unfolding Scottish experience to my own country’s recent experience. In 1999, the Australian people, in their infinite wisdom, decided in a similar referendum to vote against the formation of an Australian republic, retaining the role of the Queen of the Commonwealth realms as the country’s titular Head of State. A strange result indeed – particularly for a post-colonial Western nation with its own vibrant cultural identity, floating at the foot of South-East Asia as the so-called “Asian century” dawned. Why did Australia say “no”, and why, at this early stage, does it seem most likely that Scotland is going to say “no” in two years time?

In Australia, the 1999 referendum result was a clear product of the framing of the question. A Constitutional Convention convened by the conservative Howard Government in February 1998 provided nominal support for the push towards a republic, and indeed a preferred republican “model”, whereby an Australian President, elected by a two-thirds majority of elected members of Australia’s Parliament, would replace the role of the Queen in Australia’s Constitution. Technically, few could rationally argue that the model endorsed by the convention was not the best model. Pragmatically, this would prove to be a classic case of death-by-committee writ large. Monarchists – few in number in Australia – effectively united in an unholy alliance with supporters of different republican models to defeat the referendum and set the cause of mature Australian nationhood back decades.

In Scotland’s case, as it was in Australia’s case, the binary question put to citizens will be both deceptively simple and fearfully complex; it will contain multitudes. Faced with the weight of history, the warm enveloping tendrils of a shared British culture, and all the complicated political repercussions of the choice, do we seriously expect ordinary citizens to respond with a simple “Yes” or “No”? What an answer to be compelled to give to such a profound question! Polling on support for Scottish independence already reflects the confusion and polarisation of the electorate: support for outright independence in Scotland is hovering weakly at around 30%, which it has done for some years. Support for more devolved powers for Scotland (short of full independence), however, appears consistently 5-10% stronger, and in fact represents the most broadly popular choice for Scotland’s future. As Lesley Riddoch has lamented for the Guardian, it is surely some sort of madness a “greater devolution” option will not even be on the referendum table. Combining support for outright independence and support for “devo-max”, as it has been labelled, it is clear that a majority of Scots would like their nation to be more independent from the United Kingdom than it currently is. Sadly for Scotland, this is not the question that will be asked in 2014. This is not the question that Scots will be allowed to answer.

True democracy surely must demand more than giving citizens a choice between a few bad or uninspiring options every few years; on questions of national significance, simply asking a question is not enough. If the questions being asked of citizens by their governments are so clumsily framed as to restrict the power of the people to speak their own personal beliefs – their own personal truth – to the nation, we may well come to question just how democratic our modern brand of democracy really is.

God save your Queen?

In honour of Australia Day, the 2011 NSW Australian of the Year, Larissa Behrendt, has had an opinion column full of heart-warming bonhomie about “national values” published in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s quite difficult to disagree with Behrendt’s sentiment and the positive prism through which she views our people and our sense of nation; particularly on a day like today. There are lots of objectively laudable things that Australians tend to do as a people and ideals that we represent through our actions that collectively, we should probably all be a bit prouder of. Our determination to reject the recent flood crises and our willingness to dip into our pockets to help out those affected are contemporary cases in point.

On the other hand, being a bit constructively critical now, our handling of the republic issue over the course of the last decade has been poor. Despite some dubious recent polling and some unhelpful dithering over timing, support (e.g. Newspoll [PDF]) for the constitutionalisation of an Australian Head of State is strong and has remained strong since the 1990’s. In what is beginning (after all these years) to seem like an Australia Day variation on Godwin’s Law, Behrendt issues a call for a move to a republic in her column, but she does so with philosophical kid gloves firmly on:

At the time Australia became a Federation, it was a very different country to the one it is now. It had different values, including its embrace of a White Australia Policy, women were excluded from public life and Aboriginal people from mainstream society. The national conversation about a republic is an opportunity to define ourselves by new values through a process of inclusive nation building.

While there is some fearsome juggling of issues going on at the moment on the front benches of the Gillard Government, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of 2009 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry; in this age of near-universal multi-tasking, the government damn well should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”. The rationale for delay is flimsy and unedifying. Waiting on the resignation or death of the Queen is a curiously morbid and cowardly way to approach a profound issue concerning our national identity. Must we meekly wait for the “mother country” to cut a few more emotional strings for us before we will deign to tackle the issue ourselves, as a proud and independent people?

As even the Barmy Army have realised, an Australian republic is laughably beyond due. Its time (surely? please??) to exhume the models, dust-off the arguments and restart the process anew, starting with a plebiscite reaffirming the nation’s desire to have its own Head of State.

The alternative, well… doesn’t speak too highly of us really, does it?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Dear Mr Rudd: The republic debate

Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas For A Better Australia is a compilation of short essays served up by a decent cross-section of “leftish” Australian writers, edited by Robert Manne. The book, which has been criticised in The Australian as a “wish list” and Manne as a “nervous suitor writing a love letter”, seems to hope to offer Australia’s new Prime Minister a sense of progressive direction in relation to several key policy areas.

The opening piece by Associate Professor Mark McKenna from the University of Sydney sets the tone for the book by looking first to the republican debate. While I would consider myself a fairly staunch republican, like the Prime Minister, I do regard the republican debate in Australia as something of a second order issue. I do think the time is right for Australia to set the wheels in motion and move the country towards its preferred republican model, but I also think that when we talk about a republic we are talking primarily about symbolic change. Removing references to the British monarchy from our constitution and our processes and symbols is a necessary evolution if we consider ourselves a truly independent nation, but it hardly puts food on the table of people living in poverty or does anything to ensure that the next Australian generation of adults is the best-equipped to participate in the global economy in national history.

McKenna, perhaps unsurprisingly given that one of his primary research interests is the history of Australian republicanism and monarchy, seems at least in his expression to take a somewhat more aggressive view on the republican debate. Take for example this synopsis of people’s feelings after Federal Labor’s victorious election campaign last year:

If I were asked to choose one word which reflected the feelings of many Australians following the election of the Rudd Labor government in November 2007, the word I would choose is hope. It is a cautious hope, but it is hope nonetheless. One reason for this hope is that Australia might finally build a national consensus on the two great nation-defining and still unresolved issues of the last two decades, the declaration of an Australian republic and the achievement of reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

I think McKenna is spot on when he talks about the election result restoring a sense of “hope” to federal politics in Australia, but I think his partial attribution of this hope to the republicanism and reconciliation questions is debatable at best. Even in view of the government’s triumphant apology to the stolen generations, it is personally quite hard for me to imagine that either reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia or getting rid of incoming Governor-General Quentin Bryce keeps too many average Australians awake at night. These are issues that some Australians feels strongly about, and rightly so, and I suspect that the majority of Australians have formed some sort of opinion on them. However, I do believe that the majority of people out there are basically ambivalent about these two issues that McKenna so bravely describes as the two great nation-defining issues of the last two decades. It’s perhaps a little painful as a progressive to think about them in this way, but I think all in all, Australia would classify reconciliation and the Australian republic as “nice-to-haves”, and not definitively crucial for the immediate governance of the nation.

McKenna goes on to discuss the next step for republicanism in Australia, which he believes to be the adoption of a new constitutional preamble:

The next part of the republican story involves the task of defining the core values of Australian democracy in a new constitutional preamble. A preamble is necessary, not because of some out-dated Jeffersonian obsession with grand rhetoric, but because the time has passed when Australian can assume its values are understood.

I am not sure how this short excerpt strikes other readers, but it strikes me as completely the wrong approach if Australia is to successfully pursue the republican question; McKenna is engaging in the Jeffersonian obsession he speaks of perhaps even without realising it. The Australian constitution is not like the constitution of the United States of America; it does not play a central role in the civic life of ordinary Australians. Australians do not cite clauses of their constitution in everyday life as Americans do with their umpteen amendments. Revising the Australian constitution to add a preamble as a step in isolation is likely to mean a lot to a few Australians with some vested intellectual interest in that document, but next to nothing to the vast majority of them without such an interest. To be honest, I am not sure there is any way that proponents of an Australian republic could more effectively expose the soft symbolic underbelly of their arguments for minimalist change to their opponents.

If the average Australian is interested in Australia becoming a republic, they are interested in it because they want a truly Australian head of state. This change must form the heart of the republican proposal that is put to the Australian people; proposals that deviate from having this basic change at its core are doomed to failure. Like Rudd’s moving apology to the stolen generations indicated, Australians from all cross-sections of the population are prepared to embrace symbolic changes if they are framed in the right way. The push for an Australian republic must bear this clearly in mind if it is to succeed; even the most cynical Australian is prepared to accept largely symbolic reforms and gestures, but these reforms and gestures must sit comfortably in alignment with what they really want, with minimal deviation in deference to elite opinion.