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.