Royals, semantics and republican Labor pains

We did but see them passing by; regrettably for some, they took around ten days to pass completely.

Yes, of course, it was nice for the country to host the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son. Yes, the royal convoy delighted well-wishers and monarchists at heart across the nation, sprinkling stardust on the everyday lives of those they met. But what of the rest of us? Having yawned and gagged our way through an extended royal edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”, we need no longer imagine a dystopia where news and current affairs are abolished and reality television shows are the only entertainment put to air. There is something whimsical about watching the future foreign kings and queen of your country, decades removed, being awkwardly compelled to meet and greet sporadic mobs of awe-struck locals. The results appeared – at least to me – like an outbreak of religious fervor writ small, with subjects reaching excitedly over barricades and worming their way through crowds seeking to speak to or even touch the sacred flesh of the blessed ones. What small talk did they make with well-wishers, journalists pondered live on air, as much to themselves as anybody watching? What is the Duchess wearing today? Let us speculate in the public domain at great length on these critical matters!

In the aftermath of this curious episode, what we are all left with is a Coalition Government apparently striving to outrage every conceivable demographic in society with its impending Budget, and an Opposition Leader publicly musing that his party needs new policies. Yes Bill, yes. Bill Shorten does have a tricky game to play over the next year or so, needing on the one hand to outline enough plans for the future to keep the public interested, whilst not allowing himself to be gazumped by the Coalition in the run-in to the next federal election. That does not mean he can not present any concrete plans now. Moreover – joining some fairly obvious dots – reviving the campaign for an Australian republic in conjunction with the Australian Republican Movement seems like a pretty sturdy mast to nail Labor’s colours to.

Tactically, this is not an issue which a government lead by Tony Abbott can outflank Labor on. Any push towards re-opening the republic debate is guaranteed to be opposed by the Prime Minister, and equally guaranteed to divide support amongst some of his most senior Ministers (for starters: Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Chris Pyne – all republicans). The Prime Minister would undoubtedly argue that talk of a republic is a flippant move in the shadows of Australia’s Phantasmal Sovereign Debt Crisis (TM), but assuming that Labor also provides a robust riposte to the Federal Budget, the republic debate offers both the possibility of answering a question the majority of Australians want dealt with and providing yet another rich contrast between Labor’s vision and the backwards-looking myopia of the current Prime Minister.

Recent polling on support for a republic is admittedly quite negative – but the veracity of any polling conducted in conjunction with a royal visit is highly questionable. In the current context I find it difficult to believe that the average disconnected Australian would leap to mouth off about dear old Wills and Kate and Georgey or their mob generally when phoned up by a pollster. Weasel words are also muddying the waters. A majority of Australians understand that retaining the British Queen as our titular Head of State instead of an Australian chosen by Australians is illogical and simply not right for a country purporting to stand on its two feet: there is no question of this. It is, however, perfectly understandable for someone to hold this view, but still profess support for the monarchy (or the “royals” personally), and a dislike for the idea of becoming “a republic”. The cult of celebrity, as ARM member Raff Piccolo has observed, deeply intertwines with these conflicting beliefs. There is a semantic morass here that needs to be waded through, but it is a morass that we must wade through as a country, sooner or later. They are lovely people, the monarchy is a historically delicious British institution, but they are not Australians and the “Queen of Australia” is an anachronistic concept that fails to pass the laugh test. And yet, we are stuck with it.

Nevertheless, there is the very real prospect that the 2016 election could coincide with a cosmic political alignment in support of the republican cause. At the current rate of knots, only a brave or foolhardy pundit would tip a comfortable victory for a government led by Tony Abbott at the next election. The Prime Minister’s recent twists and turns have boosted support for Labor federally and even revived the fortunes of the Australian Republican Movement, which saw its membership base skyrocket after Abbott’s unilateral decision to restore the British honours system here. If Labor wins the next election, it is highly likely that both the Prime Minister and the newly anointed Opposition Leader (whomever they are) will support the republican cause. The continuing reign of Queen Elizabeth II should not and would not prove an obstacle; privately Her Majesty must surely be baffled by our prolonged bout of constitutional laziness. Presiding over the final gentle release of Australia from its colonial bonds would be a fitting and worthy act for a legendary monarch whose reign may be approaching its twilight years.

There is a wave coming, and it is Bill Shorten’s to ride if he is bold enough.

The Diamond Jubilee culture clash

Last weekend, London was brought to a damp and inebriated standstill in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. On Sunday, the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant saw Her Majesty’s Royal Barge Gloriana take pride of place amongst over 1,000 boats, cruising eastwards along the capital’s aorta in a spectacular, if rain-sodden display. On Monday, crowds of revellers assembled outside Buckingham Palace under more generous skies for the Diamond Jubilee Concert, organised by the BBC and Take That second fiddle Gary Barlow, and featuring musical luminaries such as Elton John, Cliff Richard, Kylie, and Paul McCartney. The nation (well, sort of) rejoiced.

In many ways, this was a thumbnail sketch of the cultural problems facing the United Kingdom in the 21st century; writ large over several days and beamed across the world as current affairs fairy floss. There were only very hushed critical murmurings around the traps in London, mostly inaudible amongst all the flag-waving and Pimms swigging, but the divisions were plain to see for those not blinkered enough to overlook them. Polly Toynbee cut a lonely, party-pooping figure in The Guardian, daring to criticise a spectacle which for many or even most, was a celebration of the family residing untouchably on the pedestal of the British national identity:

There at the heart, in the dead centre of all this pomp and circumstance, is the great emptiness, the nothingness, the Wizard of Oz in emperor’s clothes. The louder the bells, the more gaping the grand vacuity. What are we celebrating? A singularly undistinguished family’s hold on the nation, a mirage of nationhood, a majestic delusion.

Let’s be clear: this is not a kingdom united in fervent celebration of their Head of State. Although most people would never speak ill of that grand old dame still perched upon her throne after over half a century, this is a “United Kingdom” cut carefully into three or four distinctive but becalmed camps. There are of course the loyal royalists, those from conservative backgrounds and predominantly from middle England who still adore the magic and the tradition of the monarchy. They occupy influential positions, are large in numbers and are represented strongly in the media by the Daily Mail and The Sun, the wildly popular tabloid newspapers that no sane or thinking person would describe as papers of record. For the royalists, to attack, criticise or even question the legitimacy of the Queen or the Royal Family is akin to an act of treason; an attack on the country at large and all it stands for.

Firmly on the other side of the fence are the republicans, tiny in number, and represented somewhat feebly during the Diamond Jubilee by a protest organised by Republic outside City Hall last Sunday. Intellectually they are of course in the right space, but there is a cavernous emotional disconnect between British republicans and mainstream British public opinion. The British republican movement, in terms of political influence, make the somewhat quiescent Australian republican movement look like the Bolsheviks circa mid-1917. Demographically, with a popular and respected Queen still on the throne and a widely popular Prince William waiting in the wings after his father, republicans in Britain could hardly be more “up against it”. It seems certain that there is not a British republican alive today who will live to see an English republic emerge triumphant from the populist grandeur of the Windsor family.

Thirdly, there is a group we might call the “patriotic cynics”. There are many throughout the United Kingdom who have heartfelt grievances regarding the monarchy, but are just a little too nationalistic, fun-loving, and/or proud to firmly side with the radical republican camp. First generation Britons and many in Northern Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland feel disconnected from the England-centric wealth of the monarchy; they like the Queen as a person, but they feel that she and her upper class ilk cannot possibly understand them and how they live their lives today. In this age of austerity, the cost of supporting the monarchy is starting to stick a little in the craw, particularly as public sector jobs are being abolished, benefits for the disabled and pensioners are cut, and venerable institutions such as the NHS are being sliced and diced under fiscal duress. Some sticklers still hold a grudge against the Queen and the royal family for the way Diana, the people’s princess, was treated in the aftermath of her marriage breakup with Charles. There is quite a tangible bit to grieve about for these folk, to be sure, but ditching the Queen still feels too radical an idea, too heretical a step for such people.

Lastly, there are those who quite frankly don’t really give a shit. Whether the Queen is there or not there really doesn’t make any damn difference to their lives, so why in hell should they care? It is this group, in my entirely unscientific estimation, who together with the “patriotic cynics” represent a majority of the British population. For these people, the Queen is just there. She has always been there, hasn’t she? The Queen is kind of cool. Occasionally she has parties and public holidays in her honour, which is sweet. There are lots of nice photos of her and her family in the colourful magazines every week. Look, Will’s balding more. Look what Kate’s wearing this week! Ah, Charles is such an ass isn’t he?

Needless to say, the warm pall of froth and flippancy that the monarchy provides to Great Britain’s national life is set to suffocate its bodypolitik for many years to come. Only the languorous pushes towards independence by the UK’s constituent nations seriously threaten its position.

867,034 more reasons why the season is overdue

The latest scandal to emerge featuring Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York is shocking in its very predictability. Isn’t Britain just a wee bit embarrassed about the blundering extensions of its monarchy? It would be worth a right good chuckle from an antipodean standpoint if it weren’t for the fact that our ties to the monarchy remain all too real. Our supplication to the tedious nonsense of the British royal family remains.

The Prime Minister has promised the nation that a referendum will be held “in due season”. Will he promise to hold a plebiscite on the issue prior to or simultaneously with the 2013 election if re-elected? If he will not, I don’t really feel that Federal Labor can any longer credibly claim to support an Australian republic.

The very name of Malcolm Turnbull’s albatross

Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir of his participation in the Australian Republican Movement’s campaign for a republic, Fighting for the Republic, was published in 1999. I wonder, when he was writing the words below, whether he had even the slightest inkling of what the coming years would bring (p.4):

When we launched the ARM, the monarchists quickly retaliated by forming a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). Its chairman was Lloyd Waddy, a Sydney barrister, and a number of well-known conservatives were among its founders, including Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University, and, more improbably, Michael Kirby, very much a small-‘l’ liberal and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

The ACM was pretty ineffective until it hired Tony Abbott as its executive director in 1993. Abbott had been a speechwriter for Liberal leader John Hewson and was an energetic, if somewhat erratic, advocate of the status quo.

And there is this (p.26):

The monarchist campaign was largely directed by Tony Abbott, who had now left his job with the ACM to take up a seat in Parliament. One of the strategy documents prepared by Abbott encouraged the monarchists to attack me personally. ‘As their public face Turnbull is arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians. He is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.’

Strong words. I wonder how both parties view their interactions during the late 1990’s now? Certainly Abbott would likely view them with a healthy dose of triumphalism. It seems that the life and times of Malcolm Turnbull for the past fifteen years or so have been bookended by two quite separate and quite personal defeats by the Federal Member for Warringah.

A prince visits a lazy, uncertain nation

He came. He saw. He kissed some kids and made some clucky old dames blush. He went home.

Apart from the predictable lashings of sound and colour emanating from our (mostly tabloid) press and current affairs programs over the last few days, there have also been a few rumblings about the lately neutered republican debate in Australia in the wake of Prince William’s brief visit. Earlier this week, Julia Gillard re-iterated the Rudd Government’s new, contradictory approach to the republic; supporting the change in principle, but curiously declining to nominate when it would put the matter to a referendum once again. The government admittedly has a lot on its plate, but there is only so long it can promise change while doggedly refusing to instigate it.

Even Malcolm Turnbull, arch-republican in chief, in a piece for The Times Online, has admitted that Australia’s shift towards a republic is now being guided primarily by the Queen’s mortality:

Changing the Constitution is extremely difficult and that is why I believe that the next republic referendum has the best chance of success after the Queen’s reign. That moment will be an historic and political watershed.

What is deeply ironic is the general view on this troublesome debate of ours from Prince William’s grey shores, exemplified by this contribution from Stephen Bates in The Guardian. Many in the United Kingdom view the monarchy as anachronistic and somewhat redundant, and in the trying economic times that we still find ourselves in, a drain on the public purse that is difficult to justify. To be perfectly blunt, the very concept of a monarchy – even an essentially symbolic one – is a throwback to a bygone era when blood trumped merit. It is antithetical to the Australian ethos.

Generally, British people just don’t seem to comprehend why Australia is holding itself back from declaring itself a republic, from finally cutting itself loose officially from its mother’s teat. The British are intimately familiar with the fierce love that Australians have for their country, their sense of superiority (particularly on the sporting field). This chest-thumping pride in the greatness of Australia is contradicted by the frustrating vacillation that has swallowed up the republican debate.

Do we live in such a timid and uncertain nation that we must wait for a lovely old lady on the other side of the world to die before we can chart a course for ourselves? It certainly appears so.