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.

History, belatedly made

Over an extremely dodgy live video stream provided by the ABC, I watched as the incoming Rudd Labor Government did what the previous government did not have the political stomach to do for over a decade, offering a formal apology to indigenous Australians, and in particular to the stolen generation. Although it is hard to get a full appreciation for the flow and delivery of the speeches owing to the poor quality of the footage at my end, I thought both Rudd and Nelson spoke admirably and did their best to capture the emotion and importance of the occasion with their words. It is not often that parliament is transformed into the stage for an outpouring of national pride and celebration, but certain scenes from the floor of the House of Representatives today managed to do just that. Through its actions so far, and particularly with this grandiose first step in parliament, the Rudd Labor Government has done almost a flawless job of commending itself to the people as a uniting and re-energising force for democracy in Australia.

And the Opposition? Brendan Nelson’s speech was on the whole quite graceful and delivered with true emotion, although there were a few moments where his focus seemed to fade towards a hapless justification of the Howard Government’s inexcusable delaying of today’s events, and the Coalition’s patrician view on compensation (shared with just a tad more compassion at present by the government). Reports are already in that certain parliamentary members of the Coalition boycotted the morning’s events, and that many people watching Nelson’s speech in live sites and in Canberra turned their backs at certain points in the speech. With respect to the former, I do not believe that history will judge those members kindly, and on this fairly auspicious day for the nation, I’m not mentioning their names here. With respect to the latter, I do think that Nelson probably deserved a better show from those watching than he got, but he and the political parties he represents do have a lot to answer for after a decade of neglect of this issue. Pictures, as they often do, tell the tale quite eloquently. The already published images of the Coalition members standing to applaud Rudd’s speech in parliament are a bit awkward; you can tell that some of them are out of their comfort zone, and being dragged along with something that they don’t wholeheartedly believe in. Given that some of them have spent the last decade of their political lives asserting their disbelief in the need for an apology, it’s probably not all that surprising.

Regardless of the history, which is indeed history, today is a day for healing old wounds and casting a die for a new future for Australia, both indigenous and non-indigenous. The major parties have an opportunity now to drive a bipartisan national agenda of investment in Australia’s indigenous communities, with the aim of raising education, health and mortality rates to respectable levels, from the obscene position they are now currently in. The stakes are high in a political sense, just as they are in a human sense. For the Rudd Labor Government, achieving real and lasting results in this area would arguably set it apart in political history as perhaps the greatest the country has yet seen. For the Opposition, there is an opportunity to reinvent itself with respect to so-called “soft” political issues such as reconciliation, and the restore trust and respect for its members amongst the indigenous community that has somewhat been lost over the course of the last decade.

One can not help wondering idly what John Howard made of the jubilant scenes in parliament today. Why did he so doggedly and so determinedly choose and then mercilessly maintain the course on reconciliation that he did, rather than embrace the issue with the humanity that Rudd’s words embodied this morning? I can’t recall the former Prime Minister ever being applauded in quite the same way during his decade in office as Rudd did today, but there is honestly nothing that Rudd did today that Howard could not (and should not) have done ten years ago.

In the same way that the former Prime Minister never, ever said sorry, I am not sure I will ever, ever, understand his mindset towards this issue.

Things I miss about Australia

Well we are close to a half a day behind Australia over here in London of course, but with January 26th fast approaching I’m feeling somewhat homesick. I think overall Australia Day is probably my favourite holiday on the calendar, and probably means the most to me personally. A sense of good will tends to just pervade the country and people from all walks of life. I know some people don’t like the jingoistic nationalist side of it all – certainly sometimes things can get a bit over the top. But on the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with exhibiting a touch of pride in the nation either.

In any case, I thought I would put together a quick list of the things I miss about Australia. In no particular order, but having said that, it’s not like I’ve randomised the list either:

  1. Friends and family
  2. The weather and more specifically the sun
  3. Wearing T-shirts (perhaps an addendum to 2)
  4. Driving
  5. Fabian Society seminars
  6. My home
  7. The cacophony of birds in the trees
  8. The lack of an aristocracy in the very British sense of the word.
  9. Kebab rolls – it’s just not the same over here or anywhere in Europe.
  10. Food courts. The concept has apparently not arrived in the London CBD as yet. You need to learn to like sandwiches.
  11. Psuedo-Portugese chicken burger franchises.
  12. 375ml cans of soft drink (as opposed to 330ml)
  13. Drinking tap water (with fluoride). It’s mandatory filtering over here unless you like heavy metals.
  14. The silence on CityRail trains as compared to the constant announcements on the tube. Really!
  15. Playing sport of some description.
  16. Australian accents.
  17. The ABC
  18. Watching the cricket on lazy Summer afternoons.
  19. Plastic banknotes that fit in your wallet.
  20. The abolition of 1 and 2c pieces.

Although it somewhat seems like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel, in reality I’m probably just a bit warped. I could go on for hours. Whatever you get up to on Australia Day, I hope you have a good one.