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.

Do Australians favour the constitutional status-quo?

What seems to be the immediately obvious answer to this question is “yes”; as most readers are likely aware, just 8 of the 44 (around 18%) referenda initiated to amend the constitution have succeeded in the history of the Australian federation. It also seems to be the answer favoured by James Allan, a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who is concerned that the Rudd Government has stacked the composition of the “Australian Governance” group at its 2020 Summit with potential constitutional vandals. Listing “bill of rights scepticism” as one of his primary research areas of interest, and asserting his delight at having moved to a country without a bill of rights (he was born in Canada), Allan notes has a few predictions about what the group is likely to come up with based on its composition:

There’ll be calls for a bill of rights. There’ll be calls for Australia to become a republic. And such authoritative calls could prove mighty useful down the road, especially if that was what you wanted before you started this little charade. Of course, when we play this game, we would have to concede, were we honest, that the group we had assembled was nowhere near being representative of the views of Australians as a whole.

Whenever Australians have been asked, they have recognised that the constitutional status quo is, as I noted above, comparatively excellent. But with any luck we can finesse that uncomfortable truth.

But do Australians really generally think that the constitutional status quo is excellent? Not to the extent that one would think based on the statistic I mentioned earlier, as it turns out. The infamous “double majority” provision that requires that a referendum be supported by a majority of the states (four of six) and a majority of voters in a majority of states acts as an arguably undemocratic obstacle preventing constitutional change. In actual fact, over the history of referenda, the average national “yes” vote is 50.28%, with the median “yes” vote sitting within reach of majority share at 48.84%. Five failed referenda, in particular, would have been passed on majority national vote if the double majority provision was not enforced. In another nine failed referenda, the supporting vote was over 49%, and three or more states voted in majority support.

With respect to a future Australian republic and a possible national bill of rights, there is also some reasonable evidence suggesting that a majority of Australians (or at least more than those in outright opposition) support constitutional change in each case. A deliberative poll was conducted as part of the process when the ACT enacted its bill of rights, with 47.3% of people polled in favour of the proposal prior to deliberation, and 58.6% after. Similarly, Newspoll [PDF] results over the last ten years point consistently to the fact that more Australians support the idea of Australia becoming a republic than oppose it.

In short, despite the nation’s sad history of failure to succeed in constitutional reform efforts, I don’t think it is fair to say that Australians prefer the constitutional status-quo to constitutional change. The bar for success has been set high; perhaps so high as to be occasionally impractical and in bottom-line terms, undemocratic. One thing is certain; it certainly does not hold that because something was a fantastic national document one-hundred years ago is a fantastic national document now. As a nation we should constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve the legislative infrastructure of the country. All things in human society gradually evolve – it is just a shame that this particular part of our society has been so protectively guarded from improving over the course of the last century.