“Hi, would you like to talk about the Australian republic?” I ask.
This surprises me.
I’m standing at the mouth of Norton Street Plaza in Leichhardt, Sydney, dressed as innocuously as possible – jeans, plain tee, unzipped hoodie – and holding a clipboard. The clipboard is for show, as is the wad of pamphlets; only the first one has anything printed on it – I have no plan if somebody takes it. The charade is a gauche attempt to gauge the feelings of average Australians towards constitutional reform; specifically, how they would vote in a referendum to replace the British monarch with an Australian head of state.
The results are hardly encouraging, for either the republicans or the monarchists. Apart from the excitement of being sworn at, the best I get for half an hour are mumbled excuses and slide-away eyes. I don’t even have to talk to anybody and enthuse about the republic being a practically important issue, because, tellingly, nobody bothers to ask.
The debate is split like this: the republicans argue that “we can do better than to find our heads of state from one family of unelected English aristocrats living in a palace in London” (this is Peter FitzSimons, national chair of the Australian Republican Movement). The monarchists, on the other hand, “aim to uphold the integrity of the Constitution, honour the Crown’s place in our thriving democracy, and provide a space for loyal Australians to connect with the symbols, traditions and people that have made this country great” (this is Rachel Bailes, youth spokesperson for the Australian Monarchist League). The argument is a symbolic one: in its most basic form, it is a debate of national pride versus colonial tradition.
I have immersed myself in Australian republicanism for weeks prior to this outing, and I can’t escape the background sense that the republican movement’s best argument is also an argument against itself. If the British monarchy is irrelevant to Australia, as they claim, then why should we bother with getting rid of it now? I’m going to shelve this question until the end. Apathy, I find, is much more rewarding when it’s enlightened.
If I asked Bill Shorten the same question I put to the good people of Leichhardt – should Australia become a republic? – his answer would be an emphatic yes. He would ask us – in words he has used before – to “imagine if we were gathered here to draft our constitution tonight”.
“[I]f we were drafting it anew, our head of state would be an Australian.”
If I asked Malcolm Turnbull, he would also reply in the affirmative. It’s safe to assume that Turnbull is a republican: he was the national chair of the Australian Republican Movement for almost seven years, and led the Yes campaign leading up to the 1999 referendum on the subject. But in classic Turnbull style, his support for those issues closest to his heart is heavily qualified. Speaking in November 2015, during Prince Charles’s tour of Australia, Turnbull attached a significant caveat to his republicanism: “If you don’t want to have another heroic defeat, and you want [the reform] to be carried, the best time to do that will be after the end of the Queen’s reign.”
Turnbull’s point is that politics is all about timing. He’s correct in saying that the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign will be a moment to discuss the republic. Whenever anything happens with the British royal family – the birth of a great-grandchild, a ninetieth birthday, grainy pictures of a red-haired sex romp – the Australian media’s reaction is to muse about our relation to the monarchy.
The death (or abdication) of Queen Elizabeth II will be seismic. Most of the Australian population have never known another head of state; the news of King George VI’s death would have been broadcast in black and white. Combine this with bipartisan support for a republic, the fact that it has been a generation since the 1999 referendum, and that nobody cares enough about Charles even to be apathetic about him, and – hey presto – you’ve got yourself a republic. If only things were so simple.
Whenever anything happens with the British royal family – the birth of a great-grandchild, a ninetieth birthday, grainy pictures of a red-haired sex romp – the Australian media’s reaction is to muse about our relation to the monarchy.
Tim Mayfield, the current national director of the Australian Republican Movement, “respectfully disagrees” with Turnbull’s reasoning. He has to, when you think about it. In his words: “we don’t think that important matter of national identity and matters pertaining to the Australian constitution should be run according to the circumstances of the British royal family full stop.” Seems reasonable; it’s not a good look to make your argument for independence from the monarchy dependent on the monarchy.
Having said that, this is the only point of disagreement between Mayfield and Turnbull. Later in the interview, Mayfield picks up on something Turnbull said when he first self-promoted to the prime ministership: that the republican movement needs to be a mass movement of the people “and not a movement of politicians”. Sure, but that’s obvious – the only way to effect a republic is through a referendum.
The point about needing popular public support is a glib one. What the statement hides is that the other necessary ingredient for achieving the Australian republic is for parliament – or the prime minister – to articulate a process leading to a referendum. As Mayfield says, “the campaign will really take off when it gets political buy-in and it’s put firmly on the national agenda in a way that only politicians can.”
So far, Malcolm Turnbull has given us two paradoxes: a republican movement dependent on the health of the monarch; and a people’s movement that’s apparently meant to achieve political change without politicians. Turnbull is smart – Annabel Crabb once compared his brain to a shark that has to remain in motion to survive – so one has to assume that his quibbling over the republic is not accidental.
Dr Mitchell Hobbs, political communications expert and former media adviser to Julia Gillard, helped me to diagnose the cause of Malcolm’s prevarication:
“I think Turnbull is using the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign as a convenient argument right now because, within his own party room, he can’t win the republican argument.”
There are some vocal opponents to the Australian republic even within Turnbull’s own cabinet – Peter Dutton, for instance, was the guest of honour at a recent Monarchist League function.
“In order to maintain unity and to stop people like Cory Bernardi starting their own Tea Party of Australia, [Turnbull] has had to compromise,” Hobbs continues. “In the words of Bob Hawke, he’s had to eat a few shit sandwiches.”
The question, then, is why the issue of the republic could cause such a fundamental rift in Australian politics. Why is it that the Australian republic is such a shit sandwich? Let’s go back to an earlier point: politics is all about timing.
Zoom out, and refocus on the current world climate. Everywhere you look, the world seems to be in the grips of what could be called identity turmoil. Britain’s Brexit vote saw it collect its coat and hat from beside the door, rejecting collective security and the European continent in favour of the chimeric notion of ‘British identity’.
In Austria, recent election results show the far-right Freedom Party controlling 35.1 per cent of votes, whereas in Germany the increasing prominence of Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany party coincided with a 35 per cent increase in extremist violence from 2014 to 2015. In Denmark the ruling coalition depends on the support of the far-right Danish People’s Party in order to maintain government, after the DPP ranked second in the country’s 2015 general election.
The Finns Party (formerly known as the ‘True Finns’) of Finland likewise came second in a recent general election. France has Marine le Pen making a serious tilt at the presidency. Jobbik – a party which sells itself as being tough on “Gypsy crime” – won 20.7 per cent of the vote in Hungary during the 2014 general election. In America, Donald Trump… You get the idea.
It appears the world is psyching itself into a spiral of reactionary nationalism, where the struggle for identity manifests itself as hatred of The Other – all of which is accelerated by economic downturn and the fear created by terrorist attacks. Without dwelling on the grim facts, the point is that the world is becoming powder-keg Europe on a global scale. So what does this have to do with the Australian republic?
Everywhere you look, the world seems to be in the grips of what could be called identity turmoil.
It’s no longer possible to talk about domestic politics in isolation from world politics. The globe is interconnected to the point where even trends of national identity are no longer confined to national borders.
According to Hobbs, the conversation around identity is one that looks to the past.
“Particularly at times of international uncertainty,” he says, “people will be more conservative and they’ll look to maintain the status quo more so than anything else.”
National pride is a nebulous concept, with a diachronic definition. In the current world climate, however, national pride is the catchcry of conservatism.
All of which is the worst of luck for the Australian Republican Movement.
“What I’m pushing is pride. I push pride and I push dignity. I push to be a mighty sovereign nation.” These are the words of Peter FitzSimons, the National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement, but they could just as easily have come from the mouth of a Pauline Hanson or a Geert Wilders. If you’re trying to push a progressive idea, then national pride simply cannot be your main argument.
Perhaps my profaning pal in Leichhardt wasn’t just being rude: maybe he was an informed republican voter who was sensitive to global trends, and the “Fuck you” was him telling me that the current global climate won’t allow for national pride to be linked with change just now. Perhaps, on his reckoning, discretion is the better part of valour, and the Australian Republican Movement doesn’t need to wait until the Queen dies, but until Trumpism does.
Mayfield is certainly alive to the problems that jingoism may pose for the republican cause.
“What we’re about is trying to channel that obvious emotion that exists into something positive, into a positive change, rather than just a reaction,” he tells me.
My concern is that by attempting to harness nationalism and pride, the Australian Republican Movement will instead aggravate and unleash the forces that currently hide behind Australian-flag bandanas.
I hope it’s not too late for a disclosure statement: I am strongly in favour of an Australian republic. Tradition for the sake of tradition irks me, and outside of historical deference I can’t see any good reason for the continuance of the constitutional monarchy. But despite being a republican, I find that my support only really gets going in the abstract. As I was about to start my self-imposed shift at Leichhardt, I was having delusions of whipping up enough grassroots support to start a mob, which would storm the hill at Canberra and rewrite the constitution with the tears of Peter Dutton.
Ultimately, though, my ill-prepared attempt at flyering Leichhardt provides the best analogy for my republicanism: a token leaflet of support on top, with a wad of blank pamphlets underneath. I’m superficially optimistic about the Australian republic, but at the same time I’m sceptical about any current movement that bases itself on national pride.
Until such time when the ugly side of nationalism is exposed and expunged, the Australian republic will remain what it is now: an aspirational symbol of a young nation’s fledgling maturity, and blissfully hypothetical.
Alex Tighe is a philosophy, media and law student at the University of Sydney. He’s originally from Coonabarabran in rural NSW, where he kept a chicken called Gwyneth Poultry.