The April 2014 Royal Tour of Australia by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was trumpeted by headlines that proclaimed, “Australians gripped by royal fever”. Republican Australians, on the other hand, were left despairing. For Australian advocates of a republic, a declining percentage of the population, the elevated popularity of the young Royal Couple reminds them of the growing futility of their cause. Anti-monarchists pinning their hopes on a renewed republican zeal after the passing of our current monarch cannot help but be disheartened by the enthusiasm in Australia for Prince George of Cambridge, born July 22, 2013. Has Australia’s republican moment come and gone? Back in 1999, it was widely assumed that the referendum on a republic that year would mark the end of monarchy in Australia.
The first wave of Australian nationalism, which occurred in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, was neither anti-British nor republican. The establishment of a federated Australian nation in 1901 did not require the dissolution of official British ties as per the American Revolution of 1776. Most Australians saw their country, in the first half of the twentieth century, as a united and self-governing entity in the wider context of the British Empire. Then everything changed. The demise of the British Empire in the post-Second World War era, not to mention Australia’s close military alliance with the United States during the Cold War years, weakened some of those old certainties. The second wave of Australian nationalism, culminating in the 1999 referendum, possessed a degree of anti-British sentiment. Becoming a republic, opined the progressive or leftist commentariat of the day, would mark Australia’s coming of age.
Over the last three or four decades of the twentieth century, for the dedicated follower of political fashion, a pro-republican disposition gradually became de rigueur. Even members of the right-of-centre Liberal Party disclosed republican sensibilities, although the subject remained a matter of individual conscience. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), more collectivist in nature, made republicanism official party policy in 1991. That same year saw the establishment of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), propelled forward by an assortment of celebrities, from the novelist Thomas Kenneally (Schindler’s List) to the former captain of Australian cricket Ian Chappell.
In 1993, the Keating Labor government established the Republican Advisory Committee, a state-subsidised entity tasked with providing the wherewithal for Australia’s inexorable transition from constitutional monarchy to republic. Virtually every Australian media outlet, including the Murdoch press, came on board. All that remained, before the Commonwealth of Australia reconstituted itself as a fully-fledged republic on January 1, 2001, one hundred years to the day after Federation, was a constitutional conference and a referendum. Easy.
It is an historical fact not generally acknowledged, perhaps because her position as a constitutional monarch is an inherited one, that Queen Elizabeth II has participated – albeit indirectly – in a popular election. Moreover, she won in a canter. On November 6, 1999, the Australian electorate rejected the entreaties of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) and affirmed Her Majesty as the Head of State in the Commonwealth of Australia by a margin of almost 55 percent to 45 percent. It was not only a victory for common sense and pragmatism over the transient obsessions of Australian progressives, but also a stinging rebuke to vulgar inevitablism per se. The fancies of the Left need not be our future reality. In March this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a high-profile monarchist campaigner at the time of the 1999 referendum, made an even more authoritative point when he re-introduced knight and dame honours for Australia. With this unexpected pronouncement, the conservative Abbott signalled to the Australian public that reform was no longer a one-way street.
Republicans often bicker among themselves about why they lost the 1999 referendum, especially when pro-monarchist sentiment had become a minority position by that time. We had thrilled at the marriage between Charles and Diana in 1981, and the subsequent arrival of Prince William and Prince Harry, but those days were well and truly behind us. Often it appeared as if certain members of the Royal Family were furtively in league with ARM. After all, Queen Elizabeth II herself described 1992 as annus horribilis in the aftermath of the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York, the Princess of Wales’ tell-all tale, Diana, Her True Story, and Princess Anne’s divorce from Captain Mark Phillips. For a great number of Australians, the tragic death in 1997 of Diana, Princess of Wales, represented the end of an age. ARM was perfectly positioned to exploit popular disenchantment with the Royal Family – the wonder is that they failed miserably.
The reason for ARM’s lack of success, it turns out, had less to do with the vagaries of popular emotion and the tabloid press than the ongoing utility of constitutional monarchy in a modern liberal democracy. The pro-republic camp was essentially split into two factions. The course mostly favoured by ARM, and the proposition put to the public in 1999, involved a “minimalist” pathway to a republic. The President of Australia, in this scenario, would be elected not by the people but selected by Parliament. The so-called minimalists feared that a Head of State elected to that post by the general public would enjoy a mandate or authority not available to a Governor-General, and thus undermine the equilibrium that currently exists between Prime Minister and Head of State. As a consequence, it was the minimalist approach that was put to the Australian people – and rejected – in 1999.
However, many Australians, including a number of those who were pro-republic, recoiled at the idea of a Head of State chosen from the political class, and voted ‘No’ in the referendum. All Governor-Generals appointed by Labor governments in the post-war era have had close associations with the ALP. This kind of practice has also been the case with Coalition governments on occasion. The pro-republic movement – torn between minimalist and maximalist models – could not carry the day in 1999 any more than they could win the same referendum if it were held again tomorrow. ARM presently attempts to avoid the irrevocable division in their ranks by calling for a series of plebiscites, starting with a first-round “non-binding” vote on a proposition that omits all mention of incompatible republican models, and simply asks this question: “Do you want Australia to become a republic with an Australian Head of State?” In other words, ARM believes Australia should eschew constitutional monarchy without being offered an acceptable and workable replacement. Here is progressive thinking at its delusional worst. Clearly, the anti-monarchists in Australia have a bigger problem on their hands than the soaring popularity of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Constitutional monarchy, UK-style, is a remarkable institution. Were the British starting from scratch there is small likelihood of them dreaming up this hybrid system as an ideal method of governance, and yet it works. Societal arrangements that are timeworn often prove superior to what – in theory, at any rate – seems ideal. There is, of course, the argument that though the British monarchy gainfully serves the United Kingdom, what place does it have in an independent liberal democracy such as Australia? The first, and not least important, riposte for a conservative Australian is similar to a conservative British one: were Australians today starting from scratch there is little likelihood of us conjuring up the current hybrid system as our ideal system of governance – and yet it works.
Late twentieth century Australian nationalism, characterised by an adolescent hang-up about the old Mother Country, has declined somewhat in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum. Moreover, it now competes for the hearts and minds of Australians with a more confident, traditional-style patriotism that is in many ways epitomised by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a man who happens to be small ‘c’ conservative to his core, unlike (say) David Cameron. This kind of Australian traditionalism might be ambivalent about socio-political trends in modern-day Britain – save the fortunes of Ukip – and yet it treasures, as codified in the Australian constitution and fixed in the national psyche, British concepts of law, justice, freedom, democracy and, yes, monarchy. Our British heritage is not something to outgrow, like a young adult leaving behind teenage self-consciousness, but a way forward in an era affected by the soft totalitarianism of the PC brigade and ever-increasing nodules of Sharia Law.
On their last day in Australia, April 25, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made a surprise visit to the dawn service in Canberra to mark the commencement of Anzac Day, Australia’s (and New Zealand’s) special day of remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives fighting tyranny and defending our democratic way of life. The young Royal Couple, respectful and gracious, seemed anything but foreign in the eyes of this Australian.
This article is published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the Salisbury Review