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A democratic, not a nationalist, republic

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A central leitmotif of the republican case has always been that a foreign monarch is an altogether unsuitable head of state for Australia.

THIS ARGUMENT, the nidus of which lies with pre-federation republicans, was repeated tirelessly by the Australian Republican Movement and other pro-republican groups during the 1990s. Catch cries such as ‘resident for president’, however, often reduced the argument to a neo-nationalist longing for Australia to assert its independence from the United Kingdom. Whilst there is certainly validity, indeed self-evidence, to the charge that an Australian should be the Australian head of state, which despite bizarre claims from some monarchists is clearly the Queen not the Governor-General, there is more to the story than this.

The need for Australia to become a republic is spurred by more than the King or Queen’s nationality. Monarchy itself is the embodiment of a political ideology which is anathema to most Australians. Whilst modern European monarchies have been systematically stripped of their executive powers to the point where they exist only as quaint anachronisms, the draconian philosophy which underpins them has survived relatively unscathed. Monarchy remains the epitome of that frequently misused word, un-Australian.  Whilst the citizenship test has sparked controversy as to exactly what Australian values are, it is widely accepted that democracy, equality of the sexes and freedom of religion are cherished standards. Monarchy, however, is an archaic perversion of all these sentiments.

The Act of Settlement 1701 (UK) stipulates that the monarch of the United Kingdom cannot be or marry a Catholic. This is a blatant case of religious discrimination. It is an insult to the notion of religious tolerance, not to mention an unfortunate infringement on the personal life of any potential monarch. Worse still, this monarchical principle directly contravenes our constitution. Section 116 of the Australian constitution forbids the Commonwealth from creating laws which discriminate on the grounds of religion. Despite having religious tolerance enshrined in our constitution, we allow monarchy, a categorically discriminatory institution, to provide us with a foreign head of state.

To borrow from Paul Keating, this royal decree, like our constitutional monarchy, is an ‘accident of history’. If the Act of Settlement were to be suggested today it would be instantly dismissed as ludicrous and discriminatory. Sadly, however, the cobwebs of royal pageantry have a strange ability to blind us to the obvious. This point is made equally well with respect to gender equality.

Australia has historically been a world leader in promoting equality for women. The South Australian government was the second in the world, behind New Zealand, to grant women’s suffrage. In 1902 Australia became the first country in the world at federal level to allow women to both vote and stand for parliament. This record is certainly a credit to the Australian ethos of fairness. It does, however, seem something of an anomaly when compared to the patriarchy and inherent phallo-centrism of monarchy.

The British monarch, our head of state, is selected through the principle of male primogeniture. This means that the oldest male son of a reigning monarch becomes the heir. If the monarch has a female child, she is automatically demoted behind any younger brothers she may have (which is why Princess Anne is tenth in line to the throne despite being the second eldest of Queen Elizabeth’s four children). This is, of course, sex discrimination. The principle of male primogeniture is in direct defiance of the Australian Sex Discrimination Act (1984), not to mention Britain’s own gender equality legislations. This is yet another example of how distant and irrelevant the British monarchy is in a modern Australian (or, for that matter, British) context.

Finally, Australia is one of the oldest and most successful continuous democracies in the world. The democratic principle was evidenced in the struggle for representative government in the mid-nineteenth century, in the 1902 granting of universal suffrage (for non-indigenous Australians) and through the 1924 introduction, and subsequent general acceptance, of mandatory voting. Yet in a nation which places such a high premium on democracy, the head of state is selected through the least democratic means fathomable.

Even animal societies defer to an alpha male and female according to size and strength. Sadly, our constitutional monarchy is less democratic even than this. The British monarch, our head of state, is not selected for possessing ability, talent or virtue. Nor are they removed for a lack thereof. They are appointed exclusively on the privilege of birth. The highest place of honour in the Australian constitution is awarded to someone for no other reason than they happen to be rich, white, Anglican, British and a Windsor.
Daniel Deniehy: early Australian republican

In the early 1850s, debate was fierce concerning the makeup of the New South Wales constitution. William Wentworth, one of the wealthiest and most powerful colonial politicians, was strongly arguing for the creation of an upper house with hereditary membership. In one of the most famous speeches in Australian political history, the young republican orator Daniel Deniehy dismissed this suggestion as a ‘Bunyip aristocracy.’ He insisted, and it has been overwhelmingly accepted ever since, that Australia must adhere to the principle of meritocracy. Our leaders, teachers and certainly our head of state should be appointed according to their ability and contribution to society, not because they happen to be born into the right family.

When charged with being elitist, undemocratic, sexist and religiously intolerant, the institution of monarchy is bare and defenseless. You will never hear the monarchists defending the Act of Settlement, male primogeniture or hereditary birthright. Indeed, these are indefensible. The Greek philosopher Democritus famously charged that if a point cannot be argued, it is not reasonable. It is clearly not reasonable that a free and democratic society should be constitutionally prostrate before an unelected king or queen. All monarchical adherents can do is meekly claim that a centuries old tradition should be maintained and try to spread fear about any potential change.

The argument for tradition simply does not hold. We change traditions all the time when they are deemed no longer appropriate or relevant. When prejudice and discrimination are central to a tradition, such as the White Australia policy, it is time for the tradition to be abandoned. Similarly the inherent undemocratic, unfair and un-Australian nature of monarchy should be abandoned from our constitution.

The only thing left for the monarchists, and their basic approach in the past, is to spread fear and hope people will be too frightened to enact a logical and long overdue change. The fact is, however, not only do the overwhelming majority of countries in the world have their own head of state, even the majority of nations in the Commonwealth are republics. The question must be put to the monarchists, are we really so hopelessly incompetent as a nation that we cannot have what nearly every other nation in the world has; our own head of state?

Of course we must take every precaution to ensure that the form of a new Australian republic will allow us to continue to prosper. Of course we must choose a model which will uphold the safeguards and benefits of our current system. Of course we must have extensive and wide-spread debate exploring all the possibilities of constitutional reform. None of this changes the fact, however, that we must remove the British monarchy from its place of highest honour in our constitution. And it is not just because it is a British monarchy. Monarchy itself is the embodiment of an ideology which Australia simply does not adhere to. We deserve a constitution which reflects our values. We deserve to have our own head of state. We deserve a fully independent republic of Australia. Let’s make it happen!

(This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, in Republican Roundup in 2008)

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