ARM 20th anniversary dinner: not a celebration – a renewal

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ARM vice chair and Independent Australia managing editor David Donovan gives an account of last month’s Australian Republican Movement 20th anniversary dinner in Sydney,  which has reinvigorated the Movement.

The Australian Republican Movement marked, rather than celebrated, its 20th anniversary dinner at a memorable function in Sydney last month.

It also received funding and offers of support that will allow it to make positives strides to get the Republican issue – which has been put firmly on the backburner by politicians since the global financial crisis hit a couple of years ago – right back on the national agenda.

The July 21 event was a complete full house, with 150 people – and plenty of star-power – filling the pleasant environs of the IMAX Star Room on Sydney’s Darling Harbour. There was an unbelievable torrential downpour that night, but no-one stayed away. There were eminent broadcasters and journalists, like Geraldine Doogue and Mark Day; famous writers, historians and artists/designers, such as Thomas Keneally, John Hirst and Jenny Kee; business people and barristers, including David Hill and Greg Barns; and, of course, a swag of acting or former politicians, notably Christine Milne, Susan Ryan and Cheryl Kernot.

There were a few major figures missing from the event. One of the main architects behind the formation of the ARM, former NSW premier Neville Wran, had intended to attend and address the function but was unfortunately obliged to pull out at the last minute for private reasons. And Malcolm Turnbull, someone who has committed more time and resources to the struggle for an Australian Republic than any other, unfortunately had a conflicting engagement — his mighty figure loomed large over the proceedings.

The master of ceremonies was the wickedly acerbic Julian Morrow, from the popular ABC comedy programme The Chaser. To the delight of the audience, Morrow started by passing on the apologies of former prime minister John Howard, which he said were “...well earnt obviously”.

Australian of the Year Simon McKeon spoke about Republicans’ cup being neither overflowing nor empty. That, because of political and world financial circumstances, the Republic has taken a backseat in the political and public consciousness for now. But it’s time would come again, he said, though it would take some “luck” and some “heavy lifting” by members of the ARM to achieve the final happy goal.

Showing that he had lost none of his zeal and passion for an Australian Republic, inaugural ARM chair Thomas Keneally spoke about the beginnings of the ARM, in 1991. He said it was an easier time then to start off a Movement like the ARM, since there was “no GFC…no carbon tax debate and no Alan Kohler graphs on the ABC to terrify us...”

He ended his address, which electrified the crowd, by reciting a poem he had written on a coaster,  “…possibly after taking too many wines” at a Republican dinner in Lismore several years before. He said he had recently adapted it to make it less confrontational than the original:

They said we could not do it

Devise a scheme that's ours

And owes what it is to you and me

And not some distant powers


But if we cannot do it

Change the ancient for the free

The world will never know who we were

And nor the hell will we.

Due to the absence of Neville Wran, former Hawke and Keating Government minister – and former ARM national committee and Life member – Susan Ryan spoke about the 1993 Republican Advisory Committee – that had been headed by Malcolm Turnbull and which included several other prominent Australians – set up by Paul Keating to investigate options for an Australian Republic and then report back to the Australian Parliament.

One of the objections raised by monarchists, she said, as the team travelled around the country, was that Australia couldn’t become a Republic because “...what would happen to the RSPCA?” Some things never change...

The ARM chair soon after the disappointment of the defeat of 1999, Greg Barns, then spoke about the lessons of 1999 and the subsequent changes in the Australian political landscape. He also said that all dynasties and monarchies eventually come to an end (“just ask Rupert Murdoch”) and that Republicans were on the right side of history. He also gave an extremely amusing anecdote about the radical difference in approach from monarchist group Australians for Constitutional Monarch from 1999, when they would not mention royalty (“the love that dare not speaketh its name”), to its new approach where their website is, said Barns, “dripping with the Queen and all her finery”.

The last speaker was the ARM chair Mike Keating, who started by giving some information on the massive amounts of work the ARM had done with only one part-time staff member and the rest unpaid volunteers. Despite these efforts, little had been achieved in recent years to infiltrate the Australian public consciousness and persuade politicians about the merit of the cause. A Republic would not come about this way, he warned, explaining that a full-time professional campaign manager and a proper multimedia campaign and all its trappings was what was required. Fortunately, he continued, an anonymous donor had come forward during the night offering $100,000 per annum over the next three years to this end, whereupon the mood of the event, momentarily subdued, brightened considerably.

Some prizes were raffled, including a Rugby ball donated by former ARM national committee member Adam Wand and signed by the victorious 1991 Wallabies, which was somehow won by a startled Cheryl Kernot!

Lively discussions were seen to occur late into the night.

The $100,000 p.a. donation was not the only offer of assistance received by the ARM in this highly successful, yet still somewhat bittersweet, event. Underlying the marking of the 20th anniversary was the thought that the ARM should not even need to still be in existence — that Australia should, really, have become a Republic many years ago. And the thought that no-one wants to come back for another of these dinners in another 20 years.

But the spirit of Australian Republicans, even during these less than propitious times, was shown to be unbowed and ready for the fight. With new resources and new impetus, there is every reason for new confidence. The ARM 20th anniversary was not a celebration, but a girding of loins and a renewal for the next round in the battle for the heart of a nation.  
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