British Foreign Office soft diplomacy and Australian republicanism

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The British Foreign Office reports that Australian republicanism has been killed off for the foreseeable future; managing editor David Donovan says, "well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

You may have heard the news that the UK Foreign Office has declared the Australian Republic dead, at least for the time being, because of what they perceive as the "success" of recent Australian tours by A and B grade royalty.

It should be recognised at the outset that the UK Foreign Office has a vested interest in selling this line to its UK Government masters, since the Foreign Office plays a pivotal role in arranging royal tours, providing publicity and arranging the proper accompanying Fleet Street press coverage. In short, the Foreign Office use the royals as a tool of British post-colonial “soft diplomacy” — as can also be seen by the frequent trade delegations made by British royalty to, for example, despotic oil-rich regimes in the Middle-East (note image right).

You see, the British Government sees the Commonwealth – and, most especially, the 15 monarchies within the Commonwealth that, ostensibly at least, revere the royal family – as an illustration of Britain’s continuing “influence” in the world — albeit one that is in truth an entirely disingenuous and misleading façade.

It is easy to imagine Foreign Office officials at functions in the far reaches of the globe, saying

“Well, we don’t still have an Empire, as such, but we are still rather important. I mean, the Commonwealth has its head office in London and includes over 40 per cent of the world’s population. Moreover, the Queen resides at Buckingham Palace in Westminster and reigns over 15 nations, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and … umm … other ones.”

The deeply conservative London tabloid the Daily Mail depicted here yesterday the triumphant gloating of the British establishment over what they see as a hard-won change in the fortunes for the British monarchy in Australia.

The truth is far different.

Firstly, the Queen – an A-grade royal – drew reasonable, though not outstanding, crowds in Australia for the simple reason that the public think this will be the last time they’ll ever see the old dear in Australia. That was the way it was promoted by the press "the Queen's farewell tour of Australia".

William Windsor, the next after one heir to the Australian throne – a rapidly ageing and balding B-grade royal – never draw a crowd of over 3,000 people while he was in Australia. Pitiful, in truth, given the press beat-up — and only a tiny fraction of that seen by inexplicable US celebrity Kim Kardashian on her November Australian visit. The fact of the matter is — penurious, riot-torn, EU-bankruptcy-imperilled and friendless Britain has little real power or influence over anything much anymore — let alone bemused nominal monarchies that the Queen also “reigns” over, such as Australia and Canada.

Nevertheless, none of that would be of even passing interest to the British Foreign Office, because to them it is all about the “appearance of power”.

This is the old colonial two-card trick of playing on the ignorance of "Johnny Foreigner". Their thinking would be that by keeping Australia in the royal embrace they might just fool a few of the boom economies in Asia into imagining that Britain is still a force, is still relevant in the world,  that there is value in continuing trade links to Britain. As absurd as this sounds on the face of it, perhaps there is some truth in these statements. One can only imagine the loss of British prestige were Canada and Australia to become Republics. And, indeed, many Australians find it difficult to understand what our relationship to Britain actually is these days,given we still hold these strange, archaic and obsolete constitutional links — so what might people from other countries, who understand our situation less well, think?

Donald Horne, in the prologue to his classic book ‘The Lucky Country’, recounted the following conversation he had with an Asian intellectual in the 1960s:

At lunch at the University of Philippines we were talking about Australia’s reclassification as an Asian country in ECAFE. The Filipino beside me said ‘Why do you remain a monarchy? Asians distrust you because you are a monarchy. You should declare yourself independent of Britain and become a republic.’

Well, are we truly independent of Britain? Australia’s independent status was confusing then even for Australians — and it is still confusing. Paul Keating was right when he said we must move on to embrace our position in Asia, and stop vainly trying to be an isolated outpost of the West in the South Pacific.

Menzian anglophile royalist and US deputy sheriff John Howard has a lot to answer for in taking Australia back two decades in this regard.

The UK Foreign Office report is eminently understandable, then, when you see that the UKFO feel that the monarchy is an important symbol of British soft power. Any doubts about this should be removed by recalling David Cameron’s frantic attempts in Perth before CHOGM last October to get the other monarchies to agree to allow little royal girl heirs to gain equal precedence in the line of succession to little royal boy heirs. This crazed desire to remove one infinitessimal element of discrimination from one solitary family, whilst ignoring the elephantine discrimination that grants this one English family royal head of state status over 16 nations is absurdly tragicomic.

There we see the British Government hard at it — changing the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

Of course, you can’t really blame the UKFO for wrongly asserting that Australia is turning its back on the republic. An April Newspoll of 1,200 responsidents, for instance, quoted in the Foreign Office report, showed a decline in support for the Republic to 41 per cent. Speculation that it may have been an rogue result or a temporary aberration – taken as it was amidst the media hoopla of the week before the royal wedding – wasn't mentioned. Of course, apart from the skewed polling done by Roy Morgan, other more extensive polling, including the 2010 Australian Electoral Study by the ANU (2,164 respondents with 54.5% in favour of the Republic), put the figure supporting the republic much, much, higher.

[Editor: 13/1/12: NOTE: A previous version of this article referred to Roy Morgan's recent poll on the Republic as being paid for by the ACM. This assumption was made because Roy Morgan made a major presentation at a recent ACM dinner. We note in a recent article on the ACM website that this organisation advises that they did not pay for Roy Morgan's poll, which we take on face value. We pass on our sincere apologies to all concerned for this misunderstanding.]

The truth is, the UK monarchy is on its last legs, not only in Australia but also increasingly in Britain, where social inequity is becoming a stark reality and a large underclass is shown an increasing propensity to rise up, as shown by the Tottenham Spring and the ongoing Occupy protests. Ostentatious and expensive royal weddings in times of enforced public austerity are a bad look and a poor PR move.

All this is highly relevant to Australia because it shows that there’s only so much PR the British Foreign Office can possibly afford these days and Australia is unlikely to agree to fund more royal tours, given we have just paid for two in 12 months. So, if the FO decide they need to exercise more “soft power”, they will need to pay for more B and even C grade royals to come out on tours to Australia, which will almost certainly be a case of diminishing returns. In the end, if they do this, I can picture a tour by Harry being conducted entirely in the drinking establishments of Kings Cross and attended only by 18-25 year-old female groupies.

And the more these royals come and demand our adulation, the more Australians will start to resent the grovelling required by the sad little puppy-dog mass media we have in this country — who loves nothing more than a royal tour so it can wag its tail ecstatically, beg, lie-down, roll over so it can have its little puppy-dog tummy scratched by the big foreign mass media contingent that accompanies the royals wherever they may go. (Oh, there’s a good girl, Channel Nine!) Australians, being a sceptical bunch, will soon tire of that malarkey.

Leading jurist Michael Kirby has said the advantage of the monarchy to Australia is that is it virtually invisible — the royals have no real role in the Australian system and we rarely see them. The converse of that argument is that the more visible royalty is in Australia, the more out of place they will seem, and the more starkly ridiculous this continuing relationship will be seen to be.

A perhaps unanticipated effect of the UKFO's soft diplomacy is that the Australian Republican Movement has received, so I understand, some very significant donations over the past 12 months — each, I believe, coming soon after some particularly egregious example of the grovelling Australian media coverage we have seen at these frequent royal events. In effect, what the royal events are actually doing is– quite the reverse of killing off republicanism, which could be forgiven for falling into a torpor with the current lukewarm political leadership being shown on the subject by Julia Gillard – actually stirring up a hornet’s nest of people who have really had enough of this caharde and are willing to put their money where their mouth is to finally put a silver bullet in our pointless and fatuous Australian monarchy. I am no longer directly involved in the senior ranks of the ARM, but I understand it is is in the process of appointing a full-time campaign manager for the first time in 5 years. It may already have done so. In addition, it has been planning a fully integrated multi-media campaign for some time, which I would expect to be hitting the airwaves in the near future.

In fact, the best thing that could possibly happen to the Republican Movement is that the ruling elites have shown no interest in the cause in recent times. This has meant that the ARM has been forced to not take the easy option of piggybacking on their favour and support — but instead to drum up public enthusiasm on its own. And this will increasingly happen in coming months, I am confident.

It seems to me that, if you get too involved with the ruling elites – who usually have an agenda all of their own that usually doesn’t include the interests of ordinary people – and they will usually stuff the whole thing up (think 1999 and Malcolm Turnbull). The ARM must develop a campaign that draws not on the desires of the elite, but rather on the emotions of ordinary everyday people — and it won’t be too hard to motivate people to reject the nominal rule of an elitist foreign monarchy.

And, this may seem radical to some, but the ARM could further reinvigorate the debate by presenting to the people a proposed model for a Republic. I stress that this would only be a suggested model, not necessarily the model that would be endorsed by the people, which should be determined by a proper (fully-elected) Constitutional Convention. The ARM is merely a lobby group, while the Republic must come from all the people. Still, a model for a Republic endorsed by the ARM, the accepted expert on republican issues, would help to progress the debate and remove an often mentioned roadblock to action. Of course, whatever model the ARM proposes, the monarchist elites will attempt to decry it as awful!, disgraceful!, and a massive risk! — but since the leaders of both major monarchist groups have almost no credibility, that should be of absolutely no concern to anyone in the ARM.

Regarding the model, the ARM should simply embrace the one we know that the public, even staunchly right-wing voters, will support — the one that features a head of state directly elected by the people. Monarchists and other elitists will argue that eletion could provide a "mandate" for the head of state. This is nonsense, obviously, but any fears of this could be easily overcome – as it is in some other republics – by having having a “bee sting” clause inserted in the Constitution. That is, it would mean that if the head of state actually used any of his or her reserve powers, they automatically lose their position and would need to be re-elected by a popular vote. And, furthermore, to provide an added check on their power, any such decision the head of state made would need to be voted on by the electorate to determine whether it was supported by the public. In other words, in the 1975 situation, Kerr would have been instantly sacked himself for sacking the Government and the people would have voted on his decision to install Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister and whether he himself should continue as Governor General. This would make Heads of State extremely reluctant and judicious about using their powers.

Republicans should forget about waiting for the death of the Queen; this macabre proposal should be seen for what it is: a way of booting the republican can down the road for future governing elites to worry about. Instead, I advocate a more meaningful date for Australia to become a fully and truly independent nation: the 100th anniversary the forging of our Australian nation in blood at Gallipoli — April 25, 2015. This is only three years away, but despite the clumsy “soft diplomacy” of the UK Foreign Office, Australia is and will always be a republican nation; one that – if the Republican Movement grabs the bit between its teeth – may soon become independent in fact.


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