Let's stop talking about royals and start talking about republic models

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(Meme via @AusRepublic)

The debate on an Australian republic can do with fewer opinion polls about the royals and more about the real choices on offer, writes David Muir.

RECENT VISITS to our shores by Prince Edward, Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, gave rise to the predictable debate about royals and the republic.

As a supporter of an Australian republic with a head of state directly elected by voters, it is always disappointing when the debate is distilled to a meaningless royals-versus-republic framework.

In fact, such an approach means the real issues we need to debate are not distilled, but simply evaporate.

On their visits, all three British royals received warm receptions at their public engagements. That is fitting and will not change when we are a republic. Visits by members of the British royal family will continue and they will receive warm and respectful welcomes, as do royal representatives and heads of state from other nations.

Our participation in the Commonwealth Games will continue; so too will our membership of the Commonwealth of Nations, which already has 32 republics among 53 member countries.

The republic debate should not be cast negatively as being about getting rid of the royals and should not be framed around the unidentified negative outcomes of Prince Charles succeeding the Queen.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s approach ensures the debate will be seen as a “get Charles” campaign by insisting we wait to even start discussions until the Queen’s reign ends. A proper debate should start now and should be a positive one about the future of our nation with an Australian as head of state — preferably one directly elected by voters and not picked by politicians. Even the British royals – as they move about a Commonwealth dominated by republics – would recognise and accept that it’s not about dumping them and disowning our history.

It’s about us writing a new page in our own nation’s history.

Australians, including pollsters and media outlets, need to move on to the real debate — choosing what model we want for a republic. Yet republic-related opinion polls continue to ask questions referencing the royals. A recent Newspoll asked a for-or-against question about a republic and followed it with one asking if respondents’ views would change if Prince Charles were king.

The Australian chose to interpret the outcome as showing opposition to a republic having reached ‘its highest levels in 18 years with the prospect of Prince Charles taking over from the Queen delivering only a minor boost for the republican movement.’

That’s despite the Newspoll showing 50% of respondents backing a republic with 41% opposed — figures that compare with the nationwide November 1999 referendum results of approximately 45% for and 55% against.

Independent Australia contributor Jacinta Coelho recently cited polling results from Research Now based on an agree/disagree question about Australia becoming a republic, followed by a question asking respondents if their views were influence by the engagement of Prince Harry and the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge. Unsurprisingly, more than 67% of those who responded said Prince Harry’s engagement and the expected third child of Prince William and his wife were irrelevant.

These type of questions debase the debate by focusing on irrelevant trivia.

In her article, Ms Coelho used results of Research Now’s first question to argue young Australians are not as deeply engaged in the republic issue as those in other age groups (or at all) because they have bigger fish to fry.

The poll showed 43.2% of the 18-24 cohort supported a republic — the lowest level for any age group polled.

Ms Coelho suggested that young people paid more attention to unemployment, housing affordability, climate change and the treatment of refugees, writing:

In order for young Australians to concern themselves about the republic issue, it needs to have a certain level of urgency and it needs to directly affect them to the point that they will want to do something about it.

A valid interpretation based on the figures and major contemporary social issues.

However, I suggest the responses from those young Australians would be far less indifferent if the benchmark question had been: Do you believe Australia should become a republic with an Australian as head of state selected by the prime minister and endorsed by federal parliament?

I suggest their responses would be vastly different again if the question had been: Do you believe Australia should become a republic with an Australian as head of state elected directly by Australian voters?

When it comes to a potential republic, nothing would directly affect all age groups more than being able to vote for their head of state.

Engagement comes with being able to influence outcomes.

Those in the 18-24 age bracket may well be disengaged from the republic issue, while being concerned about jobs, housing, climate change and refugees. That’s because they can influence or have their say on all of those issues at the ballot box. They can show their concern in all sorts of ways — public demonstrations, petitions, media, social media campaigns and so on. But ultimately, all those issues come back to government policies and they can vote governments in or out.

The 1999 referendum saw the republic idea sink because the wrong model – a politicians’ republic with a head of state chosen by the government and endorsed by parliament – was put before voters when they clearly wanted a direct say in who it would be.

The only model they were offered was one that did not engage them. A direct-election model for our head of state would engage and energise Australians across the board.

I firmly believe Australians want a direct say in choosing their head of state. As a start to having a genuine debate on a republic, pollsters and the mainstream media need to drop their fascination with royal-related questions and start asking the right and relevant benchmark questions about the models on offer.

David Muir is a Brisbane lawyer, chair of the Clem Jones Trust and chair of the Real Republic Australia movement.

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