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Remembrance and the Republic

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It is often said that our maturity is determined by life experience.  Life’s more bitter experiences can in time give us strength and honour.  If that’s the case then Australia has reached a considerable level of maturity and Remembrance Day – or Armistice Day – on November 11 is a fitting reminder of that fact. David McKenna writes.

THE Australian and New Zealand Army Corps fought Australia’s first major military action overseas between 1914 and 1918.  And since the atrocities of World War I, we have experienced a number of other wars and national calamities.

Only eleven years after the end of WWI, we experienced the Great Depression.  This was history’s most momentous economic downturn and it hit Australia particularly hard.

Shortly after the Great Depression we became involved in the Second World War where almost one million Australians served.

Five years later came our involvement in the Korean War and then the Vietnam War through the 1960s and 70s.  We participated in the Gulf War in 1990, followed by our current action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These adversities have helped forge a strong and cohesive Australian society.  The ANZAC legend has strengthened our social fabric.  Undoubtedly we have matured as a nation since our Federation in 1901.

At present, Australia is enjoying a positive international reputation.  The 2000 Sydney Olympics was a resounding success.  In 2006 we hosted the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and the G20 meeting of the world’s major finance ministers.  In 2007 we hosted a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation with its important declaration on climate change.  We are currently lobbying for a seat at the United Nations Security Council.  Even our economic success in recent years has been envied around the world along with our renowned social cohesion.

We hold a respected position on the world stage but our system of government is still a constitutional monarchy.

So why are we not a truly independent nation?  Why are we not completely democratic?  We continue to have the unelected British monarch Queen Elizabeth II as our constitutional Head of State.  Isn’t it time we had an Australian Head of State who is one of us?  Our maturity as a nation and our international standing demands nothing less.

Prime Minister Gillard has said she wants to be a consensus politician and that she is a republican.  Furthermore, ALP policy supports bipartisanship in the appointment of the ABC’s Chairman.  A consensus approach may help us achieve a republic.

If history shows us anything about constitutional change, it’s that there must be bipartisan support for a referendum to succeed.  Of the eight most recent referendums, all have failed.  If we need bipartisanship, then what’s the Federal Opposition saying about a republic?

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is an avowed monarchist and leads a party that does not have a policy on Australia becoming a republic. With Abbott as leader consensus will be difficult to achieve.

However, as unlikely as that may be at the moment, we need more than just our leaders agreeing on an Australian republic.  The public itself must be included and fully consulted.  Unfortunately, surveys have shown that the level of knowledge of our Constitution is fairly low in the community.

The Senate addressed this fact in its 2004 report “Road to a Republic” where it recommended:
“...that constitutional reform needs to be underpinned by increased awareness and understanding within the community of our constitutional system. Such objectives can be best realised by an inclusive approach which engages as broad a cross section of the public as possible. To this end the Committee is of the view that a new structure and program needs to be established on a permanent basis, with initial focus on general constitutional education and awareness.”

The report goes on to recommend a Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness.  This committee has yet to be established.

The next referendum will not be won with a winner-take-all attitude.  We cannot treat the next republic referendum like an election with winners and losers. Adversarial strategies will not work.  An initial no-binding plebiscite on the issue will help crystallise public opinion and raise much-needed awareness.  We should aim to achieve a significant majority of Australians supporting an Australian republic, not just 51% of voters and the states.

We have reached a level of maturity to take the next step in our development as a nation.  Our history has brought us to this point.  
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