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Republic of Australia? Do it for Britain

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by Graham Smith



Julia Gillard has said that a republic is not a priority. But those of us who campaign for a British republic are eagerly awaiting the next republican push Down Under, because the sooner you ditch the monarchy, the sooner we can too.

FOR ME, the question of an Australian republic is not just a matter of pragmatism from the British perspective of a professional campaigner, on a personal note, I lived in Australia for several years and was lucky enough to be granted citizenship.

I was there in 1999 and saw first-hand the botched (or perhaps sabotaged) first republican referendum. Someday - when circumstances allow - I'd like to return to Australia for good. It would be nice to return to an Australia that had at last severed its obsolete and peculiar constitutional ties to the British monarchy.
I am perhaps living proof that such a move would in no way reduce the cultural and familial ties that form a strong bond between Australia and the UK. I know those bonds are strong and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Windsor family or the rights of Australians to choose an Australian head of state.

Australia has, in my view, taken the British political system and improved upon it immeasurably. It is only fitting that Australia should be the first to take that final step toward a fully fledged democracy and in the process show Britain the way forward.

I hope the principled reasons for supporting a republic are fairly well understood.

I am a firm believer in republicanism as the fullest expression of the democratic ideal. I do not simply oppose the House of Windsor or Britain's feudal and creaking constitution (which is not worth the paper it's not written on according to one MP).

I oppose the very idea of monarchy. No matter which country or which monarch, no matter if the monarch is a saint or a sinner, a drain on taxes or a revenue raiser, the inheritance of public office is wrong and it is indefensible.

In the UK, a core theme in the republican debate is the antiquated and muddled nature of the whole constitution and how a republic could bring real benefits to the way the country is governed. The arguments are as much about better governance as they are about democratic principle.

In Australia, the constitution is far superior, it is written down and it is fairly easy to understand. The Australian system works and works pretty well. It is hard to argue that the system would be greatly altered, or altered at all, by a move to a republic. But the case for change is still compelling, because those principles of democracy, equality and fairness, principles I know Australians value and cherish, are the bedrock of the republican position.

Putting aside my personal and principled perspectives, as a British republican it is the pragmatic view of the Australian republican debate which excites me the most. It is a view shared by many republicans in the UK: that Australia can lead the way and that Britain will surely follow (with a bit of a push in the right direction).

Put very simply, an Australian republic will undermine the position of monarchists in the UK and will give inspiration and momentum to British republicans.

While not an earth-shattering event in itself, the impact of an Australian republic will be felt most keenly here in the UK. The move would be a major earthquake under the foundations of the monarchy.

For the first time in living memory (perhaps in history) a peaceful and prosperous democratic society will freely choose to abandon this feudal relic in favour of a democratically elected Head of State.

Australia will be big news back here in the UK and around the world - news about the debate; news about the referendum and the result; news about the transition; news about the election of the first Australian-born Head of State.

Every time this topic is raised, the question will automatically be asked: if Australia, why not Britain?

Supporters of the status quo will find it increasingly difficult to answer, because there is no good answer. What Australia can and wants to do, Britain can and should want to do.

Moreover the debate will be further reinforced by Canada and New Zealand, not to mention other smaller Commonwealth nations, all of whom would likely follow Australia down the republican path at some time in the future. New Zealand's is making progress, and recent polls show that over half of Canadians now support severing ties with the British Monarchy - and that support is across the political spectrum.

Could Australia start a domino effect?

The Australian debate could set off a slow-motion chain reaction which would, at the very least, leave the UK as the only remaining Commonwealth country with the Queen as Head of State.

Perhaps the biggest effect an Australian republic will have will be the inspiration it will give to republicans in the UK and the example it will set for all of us. Australians will prove beyond doubt that this change is not the enormous undertaking monarchists like to think it is.

Australia will show that pride in one's nation, love of one's country, does not have to be articulated by a backward looking obsession with outdated institutions - it can be demonstrated loud and clear, around the world, by taking a strong and bold step toward a more democratic and forward looking society.

Australia will prove false all the hollow arguments of the monarchists: that the constitutional changes are too complex; that the transition too painful; that from among our citizens we cannot choose one upstanding woman or man to represent us; that national identity is bound up with the Windsor family.

Britain has never had a referendum on the monarchy and although the headline figures in UK opinion polls have barely shifted in recent years, attitudes towards the monarchy have.

Much of the institution's support is reserved solely for the Queen. At 83 she is approaching the twilight years of her reign, and the debate about the succession will grow in tandem with the debate in Australia.

Had Australia chosen a republican future twenty years ago the effect back here may have been limited. Today news travels further and faster, and our changed attitudes toward celebrity and royalty will make the ground that much more fertile for the republican cause. The question of a republic is a debate Australia must have, and I, along with many others in the UK, hope that debate is sooner rather than later.

(Graham Smith is campaign manager for Republic in the UK, which calls for the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of an elected head of state. This article was originally published, in a different form, by the ABC on March 10, 2008)

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