Some enemies of the Australian Republic (Part 1)

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by Dr John Hirst

In his 2011 National Republican Lecture in Canberra on Monday 21 November, eminent historian Dr John Hirst outlined three enemies of an Australian Republic. Reproduced here is the first part of his speech, in which he specifically excludes monarchists as serious threats.


Enemy One: Waiting for the Queen to die

Republics come in many forms. As our monarchist opponents proclaim, some of them have been tyrannies. In the French revolution the Jacobins killed the king, established a one-party state and then executed the enemies of their republic. Not even metaphorically am I going to execute monarchists. I do not regard them as serious enemies of the republic. They have the power of spoilers but they have long since given up defending the monarchy itself. They will not say that the hereditary monarch of the United Kingdom is well suited to be the head of state of Australia. In fact they deny that the Queen is the Australian head of state. They are courtiers of a very strange type; they defend the Queen by diminishing her importance. What power they have comes from exploiting the differences among republicans; when republicans are united their only message will be that Australians are a people of limited capacity, permanently incapable of producing a constitution that is self-sufficient.

No, my enemies are not monarchists. They are arguments and mind-sets and processes, which hold the republic back; they do have people attached to them and more often than not, they are republican in their sympathies.

The first enemy is the argument that the republic should not be pursued until the death of the present Queen.

There are some notable republicans attached to this view.

When the republican proposal was defeated in 1999, many reasons were advanced for this failure. I will be dealing with them later. No one, as I recall, then argued that reluctance to disturb the Australian reign of Queen Elizabeth II was one of them. There could be no suggestion that the Queen herself would take offence at the adoption of an Australian republic. With the grace and complete propriety that has marked her reign, she made it perfectly clear that this was a matter for Australians to determine. She is after all no stranger to republican rule; most of the countries in the Commonwealth, which she heads, are republican.

The republican case never depended on the quality of the monarch who for the moment occupies the throne of Great Britain. It was rather a point of honour for us that we could make the case even against a very good monarch. I suspect that those who say we should wait until the Queen dies do so chiefly to give themselves some excuse for ceasing to be active in the cause. God knows these are hard times for republicans; you who are keeping the flame alight know this all too well.

Cartoon by Jeff Wood, 2011

But let’s consider seriously this suggestion that King Charles and Queen Camilla will have a galvanising effect on Australian republicanism. The chief problem we face as republicans, acknowledged by all commentators on the 1999 defeat, is that republicans are themselves divided on how we will constitute an Australian head of state. Will the distaste for King Charles be such that those who favour a directly elected president will agree to support a president appointed by a two-thirds vote of the parliament? Or will Peter Costello and Prof Greg Craven be prepared to support a directly elected president in order to be rid of King Charles? I do not think so.

And consider this: once Charles is king, Prince William will be next in line to the throne and after a due interval he will be inducted with full pomp and ceremony as Prince of Wales, watched no doubt by a huge TV audience. He is undoubtedly more popular than his father and may well follow him as king after only a few years. If the popularity of the monarch is the key factor in the fortunes of the republic, we should push on with the republic now.

The closer William is to the throne the worse for our cause.

It was seriously proposed after the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton that the republican cause had suffered a setback. What can a republic offer, it was said, to match a wedding in Westminster Abbey? Millions of Indians watched it, but presumably not because their lives lacked splendid ceremony. Millions of Americans watched without thinking the declaration of independence was a mistake. Most of the huge world-wide audience were not watching because this young couple were their future king and queen. In Australia too that was not their chief attraction, especially for the young; they are celebrities, in no way connected now or in the future to the civic life of this country.

Perhaps we will have to remind Australians that they can watch royal weddings even after we are a republic. But we should continue to have confidence that our case against the British monarch being our sovereign and appointing our governor general and governors is as strong as it ever was and strengthens with the passage of time.

Coming up tomorrow:  Republican enemy 2 – Scorn for nationalism

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