EARLIER this year, Peter Slipper decided to mark his territory by restoring the pomp and ceremony of government with a parade through the halls of Parliament House preceding question time.
Aside from being another clowning act for the media circus, the speaker did well to reinforce the archaic nature of our system of government.
And while the press stews over antics, plots and spills, another pot is simmering, with advocates of an Australian republic meeting last month in an attempt to keep the ball rolling on an issue that slipped from public consciousness after the 99’ referendum.
The Australian Republic Movement (ARM) has quietly kept up momentum since their defeat, with the conference at Deakin University addressing the why, how and when of achieving an independent constitutional model.
OurSay punters had their top two questions asked by republican and businessman Will Fowles before a panel of republic advocates, including barrister and former ARM chair Greg Barns, rising Victorian state Labor MP Jane Garrett and former federal liberal minister Amanda Vanstone.
Having pulled out before the event, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou (currently in hot-water for slagging off Optus) refused to comment, but funnyman Charlie Pickering gave us a response after the event.
The questions were posted and voted for before the event via the OurSay site: an online forum which gives the public a political voice.
At 71 votes, the top question came from David Simpson, who asked,
“Australia has the best of both worlds. Our Constitution is great and we do not need to become a Republic. What would we gain from becoming a Republic except potential instability?”
Panel responses were idealistic, if somewhat vague.
“What we gain is all of our important constitutional roles are held by Australians, that to me is fundamentally important. We stand on our own,” said Vanstone.
The controversial former minister for immigration insisted that as a competent middle power, Australia should not share a head of state. She motioned toward the system of unfair and arbitrary privilege which instates the Queen at the top.
Channel ten’s Pickering was even more romantic.
“I would one day like to see an Australia where any Australian child could dream of being Head of State, not merely accept that the role will be decided by a chain of foreign, hereditary succession begun before our nation was even founded,” he said.
It was something of a self-contradiction when Garrett agreed with the question’s “if it ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it” sentiment, before insisting it was time Australia cut the umbilical cord.
“We certainly owe a lot to Britain and the Westminster system, but we do it our own way and we do it really well,” continued the member for Brunswick.
Then she suggested that moving toward a republic was the best way to embrace both Australia’s rich history and independent future.
“We can go back to no one being more surprised than the Brits that we didn’t say yes - that’s got to be a massive signal to us that if they aren’t worried and can’t believe we’re still tied to them then we certainly should be taking that step.”
Steering the panel back towards the question, Barns addressed the issue of instability.
“Having a British monarchy as your constitutional figurehead does not stop instability, you’ve only got to look at Papua New Guinea to see that,” he said.
The campaign director of ARM’s ’99 referendum insisted Australia was ripe for republicanism, because its political culture was one of stability.
“We’ve had crises and we’ve dealt with them, we’ve moved on and we’re still a democracy. That doesn’t change because you have an Australian as your head of state.”
But Australia’s political habits worried the second OurSay questioner, Kevin Rennie, who received 53 votes for this post:
“Australian voters have a history of saying no. How do we ensure that the next Republic referendum does not fail just because of the kind of pervasive negativity and division currently being experienced in our political culture?”
Rennie must have been referring to our history of a mere eight of 44 proposals successfully carried by referendum. An outcome driven by a fear of change which Sir Robert Menzies understood possessed the Australian people when he described getting an affirmative vote from Australians as “one of the labours of Hercules.”
But the panel wasn’t despondent, blaming division, rather than conservatism, for ARM’s failure in ’99.
“I think you’ve got to build a consensus around it. I think you’ve got to have a Prime Minister on side,” said Barns.
During the referendum, the “yes” campaign headed by former ARM chairman Malcolm Turnbull was subject not only to fierce monarchist opposition but to criticism from republicans who believed the Australian head of state, or president, should be directly elected by the people.
Despite polls suggesting the majority of Australians were for a republic, the referendum was comfortably defeated due to the framing of the question in the ballot.
Another cause for the 54.8 per cent of Australians who voted “no”, the panel agreed, was lack of education, with citizens inclined to resist the unfamiliar and confusing.
Barns said ARM’s biggest enemy was ignorance.
“During the 1999 referendum we did a focus group out at Nunawading here in Melbourne with a group of women between the ages of 30 to 45, low to middle income and it was just astounding how half an hour was spent on, ‘Do we get Bill Clinton as President?’ I mean that, literally,” he explained.
“There needs to be a clear message about what is being proposed,” said Garrett.
In order not to alienate, added the panel, republicans must not be derisive of the monarchy.
“You’ll never win people over by telling them they’ve been fools,” said Vanstone.
While the panel only responded directly to the top two questions, a lengthy discussion covered practical issues brought up by the other three, which concerned the best and simplest way to implement a republic in Australia.
In ‘99, hardline republicans Ted Mack and Clem Jones broke from ARM, forming the ‘Real Republic’, which pushed for direct election. Without their presence, Barns said there was opportunity for a united republican movement which would push voters over the line.
“It’s a natural progression...you do it with a minimum of fuss at a referendum at an election,” he said.
“Most people would think, well lets just tick the box.”
Meanwhile, Vanstone banged her drum for gentle, incremental change. Direct- election was a method that would only be accepted after the Queen’s death, she insisted.
Under Vanstone’s republic, the Governor General’s position would remain intact and we would still be tied to the Commonwealth. She insisted Australia would become a stronger and more active participant in the Commonwealth because it was our contribution, not our structure that mattered to the Queen.
“I don’t think you’ll get [a republic] in my lifetime if you insist on drastic change,” she said.
Pickering was on side, suggesting the strongest model was one that minimized change.
“Ideas of abolishing the Senate or inviting argument over disproportionate representation of particular states would provide unnecessary grounds for challenge that would distract from the primary goal of establishing a truly independent constitution with an Australian head of state,” he said.
If getting voters to say yes is a herculean task, engaging them in a seemingly non-pressing issue is the first step.
One way to attract attention, said Vanstone, would be to cart the Queen through town by horse and carriage, playing on the Aussie scorn of pomp and regalia.
“People would be laughing, saying ‘this isn’t us’.”
“The ‘it’s time’ factor is always a potent one,” added Barns.
Garret pitched in with suggestions of sportsmen and celebrities as marketing tools.
“I think that it’s important that there’s a broader conversation outside the intellectual, or the political circles,” she said.
But Barns sighed, wary of repeating the mistakes of ’99, with polls showing the public felt celebrities were not qualified to vouch for constitutional reform.
Method aside, getting the republic back on to the national agenda was the panel’s prime concern.
While discussions about ideas tend toward the grandiose and general, the panel sweated out responses to OurSay’s questions, working to pinpoint the best method for developing an independent Australia.
The event might be just a blip on the radar, but with soap opera politics dominating media airtime for the past few weeks, the people are hankering for a conversation on policy.
By journalist Livia Albeck-Ripka
A video of the event can be found on SlowTV. Due to unforeseen circumstances the ARM informed OurSay that Andrew Demetriou pulled out of the event and were replaced by Jane Garret MP and Greg Barns.
“Why not adopt my model for an Australian Republic, submitted to the official review called by Paul Keating in 1993? I say that the Prime Minister must be the Head of State, that is there should not be a separate "president" - elected or selected. This overcomes a barrier in the minds of many to a Republic. The Head of State is elected by constituents and chosen by Caucus, keeping the position as long as she/he maintains confidence of peers. In our Republic we should elect one female and one male representative for each seat, guaranteeing gender equality for all time. The unrepresentative swill, the Senate, should be abolished. Why allow Tasmanians 20 times the voting power of NSW electors?”
“What is the simplest model of Republic? Instead of a President, can we keep the Governor-General as a Head of State? How do we assess which model best suits our governance needs, keeps total costs of government down, and gives our nation the symbols, rituals and practices that best reflect and honour us as a people? How do the different models of republic objectively compare?”