Edit: with the passing of Elizabeth II on 8 September 2022, we need a republic more than ever.
The tl;dr version of this is simple. I am an Australian republican.
Being a republican is a trait I share with many Australians. Over the years since the referendum on becoming a republic was held in 1999, this view has constituted the majority of Australians according to opinion polls 1. The referendum of 1999 – which I was absent from Australia to vote in – was defeated by a reasonable margin, 55% to 45%. The other amendment posited at the time was to insert a preamble into the Constitution, which was also defeated, though with a larger margin, 61% to 39%. Compared to the republic question, the preamble question was possibly viewed as a “whoopee-do” thing, although the proposed insertion would have officially made mention of Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders 2, which is something that has gained traction in recent years.
Curiously, it kept the mention of God in the Constitution.
So why aren’t we a republic when it was clear from polling we wanted to be one? The dissection of the results centred on the model to elect/appoint a president. The proposal was for Parliament to appoint one, whereas many Australians wanted a kind of “US model”, where the president is elected. Unlike the US model though, the preference was to directly elect a president through popular vote.
This model was never adopted.
If the referendum had carried, we would now have a situation similar to where we are today politically. With an appointed head of state, given to us whether we want the individual or not. The Governor-General, our head of state, is appointed by the Monarch of the UK based on advice she gets from Parliament. Although they are all Australians now, in the early years post-Federation (1900), the majority of them were British aristocrats and landed gentry.
Australians live in a country that recognises Elizabeth II as our head of state, as represented by her Governor-General. Her face is on our coins, the flag of her nation is in the canton of ours, and our politicians are obliged to swear by the Monarchy when they are elected. It is also the Crown that prosecutes criminal cases in Australia. R vs whoever.
It has been debated that our Monarchy and the political system under which we currently operate has granted us political stability 3. This implies that without the presence of the Monarch and the British system, Australia would be a more unstable place. Personally, I find this hard to believe. We seem to carry on quite fine without British input and have done since World War 2.
Poet Henry Lawson eloquently put in his essay Australian Loyalty that we need no British protection from the world, and in fact, association with Britain has rendered us in the same light as our colonial overlords 4.
Lawson’s essay is remarkable in many ways. He condemns Australian involvement in the Mahdist Wars of Sudan, which he describes as:
This was the loyalty which sent several hundred jingoes and several thousand pounds to assist England in crushing a brave nation of savages who were fighting for a country of no earthly use to anyone but themselves.
Lawson’s essay, which is both short and sweet, can be found here and is worth the few minutes of reading time for its trenchant appeal, and possessing a sentiment which has never left Australia and her people.
Today, the cynic will say we are “jingoes” for the United States, following that superpower around the world on its quest to right perceived wrongs. The UK has been relegated to a once-was, an outlier of Europe, and is now consumed by internal bickering and xenophobia, and in possession of specks in the Atlantic as remnants of empire.
An example of the kind of British oversight Lawson alludes to is the Gallipoli campaign from 1915 to 1916. This was part of the Allied war effort to keep the Ottoman Empire out of World War 1. It failed spectacularly, which was not the fault of any Australian or New Zealand soldier that found himself there. No, the blame for most of the failure can be laid at the feet of Winston Churchill.
But the day of the landing at Anzac Cove, 25 April, is celebrated fervently by both Australia and New Zealand, and is regarded by some as the making of a national consciousness in both countries, and a commemoration to all who have ever served and/or died in the military of both countries 5.
We were there in Turkey to help out our colonial masters. Turkey never posed a threat to Australia then, and does not now. Neither did the Mahdists of Sudan in the Mahdist Wars, or the Boers of South Africa in the turn of the 20th century.
We were there to be good citizens and great mates to the British.
Churchill wanted to abandon us to the Japanese in World War 2, and further wanted us to concentrate our efforts in Europe, not closer to home where there was a real and immediate threat.
The US proved a timely ally, and is it any wonder we follow Uncle Sam around the world now and not ‘Gor Blimey Rule Britannia?
But why am I a republican? The UK has done me no harm – it’s done few Australians harm in recent years – and we share her political ways: a Westminster system of parliament lorded over by a prime minister who is the appointed leader of his or her own party. We play sport against the British and its constituent nations frequently: cricket against England, rugby union against England and the other Home Countries, such as Wales.
So why a republic for Australia?
Two reasons. One is irrelevance. The UK is on the far side of the world from us, and far removed from Australian affairs. The Queen and her progeny are irrelevant to us in nearly all of our daily doings, even if their antics are fodder for the tabloids. Being ruled in name by a nonagenarian lady 10000 miles away is akin to being meaningless. She has no say, legally, in how this country is run, no input into our legal system, and in fact, she satisfies all the hallmarks of a figurehead, and a non-resident one at that.
When she dies, we’ll have Charles (allegedly) as her successor, and fewer Australians are enamoured of him than they are of his mother. I would not be surprised if and when Charles takes the crown, there will be another call for a republican referendum.
The second reason is merit. I am a believer in a classless society. I do not consider myself a “commoner”, and dislike situating people as “us and them”.
Nobody elected Elizabeth II, and nobody has elected Charles as king now that he's gotten his chance.
I am also expected to give obeisance, and pay deference to these people. Yes ma’am, your Majesty, your Grace and so on. None of them earned these titles and honorifics at all – they were born to them. Millions pay respect to Elizabeth II and her offspring by virtue of their royal birth. Many of them have carried on like entitled and spoiled brats too. I do not need to reference that one – a simple internet search on the British royals will bear me out.
In short, monarchies and other inherited political offices have no part in a modern, progressive and egalitarian society. They belong in history and fiction.
Lastly, a word on a potent symbol of Australian republicanism. This is the Eureka flag, made famous (though in a possibly different form) by the Eureka Rebellion in 1857.
This flag features a stylised version of the five principal stars of Crux, the Southern Cross. Australians have an almost acquisitive association with this constellation, and it appears prominently in both emblems and in prose. I am opposed to having the Southern Cross on any symbol of ours, as it is not ours.
Crux can be seen high in the southern sky just as well from Santiago, Auckland or Johannesburg as it can be from Sydney, and many southern hemisphere nations feature it in their emblems and flags. If we are to change our flag to properly represent ourselves as a free and independent nation, we should choose a symbology that is likewise properly ours.
Long live the republic.