Australian Republican Movement Victorian Branch Forum

Speech to Australian Republican Movement Victorian Branch Forum

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

More than six years ago, when I stood up to make my first speech in the House of Representatives as a newly-elected MP, I said that I hoped in my time in Parliament to have the chance to vote for a Bill for an Australian republic.

Those were perhaps more hopeful times for the republican cause. The Labor Party, which has had support for an Australian republic enshrined in its platform since 1991, had just returned to government after a long period of Liberal government under John Howard - famously the "Prime Minister who broke the nation's heart" in the 1999 referendum. Even on the Opposition benches, the star of Malcolm Turnbull was rising.

I must say that times are darker now. The replacement of one-time Australian Republican Movement leader Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader by one-time Australians for Constitutional Monarchy spokesman Tony Abbott wrecked the prospects for bipartisan progress on many big-picture issues of importance to the future of this nation, not least the republic. The conduct of the present Government has borne out the ongoing commitment of the Prime Minister to the staunch monarchism he espoused when he first came to national prominence some decades ago.

The frankly bizarre reinstatement of imperial honours by the Prime Minister in March this year, in consultation with the Attorney-General Senator Brandis and a handful of others, shows us the true state of play. The monarchism which holds sway in the present government is not just a Burkean conservatism or an ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it' pragmatism. No matter how anachronistic this is, Tony Abbott has a full-blooded commitment to the ongoing relevance of the Crown to modern Australian life.

It is worth noting that the last Prime Minister to flirt with imperial honours, Malcolm Fraser almost four decades ago, has in the intervening decades himself become a republican.

Though as I said, times are dark for republicans, I retain hope that I will in my time in Parliament have the chance to vote for a Bill for an Australian republic.

The failure of the ‘inevitable republic'

Tony Abbott's full-blooded monarchism might be half a century out of date, but we must not be lulled into complacency. Australian republicanism is older than Federation itself, but has yet to find fruition. Martin Luther King Jr said that "progress is neither automatic nor inevitable".

It is not enough to make light of the absurd resurrection of knights and dames in modern, multicultural Australia. It is not enough to point out that the pomp and ceremony of royalty is incompatible with the egalitarianism of manners which defines the Australian character. It is not enough to say that it is beyond time for Australia to be led, ultimately, by an Australian.

I know that everyone in this room understands these points. They are taken for granted. Many of us struggle to understand how the contrary position can be taken. Aside from a small-c conservative desire not to interfere with our present constitutional system at all, how could any Australian in 2014 honestly argue for the place of the British monarchy in our modern society? How could anyone suggest that, were we to draw up our constitution anew in 2014, we would settle upon a model which tethered us to the traditions and the political institutions of a foreign nation?

I share this confusion and frustration, but we must move beyond it. Perhaps the only sentiment in our constitutional debate more trite than the reflexive defence of the status quo is the faith held by many that a republic is inevitable.

Strangely, it has become fashionable recently for senior Liberals to praise Bob Hawke. You will have to forgive me a partisan indulgence if I say that only Tony Abbott would dare to compare Tony Abbott with Bob Hawke. Nonetheless, I have a criticism of Mr Hawke, who said in 1991 "It is inevitable Australia will become a republic. It is a question of when."

With respect to Mr Hawke, the failed 1999 referendum and the decade and a half of inertia which has followed it has proven that the republic, like all other projects of social reform, is not inevitable.

The difficulties we face are considerable.

Our chief obstacle is not, as some commentators would have us believe, the popularity and celebrity of some junior members of the British royal family. We are all by now familiar with conservative commentators trying to link the interest of some young Australians in glamorous young royals with opinion polls showing an apathy towards the republic. Youthful adoration of photogenic princes and princesses does not translate into an ideological enthusiasm for the decidedly uncool tenets of constitutional monarchism. This journalistic cliché teaches us nothing about the republic debate, except that we will always face opportunistic opponents. Of course, the counterpoint is that we do not advance our cause by attacking the trappings of royalty. The debate must be about the future of Australian society, not about the future of the British royal family.

No, our most concrete obstacle is the process of constitutional reform itself. More than thirty-five years has passed since the last successful amendment of the constitution, and this has not been for want of trying. Eight proposals have been put to the Australian people and rejected since 1977. The 2000s were the first decade since federation in which no constitutional amendment was put to a referendum. As Geoffrey Sawyer, the great constitutional lawyer, said in 1967, Australia is "constitutionally speaking ... the frozen continent".

We must give serious thought not only to the politics of winning referendums, but also to the machinery with which they are conducted. The yes/no booklets which we use now are a format which was prescribed in 1912 and are now out of touch with the way we engage in political debate. We should consider reforming the restrictions on the funding of referendum campaigns.

It is my hope that the coming referendum on the recognition of Indigenous peoples in our Constitution, a move supported wholeheartedly by both the Government and the Labor Opposition, will set the scene for a renaissance of constitutional reform. We must once more accustom ourselves to amending our Constitution where it is appropriate to do so.

The future of republicanism

The challenge of succeeding at referendum in Australia is such that we cannot rest on our laurels. We cannot be an ‘inevitable' cause which nonetheless never succeeds. We must build a positive, inclusive case for the republic.

In this sense, the example of the Indigenous recognition referendum is instructive. Our Constitution is not just about dry questions of political structure. It is Indigenous Australians who have most forcefully made this point. Professor Mick Dodson said recently:

"I think the Constitution remains relevant to Indigenous peoples as unfinished business ... It's an opportunity, the Constitution is, to reconcile politically and spiritually with the Australian people and develop a shared sense of national identity."

The republic, too, is about more than governance. It is about a shared sense of national identity. The republic would recognise in law what has been the case in fact for many decades now. Britishness is no longer the defining feature of the Australian national identity. The British contribution, particularly to our political culture, will remain important forever but our separation from Britain has accelerated over the last several decades. It's a change that has taken place in our system of law and government, in popular and high culture. Waves of migrants from different cultural backgrounds and our closer economic and cultural engagement with our region have fundamentally changed our nation.

The republic is not about discarding the British aspect of our identity. It is about reconstructing a civic identity with which all Australians can engage. Paul Keating said that the move to a republic "is a small step, but a highly significant one". He noted that a republic can embody "our modern aspirations - our cultural diversity, our evolving partnerships with Asia and the Pacific, our quest for reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians, our ambition to create a society in which women have equal opportunity, equal representation and equal rights."

The republic must not be a progressive cause only, however, and a key part of our battle will be articulating a conservative case for the Republic. Conservatives, who by definition care about the maintenance of our civic institutions, should be concerned by the irrelevance of monarchy to modern Australian citizenship. The Crown is intended to command the allegiance of all citizens, above the fray of politics. It no longer does so. Conservatives should want institutions of state which are firmly rooted in the national life. We must make this case to them. We must make sure that the next Liberal Prime Minister is a republican - partisan division is death for a referendum proposal.

If the republic is understood as a fulfilment of our national culture rather than a rejection of our history, it will be capable of securing broad support.

I believe that in this sense the republic stands alongside a broader project of constitutional and political renewal. Our constitutional arrangements are not presently reflective of our democratic ideals and aspirations. It is up to us to reform them.

Tony Abbott recently used a strange turn of phrase to describe his commitment to indigenous recognition. He said that this proposal would "complete" the constitution, rather than change it. We must resist this sort of reactionary thinking. A constitution is a living document. It should evolve and grow alongside the community it supports.

Tony Abbott has made it clear, with his indulgence in knights and dames, that he believes that our antiquated constitutional arrangements are of continuing relevance to modern Australian life. This more assertive strand of monarchism presents us with an opportunity. The debate is no longer between the comfortable status quo and an uncertain future. The debate is now between competing visions of Australian life. Mr Abbott's vision is, I believe, manifestly out of touch with the community. We can offer a much more compelling alternative.

The historian AJP Taylor said that nothing is inevitable until it happens. It is our task now to grasp the nettle and renew the struggle for an Australian republic. It will not be handed to us.