MORE THAN A FASHION CHOICE:
Continuing the campaign towards an Australian republic
I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and I extend my respects to elders past and present - in particular to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here tonight. I also acknowledge the ongoing contribution they make to the life of our city and our region.
Firstly can I thank the Australian Republican Movement for the honour of being asked to give this important address. I feel very privileged to be asked and I hope my comments tonight generate discussion and contribute to the extensive work the ARM is leading to reignite the republican campaign across Australia.
Can I also welcome you all to your ACT Legislative Assembly. This is, of course, headquarters for the People’s Republic of Canberra, a place initially reluctant to strike out on its own when given self government in 1989 but today a hotbed of reform and creativity, as the record shows we are;
- the only state or territory to vote yes to a republic in 1999 with almost a two-thirds majority
- the first to fully test the constitution on the need for marriage equality
- the first jurisdiction with a climate change policy
- the first to enact a human rights act
- a leader in abortion law reform
- the only one to celebrate its 100th birthday with the SkyWhale as honorary guest
- the only one with a woman in charge
Can you just imagine what we’d get up to if we were a state?
As a young child I remember talking with my dad about when Australia's Independence Day was celebrated and when my dad replied that we didn't have one as we hadn't gained full independence, (nor sought it as I learned later), I vividly recall being shocked and disappointed.
It’s probably true that much of this disappointment was the realisation that as a result Independence Day parties didn't happen in Canberra, nor the public holiday that went with them.
But to a young Australian, growing up in a young country which, for all intents and purposes took care of itself pretty well, not to have gained complete separation from the mother country appeared to me to be a massive oversight that needed correcting. Despite the passing of many years since my views on this haven't changed.
Nor has my optimism that we will achieve it. As Chief Minister I have seen the potential of big ideas to find their way into hearts and minds and lead to great change.
One of the big challenges facing the republican campaign in 2014 is the need to overcome the tendency for many Australians to see a republic as a mere fashion choice and instead lead a conversation which goes to the more fundamental issues of identity and independence. By doing so I believe we can liberate the significant support for a republic which already exists in our community, and build upon it.
This is no small challenge - but one of the lessons I learnt from my predecessor Jon Stanhope is that no matter how big the challenge which presents itself is or, how strong opposing views may be, it is up to the proponents for change to break down the ultimate goal (in this case the republic) into smaller achievable steps and make measured progress towards it.
So despite the popularity of the royals and the ardent monarchism of many national opinion leaders, we should not concede these as forces which drown out what is an important, continuing campaign.
I totally support the 3 stage process outlined by the ARM towards becoming a republic – firstly, asking the clear question about who should be our head of state, secondly agreeing on the selection method once that debate is answered (sounds easy doesn’t it) and then proceeding to a referendum.
Playing the long game strategically will be important to the ultimate success of the republic campaign.
For a movement now entering its 23rd year one of the biggest challenges in the short term is how to build momentum for change in the longer term particularly when there is no apparent appetite for the republican debate to be pursued on our national stage and much of the modern world is processed and reprocessed against the background of a 24 hour news cycle.
And so this is where I will focus my comments tonight by outlining several critical steps which I believe will help raise the profile of the republican idea and ultimately build popular support for a truly independent Australia with an Australian head of state.
Number 1: Separate the true role of the monarch from the cult of royal celebrity
By way of open disclosure since becoming a card carrying member of the ARM I've spent more time with the royal family than I ever have before.
In October 2011 I met Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on the tarmac at Canberra Airport. On that day I stood with the Honourable Julia Gillard, first woman Prime Minister and Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, first woman Governor-General, of Australia.
It was a historic moment, at least for the feminist movement, if not the republican one. As I stood on the tarmac musing over what seemed the defining principles of that moment, mainstream media was, of course, stuck on our clothes, our hats or lack thereof, and our curtseys or lack thereof – in other words, the cult of royal celebrity.
Flash forward to April this year and I found myself again walking out on the tarmac at Fairbairn. This time I stood with the Honourable Tony Abbott and His Excellency Sir Peter Cosgrove to greet Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and young Prince George (whom I saw referred to in the weekends press as the Republican Slayer). It’s fair to say both feminist and republican spirits were damper this time around.
But any lament I may have felt at the apparent return to normal programming was, again, a distant second for the media to the fashion choices of the Duchess.
This would continue throughout their visit – with no less than 30,000 separate TV reports according to the ABC’s Media Watch, all leading with this so-called story.
While I generally found this obsession to be a frustration, I did take pleasure in the colour choices the Duchess and I made for the tree planting at the National Arboretum on 24 April.
With her in shamrock green and me in royal purple, clearly channelling the suffragette movement, it offered a new angle for that day’s fashion stories, - if only it had been picked up on!
This suffocating coverage confirmed again what we all know – the royals were not really here as future heads of state, political figures or leaders of our nation in any way. They were here as celebrities – honoured and welcome guests to be sure but, at the end of the day, visiting celebrities for mass media consumption.
This is no judgment on their character, calibre or goodwill towards Australia, but the fact is that the royal couple's visit to Australia was just that, a “visit". Australians enjoyed the visit immensely - who wouldn't be proud of showcasing our nation’s talent, diversity, natural beauty and people to the most photographed couple in the world?
With each day came a new destination, a new outfit, a gorgeous baby, and a smiling couple generous with their time and glowing in their affections for us. However, one thing the royal couple could not do is speak with us or to us as one of us.
An Australian head of state would be the first to be able to participate in the national conversation as one of us. To be able to speak of 'our' struggles and 'our' triumphs, 'our' national moments, and 'our' shared values. The legitimacy of our head of state being able to speak to us, about us, as one of us is important. Our current head of state does not and cannot to do this. A Queen or King can only ever speak as an outsider and cannot be an authentic part of the national conversation.
In his memoir of events during Paul Keating’s Prime Ministership, Don Watson spends some time reflecting on the Queen’s visit of 1992, which was set against the backdrop of national recession and high unemployment. He writes:
“It is instructive that at none of [the royal] functions, including the most intimate dinners, did the Queen of Australia ask her Prime Minister about the state of Australia’s economy, the country’s prospects, the condition of the Australian people. It’s more instructive than blameworthy, because almost certainly she felt it was not her business to ask. Had she done so, she might have received instruction along the following lines. ‘The recession is bad, ma’am, but bad as it is, it is not as bad as my opponents in their tawdry way are making out.’”
In contrast, some of Australia’s revered Governors-General have shepherded our nation on some of the defining issues of their time
- William Deane’s fearless advocacy of our nation’s need for reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- Quentin Bryce’s challenge for the true empowerment of women around Australia and the world or her own desire to see an Australian head of state.
These carefully considered entrees into important national conversations were not done by accident – their opinions and advocacy had weight and influence because in both of these examples they could speak to us as one of us – not as a welcome but occasional visitor to our shores.
So I pose the question: for what do we turn to our head of state – the leadership of the statesperson or the thrill of celebrity? There is absolutely no disrespect at all in an honest discussion about whether our head of state should be an Australian and at what point this might occur.
Nor is there any reason to wait until the end of the Queen’s reign out of some misguided belief that its impolite to discuss our future whilst she occupies the throne, for after her comes King Charles, after him King William and after him King George. And so it goes on.
As a republic we could still enjoy the spectacle of a royal visit and welcome them to a country inextricably and historically linked to their homeland.
We can still stay in the Commonwealth.
But we would do ourselves far greater justice by welcoming them as an equal – from one head of state to another and with an appointment of our own at the apex of Australian government and society.
Number 2: Nurturing the debate
Many of you will have seen, as I did, Australians across the country kick back and enjoy the birthday celebration last Monday of our monarch Queen Elizabeth’s birthday even though it’s not her birthday, but that of King George V, however, for Australians a holiday is a holiday after all!
Ironically though, the long weekend saw the end of the "polite" embargo placed on the republican debate by the royal visit. In some corners the open resumption of a public contest about Australia’s future – our identity, our values, our maturity and our independence –re-emerged in the mainstream press. The voices have been diverse and divergent – an uplifting demonstration of free speech in many ways: -
- my federal colleague Mark Dreyfus spoke hopefully of a “renaissance of constitutional reform” at an ARM lecture in Victoria
- the Good Weekend introduced us to what it called the counter-revolutionaries of the young monarchist movement
- finally, Rhys Muldoon laid it on us pollies for making the republic discussion as “quiet as a tea drinker in a pub”.
The second big step therefore, and one of my aims tonight, is to raise the volume of the conversation. Because the one thing that will guarantee the indefinite failure of Australia’s republican cause is silence. We must never vacate the field nor leave the debate unattended.
As identified by the ARM, the first question we need to agree on is do we want a truly independent country with an Australian head of state? Yes or no?
By all means let constitutional experts speculate on all the permutations but we can’t let those secondary issues determine the answer to the single critical question of to whom do we owe our allegiance – to ourselves or to someone else?
The word ‘republic’ needs to wriggle its way back into the vernacular and people need to feel empowered to have a discussion about who we are and where we are heading – at barbeques, on trains and buses, in schools, in political parties, around dinner tables and, crucially, in mainstream and online media.
You don’t need a law degree to have an opinion on this and we must make the discussion relevant to the great majority who are not actively engaged in the issue, but do have an opinion.
The research keeps showing us that, when asked, close to half of Australians support us becoming a republic, in contrast to about one third who disagree. Clearly, there is fertile ground on which to continue to build grass roots support.
Other data tells us that politicians are the second least trusted professionals of all (there’s plenty of that research around!)… a strong argument there not to rely on us to lead this process. Helpfully this also works in reverse and ensures that pollies can’t kill this debate either.
ARM and Australian republicanism more generally transcends the day- to- day cut and thrust of party politics, it straddles all sections of the Australian community – there are Green voting republicans, labor voting republicans, liberal voting republicans, nationals & pup voting republicans, religious republicans, atheist republicans, rich republicans, poor republicans, new republicans and those that have ties back to the first fleet.
This broad base of support is because the key issue at hand is not really a political one.
Yes it has political implications but at its core is whether Australia in its 114th year is still, as we so often read, the terrible teen who needs the reassuring old ties of kin or whether, as a healthy centenarian, we’re ready to formalise our coming of age.
I always find the analogy used to describe Australia as a teenager very interesting as all the experience I’ve had to date with teenagers has been much more about dealing with the immature and wilful exuberance to leap into adulthood without deference to, or seeking the advice of, their "parents". – but maybe I'm just mixing in the wrong circles.
Number 3: Build a broader discussion
Having outlined what I think we all agree is the key question, we must ask it in different ways and through various mediums in order to build a strong inclusive campaign base which moves the debate from the periphery to the centre of what it means to be Australian – the types of questions which provoke people to think more deeply about their nation, for example:
- Does British culture shape our identity and culture today or is our identity more rooted in great Australian achievements in the arts, science and sport
- Where do we look for our creative and cultural inspiration?
- To whom do we owe the prosperity we have achieved as a nation?
- Where do we trace the origins of the values of a fair-go, egalitarianism and opportunity that Australians hold so dearly?
- To whom should the leaders of Australia be answerable to and should the Australian Prime Minister swear his or her allegiance on taking office firstly to the Australian people or to the Queen? Lastly, and simply,
- What do we feel about an Australian republic?
This final question is inspired by comments David Malouf made in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum:
“An Australian republic can only be argued for convincingly at the level of feeling – on what we feel towards the place and for one another. When it comes ... it had better be a true republic, one that is founded not on the loyalty of its citizens to their head of state but on their loyalty to one another: on bonds, which already exist and which we already recognise, of reciprocal concern and care and affection.”
In other words, we must recognise the key areas of loyalty to one another, spirit, and mutual affection and shared values, as some of the deep drivers of peoples’ feelings on the republican issue.
We must also make the discussion an inclusive one which encompasses the other most important unfinished business for our country, that of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Professor Mick Dodson has described constitutional change as an opportunity to reconcile, politically and spiritually, and develop a shared sense of national identity. As with the republican question, I believe there is a strong majority of Australians who believe in the continuing need for this reconciliation process clearly shown by the support for the ‘Recognise’ campaign.
Number 4: Inspire the young
I want to launch a defence of Generations Y & Z and also pay tribute to some of the work the ARM is focusing heavily on right now.
Too often our society laments the imperfections of our young people when we should instead look to their strengths and potential – and this is where the republican movement should also seek to gain significant influence.
Young Australians are the most global and most adaptable generation ever born. They are dealing every day with huge processes of technological change and exposure to information as part of their everyday lives,- some of us can mistake their lack of attention to “the big issues” as equating to a lack of interest or a lack of conviction.
This depiction of Gen Y and Z is unfair – young people care deeply about global and national issues, climate change and marriage equality are two clear examples of this.
While it can be hard, at times, to hold their attention as they leap from one conversation to another on their smart phones whilst simultaneously watching Youtube on their computers - it would be a great mistake not to include the next generation of future leaders as a crucial demographic of the on-going republican campaign.
It will be their generation who have to pick up the baton at some stage – and I can assure you when they do they will run with that republican baton in ways we haven’t even thought of today. They will find the ways to drive membership growth, mobilize support and fund campaigns through mechanisms like crowd-sourcing.
For this reason it’s so great to see the ARM re-establishing its presence on university campuses, at important community events such as our multicultural festival, and building the online community. This presence is so important to building momentum and making a republic an everyday issue – with humour, with fun, with well-known champions and with creativity.
At its worst the online environment plays into the hands of the celebrity obsession, but at its best it allows people to process issues in their own terms and through trusted forums.
It allows the localisation of important national debates such as the republican one and it facilitates a process of making the republic question relevant for Australians of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. What’s more, if it takes hold in fertile areas of online and social media, we will have to add little to keep it going.
We should also remember that young Australians are our future journalists and opinion leaders.
Despite the clear power of social media, we will still depend very heavily on the mainstream media to facilitate this conversation. We need to be newsworthy and willing to contest the space which the royal establishment has so successfully made its own.
One measure of success here will be to see some of these outlets begin to ask themselves and their audiences some of the questions I have posed tonight – to use their influence to again lead a conversation around Australian identity, in isolation to their interest in the royal family.
As I said at the outset, the idea of an Australian republic has always felt like a natural step to me. But as we have seen over decades now, just because something seems natural, it is not inevitable. True Australian independence has been beaten in the past by the clever and sustained campaigning of those who don’t support change.
The future of the republican movement needs to capture the key areas I’ve outlined tonight – the place of royalty in modern Australia, a growing debate around full independence, a focus on the key principle above the side issues, a call to our youth and the continuing contesting of our values and ideas in the media.
There’s a role for all republicans in this mix, and nobody should be deterred because the ultimate goal of this work seems at present to be a long way off. These things can change quickly. And besides, it’s often the case that the longer you work to achieve big change the more satisfying it is when it comes
For those of us who support this cause, we can’t get bogged down and disheartened by the barriers and challenges which need to be overcome, instead we need to focus on breaking down the campaign into smaller achievable components so we can continue to build momentum through a sustained and enduring campaign of our own.
By celebrating our successes and achievements and by learning from mistakes our ultimate success will come from playing the long game.
Clearly, there’s much more to do and I look forward to playing my small part wherever I can.