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The clash of sentiments, or the monarchy-republic debate in Australia

By Stephen Chavura - posted Thursday, 19 January 2017


Recall the conservative credo: "If it ain't broke don't fix it." In other words, if there is no reason to change or tinker with an institution then leave well enough alone. Classic Burkean conservatism. Actually, forget about Burke, it's just the English mindset that was articulated as received wisdom by Francis Bacon in his 1625 essay "Of Innovations": "It is good also not to try experiments in states, except the necessity be urgent, or the utility evident…." The same kind of reasoning permeated the Federation debates at the turn of the nineteenth century. John Forrest, Premier of Western Australia, spoke for most Federation delegates when in 1891 he said of the English Constitution: "It is a form of government we are familiar with and like, and I myself have no desire to go in for any novelties or new fangled notions in government, even if they have been proved to exist in other parts of the world."

But Australia is in an interesting situation, for there seems no good positive reason to stay a monarchy and no good positive reason to switch to a republic. Perhaps this is why the hoary monarchy-republic debate seems interminable and repetitious: there are no strong positive reasons either way. By positive reasons I mean an argument to the effect that we will gain something tangibly good if we become a republic or that there is some good that we all enjoy by virtue of the fact that we are still a constitutional monarchy.

Some like the British heritage and its symbols and some like the values of republicanism. Some don't like, even hate, the British heritage and its symbols. Some hate the republican movement. This is a clash of sentiments more than an exchange of reasons. Well, that is not quite accurate, for reasons are offered, but they tend to be bad reasons or at least reasons which on their own are not sufficient to justify change or to demonstrate that there is some unique good bound up with being a constitutional monarchy that we would lose if we became a republic, or something crucially good that we would gain in becoming a republic.

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But the reasons offered either way range from weak to just plain silly. Monarchists, if we became a republic tomorrow Australia will go on as normal, the constitutional changes will not disrupt the social peace that we enjoy. Any constitutional problems that arise will be resolved peacefully and without great incident, simply because, as the Federation fathers pointed out, we are reasonable people. Think of Australia's great 'Constitutional Crisis' of 1975. Pretty orderly by global standards. Republicans, the world could not care less whether we call ourselves a republic or not, so stop projecting your own insecurities and self-loathing onto indifferent, innocent global bystanders. Monarchists, yes the crown may be a symbol for you of tradition and stability, but it is just a symbol, not the actual cause of our stability. Republicans, Australia is sovereign in every meaningful sense of the word, and your fear of the references to the monarchy in the Constitution are hysterical, not rational. As far back as 1912 the Australian political scientist Walter Murdoch, although acknowledging some legal intertwining between Australia and Great Britain, could still assure Australians that "the British parliament, in actual practice, could not – or at least would not – dream of interfering with our Commonwealth parliament, or with the parliament of any of the States, in its work of making laws, and carrying them out, for the "peace, order, and good government" of the people who have elected it." Furthermore, republicans, the monarchy and Union Jack may be symbols that connote tyranny and racism for some, but they connote a spectacular British tradition of government, literature, and history to others, not to mention Australian history and heritage from Gallipoli onwards.

No one's feelings are necessarily more important than another's. There are those who feel pain at seeing the symbols of constitutional monarchy, but there will be those who will feel pain at seeing them changed. The extent to which the feelings of pain and pride are based on an accurate and fair view of Australia's past are another story, and probably more worthy of discussion than the symbols themselves.

We are what we are, a stable democracy that has emerged largely from the British tradition, whose symbols we still bear.

Here is the dilemma for the republican. If by republic we simply mean removing monarchical and British references from state law, introducing a largely ceremonial President, and a new flag, then republicanism is solely sentimental and seemingly without practical advantage: it is merely a clash of feelings about the existing symbols of state. If republicanism is understood in its more historical and philosophical meaning as a sovereign government that is open to public input – a res publica – and that operates for the good of all people – the common wealth – then we are most definitely a republic already. We make our own laws and elect our own statespeople; we can also change our laws and our statespeople.

The idea that we could actually be a republic even though we recognise a monarch is not so far-fetched. Even republicans have acknowledged it. The notorious colonial republican, Rev. Dr. John Dunmore Lang saw "British government as a disguised Republic," in that central to the English Constitution was the consent of the people. This was a common, albeit Whiggish, view in the nineteenth century as people reflected on the evolution of the English Constitution from subordinating the monarchy to the parliament (1688) and then broadening the franchise to include the middle classes (1832, 1867). This is why the New South Wales Premier and federation convention delegate George Dibbs could describe himself as "having a certain tinge of republicanism in my nature, the result naturally of my being a descendant of an Englishman." Duncan Gillies gave the classic conservative response: "I do not know what that is. I do not know that if we created a republic on this continent tomorrow we could pass any better laws or establish a better constitution than the individual states enjoy at the present time. I now reproduce possibly the best thing ever stated on republicanism and Australia. It was spoken by Cardinal Moran at the 1896 Bathurst Peoples Federal Convention:

There can be no doubt that there is a Republican spirit abroad amongst us, but this is far from implying a tendency to separation from the Imperial Crown. Nothing is more ambiguous than the word Republic as used in modern times. It is generally supposed to be a synonym of Liberty, and yet nowhere will you find Liberty so crushed and such vexatious tyranny exercised as in some of the so-called Republics. The Constitutional government which we enjoy in these colonies is in the truest sense a Republic. There is no country in the world where greater liberty is enjoyed by citizens. All are on the same footing of perfect civil equality, and every advantage which the State presents is alike accessible to all.

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Even if Moran's sanguine views on Australian equality are exaggerated – and no doubt they are – it would be a brave person indeed who would attempt to argue that a change to a republic would somehow solve them. A republic would assuage those who have ill feelings about the British symbols we have kept, but a case must be made for why the feelings of republicans are more important than those of the monarchists, and vice versa. I don't think any such case can be made either way. In the end the issue will not be resolved with feelings or reasons but through an existing liberal democratic government which itself evolved out of the British institutions that the existing constitution and flag connote in the minds of many, including myself. And for this reason I will vote to keep them if we have another Republic referendum.

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About the Author

Stephen A Chavura is a historian and political theorist. He teaches history and politics at Macquarie University, Campion College, and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. His work has been published in journals such as the Australian Journal of Political Science, History of European Ideas, and Journal of Religious History. His first book, Tudor Protestant Political Thought, 1547-1603, was published in 2011, and he is working on two other books, one on secularism in Australia (ARC-funded) and another on freedom of speech. He lives in Sydney's Inner West.

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