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Not quite the road to Damascus

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 15 September 1999


I am a republican. Have been as long as I can remember. The thought of someone holding an office because of birth rather than achievement is obnoxious to me. But in Australia today, in the context of the current referendum, I am a Constitutional Monarchist.

My conversion was a gradual one and the road starts at a Liberal Party Branch meeting.

Chatsworth Road Branch is one of the most politically progressive branches of the Liberal Party, so when I spoke against a pro-Monarchist motion I expected to receive some support. I was wrong. There was no other Republican in the room. That set me back.

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Why were these people, who I respected, so attached to this institution? The answer was emotion, and in the scramble over national symbols, that is as good an attachment as any. They were mostly older than me, and they had grown up in a vastly different Australia. One where people referred to "The Mother Country". Where Australian courts were still subject to review by the Privy Council. They also remembered the Second World War, when the young Elizabeth II, drove an ambulance, and her mother and father refused to evacuate London themselves.

I thought about my own position. Yes, I was a Republican, but the current system worked well enough which is to damn with faint praise. We have one of the best systems of government in the world. While I was committed to change, it was not a high priority. I believed that change would come inevitably as the older generations died out and the illogic of the monarchical system became increasingly evident. So, if I had no urgency to change, why should I upset the emotional equilibrium of a group of older Australians.

The polls showed at best only a bare majority for a Republic. If a Republic is inevitable, and adopting it as a form of government would have minimal effect, shouldn’t its adoption be left to a time when the overwhelming majority of Australians will embrace it? Otherwise it will divide the community when it should be uniting it.

Later that year, the motion was put up to a Liberal Party State Conference to be debated. I was a delegate. The mover of the motion was not even present, so I was given the job of moving it. How could I move the motion and maintain my Republican integrity? In the shortest speech of my life I said that the matter was a political diversion on the part of the then Labor government. That I was sure there was no-one in the room who would speak against the motion. And that it should therefore be carried by acclamation so that we could get on and discuss more important issues. It was.

This was another step on the way to conversion. Not only was the Republic an issue that did not need to be resolved then, but Keating was using it in a divisive and partisan way. Under these circumstances I could not support a Republic. Times have moved on from then, but it is still a matter in the back of my mind.

Sometime after that Convention my opposition to a Republic moved from being one of opposing the immediate introduction of a republic to one of support for the Constitutional Monarchy. I came to the view that we have in fact, a republic. The Queen has absolute power, on the condition that she never uses it – she reigns as long as she does not rule. This is an absurd state of affairs, but how human – it is illogical but it works

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The constitutional monarchy as it has evolved is a very Anglo Saxon way of doing things. Edmund Burke, observing the French Revolution, said that he refused to sacrifice a system of government for a mere theory. That empirical, positivistic position is one of the hallmarks of the English speaking world, and one of the reasons why of all the colonial powers, ours was the most civilized and civilizing. We are an accommodating, tolerant culture, happy to improvise solutions and make them work. It is something we should be proud of.

To some degree the Republican push is a denial of this culture.

But then Australians are a very insecure mob as evidenced by our obsessive search for national identity.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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