As the excitement of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games approaches, it is timely to think not just of Australia’s glorious track record in sport, but also our role in the Commonwealth and our constitutional future.
It might come as a surprise to many but at my last count, 31 of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries are republics. These include the emerging democratic powerhouse of South Africa, the world’s largest democracy, India and nearby neighbour Sri Lanka. A further six countries, including Malaysia and Samoa have their own homegrown monarchies or versions thereof. Australia is now in a minority of 16 Commonwealth nations who retain Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state.
After World War II many British colonies became republics. India achieved its independence in 1947 and became a sovereign republic in 1949. This wave of change through the British Empire forced the Commonwealth to abandon its former rule that member states must swear allegiance to the British monarchy. In 1949 a conference of Commonwealth prime ministers allowed republics to become full and equal members of the Commonwealth and the organisation hasn’t looked back since.
Pakistan achieved its independence in 1956. Malaysia followed suit in 1963, opting for its own constitutional monarchy, and Singapore became a sovereign republic in 1965. South Africa initially became a republic in 1961, although under its shameful racist system of apartheid it left the Commonwealth at the same time. It was not readmitted until 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president after South Africa’s first multi-racial democratic elections.
The Commonwealth is now an association of 53 countries with 1.8 billion citizens, representing around 30 per cent of the world's population and people of many faiths and cultures. In a world of conflict it prides itself on being “a force for peace, democracy, equality and good governance”.
Perhaps ironically the most prominent of the 16 remaining Commonwealth nations to maintain their constitutional links to the British Crown are Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These nations achieved effective independence and nationhood far earlier than most other British colonies. Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867; Australia, a federation in 1901; and the then Dominion of New Zealand assumed complete self-government in 1907. The Statute of Westminster of 1931, although enacted much later in 1942 in Australia, gave all these countries mostly equal status with Great Britain, with a notable exception that they retained the British monarch as their head of state.
The other Commonwealth countries who remain wedded to the British monarchy (other than Great Britain itself) are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvala. This leaves Australia, Canada and New Zealand looking somewhat odd. Most of the other main players in the Commonwealth have simply grown up and moved on.
If one looks at the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of 1991 one can find further confirmation of a commonwealth of nations that is more than comfortable with republicanism. Article 4 of the Harare Declaration states that Commonwealth members believe among other things, “in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief”. But Australians themselves do not have the right to be selected as head of state in our own country. We are simply ruled ineligible, as inferior subjects who are not members of the British monarchy. Our monarchy eschews equal rights according to gender, creed, race, and by association - colour. The only rights that matter within monarchies are birthrights.
In the 1999 republican debate many claimed that an Australian republic would have to forfeit its Commonwealth membership. Nothing could be further from the truth. An Australian republic would remain a member of the Commonwealth, but better still, an equal partner standing on its own two feet. We would join a majority of Commonwealth nations that reject monarchy as an organising principle.
Like 31 other Commonwealth republics, an Australian republic could proudly continue its Commonwealth membership. The Commonwealth represents our shared history. It represents all the good things that Great Britain gave its former colonies like parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, great literature such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, and even fish and chips. An Australian republic could acknowledge this history by remaining in the Commonwealth while letting go of the things we no longer need - like hereditary monarchy and a foreign head of state. We might also start afresh with Indigenous Australians by formally recognising their prior ownership of our land.
If Australia is good enough to dominate the medals tally in the Commonwealth Games, then we’re good enough to have our own head of state. Before we all get on with the great fun and cheer on our great athletes, and sing our national anthem as our flag is raised, we should briefly reflect on our minority status among Commonwealth nations as a monarchy under the British House of Windsor. Let’s hope by the time that the 2010 Commonwealth Games come around we can hold our heads a little bit higher as an Australian republic with an Australian head of state - one of us!