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Keating was right - the Palace doesn't mind

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 28 October 2002

I don't know whether John Manley has ever met the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating but he has taken a leaf out of Keating's book in commenting on the future of the British monarchy in a former colony. Manley is experiencing what Keating experienced in February 1992 when he told the Queen that Australians wanted a republic. The conservatives and the monarchists decried the fact that a Prime Minister should tell Her Majesty exactly how Australia felt about the monarchy at the end of the20th century - it lacked respect, they said. But Keating's remarks were the spark that lit the republican flame turned the nation solidly on the path towards an Australian Head of State.

In short, John Manley is Canada's Paul Keating - he is the one politician who has grasped what Keating grasped a decade ago, that the British monarchy is an institution that represents values that have no place in modern, diverse societies such as Canada and Australia.

Let me set out why what Keating did in February 1992 was so important in forging Australia's future destiny and identity. Under Paul Keating's predecessor, Bob Hawke (Australia's Prime Minister from 1983 until 1991) replacing the monarchy with an Australian Head of State was never raised as an issue. Support for the existing constitutional arrangements that mirror those of Canada, stood at around 60 percent. But Keating, who like Manley was a Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, determined that that support was soft. He took the view that Australians recognised, particularly since the bicentennial celebrations of White Settlement in 1988, that the future of their Nation lay in the Asia-Pacific region and that the influx of migrants since the Second World War from central and Eastern Europe and more latterly, Asia, had meant that the Anglo-Celtic culture of this former British colony was breaking down.


Once Keating became Prime Minister in December 1991 he became his own man on the issue of the republic. Only six weeks after he assumed the Prime Ministership he got his chance to test his hunch about how soft the sentiment towards the Queen was in Australia. At a function at which the Queen was present Keating noted that while she was always welcome in Australia, it was time that Australia's constitutional symbols reflected the reality of a nation that was highly multicultural, robustly democratic and integrated with the Asia-Pacific region. As with some Canadian media outlets’ response to Manley (the National Post called his remarks 'loutish'!) Australia's oldest newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, called Keating's remarks 'shocking' and 'embarrassing'. But apparently, and this is something Mr Manley's critics and Prime Minister Chretien might bear in mind, Buckingham Palace was not perturbed.

It issued a statement noting that the Queen thought Keating's remarks were "very warm". But more important than the reaction of the moment was the fact that Keating's February 1992 comments began the ascent of the republican cause in Australia. Paul Keating took the issue up with a vengeance and promised a republic by 2000. Opinion polls followed him - from support of around 35 per cent for a republic at the time of his remarks in February 1992 to 60 per cent by the time Keating left office in 1996. Today, all living former Prime Ministers of Australia support a republic as does every Premier and chief Minister of our six states and two territories.

The monarchists in Canada and elsewhere point out that the Australian people voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent against a republic in 1999 and this demonstrates that Keating got it wrong a decade ago. This is a gross misreading of that result. Australians voted on a particular model of a republic that allowed for the Australian Parliament to choose the President. Tapping into the strong anti-politician sentiment that exists in this country, as exemplified by the rise of Pauline Hanson in 1996, the Australian monarchists urged voters to vote no to "the politicians republic". They formed an alliance with those republicans who want the people to directly elect the president. Not once during the 1999 Referendum campaign did the monarchists argue the case for the Queen - she featured in none of their advertising!

Instead of bucketing a brave and forward-looking public figure in John Manley, Canadians might want to reflect on what his views represent. They should also, just as Australians have done, get over the cringing to the British monarchy that results in the sort of hysterical attempted censorship that Mr Manley's critics are guilty of this week. Like Paul Keating all those years ago, John Manley recognises that the British monarchy represents the values of a class system and an empire long gone, and is totally out of sync with modern, diverse nations such as Australia and Canada.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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Australian Republican Movement
Australians for a Constitutional Monarch
John Manley's home page
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