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An Australian republic is not a priority

By David Ritter - posted Monday, 25 February 2008

In a recent On Line Opinion item Klaas Woldring called for the introduction of an Australian republic without delay. It was inevitable that the return to power of the Federal Labor Party under Kevin Rudd late last year would invite such calls. Having defeated the monarchist incumbent, Rudd fuelled speculation by refusing to swear allegiance to the Queen when he was sworn in as the new Prime Minister.

Republicanism is an article of faith for many in the Australian Labor Party. Some Labor supporters still recall with rage the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, on Remembrance Day in 1975.

Paul Keating, of course, was known as an ardent proponent of removing the monarchy from Australia’s system of government. Rudd is also a republican who declared prior to being elected, he would again take the question to the Australian people in a plebiscite. “The time will come before too much longer”, Rudd forecast last July, “when we do have an Australian as our head of state”.


Although a majority of Australians - including the writer - are republicans of various stripes, the issue can hardly be said to excite much popular public passion. Indeed the arguments in favour of making the transition can seem quaintly anachronistic.

Removing the monarchy would finalise Australia’s formal constitutional separation from the United Kingdom, but would do little to further independence in a more practical sense.

Australia’s economic autonomy declined in common with the rest of the OECD world as domestic institutions were opened to globalisation, while in terms of foreign policy, Canberra orbits around Washington, rather than London. Under former Prime Minister John Howard, Australia’s flight path around United States’ interests became tighter than ever before.

Although the influence is some times exaggerated, there is also no doubt that it is now America that sets Australia’s cultural trends. Indeed, paradoxically, there is almost an odd sense in which republicanism acts as a kind of surrogate for discontent with American influence on Australian society.

Contemporary Australian defence and foreign policy reliance on the US is rightly seen as the successor to the dominion relationship with the UK prior to World War II, creating a context in which seeking “freedom” from the Queen can be read as implying frustration with ongoing dependence on America. Perhaps needless to say, there is an element of “fighting the last war” here: removing the monarchy will not displace the influence of Bush, Britney or Bernanke.

None of this is to say that the monarchy should be retained, but the Australian centre-left would do well to reflect on the broader meaning of republicanism, rather than being tempted to a simple preoccupation with removing the Queen.


Wider notions of republicanism emphasise the importance of the active and engaged participation of the citizen in government, giving rise to the creation of a true mandate. In contrast to the republican ideal, current Australian politics and society suffers from a malaise of civic detachment.

As former parliamentarian and diplomat John Langmore concluded in a recent appraisal of public life in Australia, “democracy is not healthy at present; nor is the quality of public life” and the “principal characteristic of contemporary Australian politics is voters’ disengagement”.

The membership of political parties is at record lows and there is widespread public cynicism at the motivation of elected representatives. Indeed rather ironically, one reason why the last republican referendum failed was that the model put to the vote was thought elitist by many electors because it proposed that the Parliament should choose the President as head of state.

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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