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Daily Media Quotation

The Australian Republic Must Rise Again

January 26, 2006

Editorial - Sydney Morning Herald

To mark its 175th anniversary, the Herald will run a series of occasional editorials on major themes in contemporary Australia. This is the first.

As the fireworks explode this evening to celebrate Australia's national day, the crowds, the anthem-singing and the flag-waving camouflage an emptiness at this country's heart. The confected nationalist ballyhoo is just that. Australians love their country all right, but not because some marketing genius told them to. They do it quietly and thoughtfully - and the emotion is the more intense for that. Even so, the nation remains torn. It has been that way since November 6, 1999, the day Australians, a majority of whom wanted and expected this country to become a republic, voted in a referendum against the model that was being offered to them. More than six years after that failure, interest has waned and the volume of the debate has fallen almost to a whisper - yet the issue survives. The simple, persistent anomaly that under the monarchy no Australian can ever be Australia's head of state keeps it alive. On Australia Day, in our 175th year of publication, it is time to resuscitate the issue, to learn the lessons of the referendum's defeat, and to begin once again the debate on the shape of a new constitution to found an Australian republic.

The Herald campaigned for the republic before the referendum. The paper had been monarchist for most of its history, and our support was tentative at best when the issue was revived in the late 1980s. But the Herald's enthusiasm increased as the idea took shape, its inevitable logic became clear, and the millennium approached - a notional deadline for a nation that has shown a taste for neatness in its anniversaries. History, of course, is messier than that, and so the outcome proved. The Herald supported the minimalist position proposed by the Australian Republican Movement with energy and enthusiasm. We believed - indeed, we still believe - that it involved the least disruption to the established order of things, and would ensure that Australia's head of state continued to be - as most of our recent governors-general have been - eminent Australians from different walks of life, most of whose experience would be outside the tawdry ruck of politics. The smallness of the change involved, we also believed, would be a point in its favour, and would help it gain majority support. In the last, clearly, we were wrong. It is pointless now to support a model that Australians have clearly rejected. The republican movement must recognise that reality, bend to the popular will, and embrace the direct election model.

At some point the present barriers to further progress on this issue will be removed. The Prime Minister, John Howard, will retire, to be replaced, in all probability, by one of the growing number of republicans in the Liberal Party. The Queen will either die or abdicate in favour of the Prince of Wales, removing a sentimental barrier in some Australians' minds to a republic. The republican side believes its support increased substantially when the Prince of Wales married Camilla Parker Bowles. That public judgement is undoubtedly cruel and may also be unfair to both those individuals - but that is politics. Republicans must be ready for the time when the barriers fall. They must acknowledge the reality of popular sentiment and begin the debate on how a head of state can be elected within a new constitution which preserves the best elements - including its stability - of the old constitution yet acknowledges the desire for popular election.

There are those who object that a directly elected head of state would have greater power and authority than a prime minister who has simply a majority of votes in Parliament. Yet models exist now which manage to maintain that balance. The Irish and German presidents are popularly elected, with restricted powers. It is the republicans' task now to devise such a balancing system for this country, to ensure the head of state can be directly elected.

ALSO important, however, is the procedure by which the issue should be put to the public. One of the main stumbling blocks last time (possibly deliberately set in the way by an unenthusiastic Howard Government) was the decision to submit both the issue of the republic and the form of the republic to the people at the one time. Even though the referendum had been preceded by extensive and well-publicised debate, it smacked too much of experts forcing their opinion of what is best on the person in the street. "Like it or lump it" is a slogan which few have ever found persuasive. Next time, a three-step process, involving first a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic, then a second plebiscite on the form it should take, and last a referendum to make the final change, is probably the best way forward.

Politicians, with a very few exceptions, have never won great admiration in this country. Polls before the 1999 vote showed voters were unwilling to accept a republican system that handed the power to choose a head of state to Parliament - to politicians. It gave the monarchists their slogan - no to the politicians' republic - and enabled the republic's combined opponents to pull off a clever trick. But the defeat of the first republic referendum was only a trick. Australians may have been sold Buckingham Palace in 1999, but they will be harder to fool next time.

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