Put The Crown Lager On Ice
By Mike SteketeeNovember 2, 2012
Riding jubilee mojo and royal romance, Prince Charles visits Australia, a country still ultimately ruled by Buckingham Palace. What will republicans do?
CHARLES and Camilla — or the Prince of Wales, KG, KT, GCB, OM, AK, QSO, CD, SOM, GCL, PC, AdC(P), FRS (don’t ask me what they all mean) and the Duchess of Cornwall, as Australians for Constitutional Monarchy refer to them — are gracing Australia with their presence from Monday, November 5.
It should all be very nice and it won’t do the country any harm, except for the cost to taxpayers, for which the Prime Minister’s office would not provide an estimate to The Global Mail but which includes air and ground travel, accommodation and hospitality.
There will be royal visits to the usual worthy causes and those that define the Australian character, or used to, including the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach, the Melbourne Cup, a sheep stud in Tasmania, a promotion for the wool industry in Sydney and a string of functions to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Interest in royal visits had dwindled over the years, until the recent resurgence sparked by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and the Queen’s transformation from head of a dysfunctional family and anachronistic institution to living legend. Charles carries a certain amount of baggage and Camilla is no glamourpuss but, who knows, perhaps a little of the other royals’ charisma has rubbed off. Charles has visited regularly since his two terms at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop school in 1967, although the seven years since his last trip is the longest between visits. It is Camilla’s first time in Australia.
Australian republicans used to argue that Charles’s ascension to the throne would mark the end of the monarchy here: that we just would not cop King Charles of Australia. But like many other things around the republic and the monarchy, attitudes have changed.
Focus groups conducted in March for the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) found some unease about the prospect of Charles, King of Australia, but not enough to turn many monarchists into republicans.
“Put it this way: I wouldn’t try to sell a referendum [on the republic] based on that strategy,” says Bruce Dier of UMR Research, which conducted the polling. In any case, those republicans who thought all they had to do was wait for the Queen to step down or die were always whistling in the dark. In an Australia where a majority of voters nationally, as well as in a majority of states, have to approve a change to the Constitution, there is much more involved — years of preparation, debate and education, not to mention bipartisan political support.
Before Australia’s 1999 referendum on the question of becoming a republic, when the royals’ standing was lower, it was the monarchists who wanted to keep the Queen out of the debate, arguing that it was not about personalities but maintaining our stable system of government (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). In any case, they claimed, the Governor-General was really Australia’s head of state, even though the constitution and Buckingham Palace begged to differ.
Now, ironically, don’t-mention-the-Queen is part of the republicans’ strategy.
David Morris, the usually cheerful 48-year-old former diplomat who became national director of the ARM in March, sounds frustrated over questions about Charles and Camilla. “Why wouldn’t we welcome them being here?” he asks The Global Mail. “The royal visit would still be happening if we were a republic.” .
Morris points out that the royals have been fanning out all over the world to visit member countries of the Commonwealth during the Diamond Jubilee year and that most of them are republics. “The media wants to define this as about the monarchy and we want to define it as being about Australia. It is not in any way about ditching the Queen. That is just the wrong frame.”
When we spoke, Morris was 10 days into a four-week tour of Tasmania aimed at generating momentum for the republic. Tasmania is the test bed for a national grassroots campaign by the ARM to restart the debate by reframing the issue in terms of Australian identity. As its rebranded website www.ouridentity.org.au puts it, “who do we want to be?”
The idea is that the answers to this question lead logically to support for a republic. Morris and a team of volunteers have been going to public events such as the Royal Hobart Show and inviting people to have a chat about what it means to them to be Australian and the values, the character and identity that make us unique.
The answers, Morris says, are remarkably consistent — freedom, a fair go, mateship, multiculturalism and an easy going, friendly lifestyle. Then the ARM team asks if they support a republic, and Morris says probably more than half have been signing up to say they do. It may be that people have not made the link in this way before, adds Morris, who laments that he is still trying to get the message through to the media, who insist on reporting it in terms of the monarchy. Of course, Morris’ sample is self-selecting — those who agree to talk, rather than walking on.
He readily concedes it is going to be a long haul. The UMR research is some of the most detailed since the 1999 referendum, comprising quantitative polling as well as focus groups. Reported here at length for the first time, the results do not make pretty reading for republicans. Or, as UMR put it in its report, “the ARM’s task is massive”.
Starting with the (relatively) good news for republicans, 48 per cent of voting-age Australians say they support a republic, with 39 per cent opposed and the remaining 13 per cent unsure. Support has fallen from 52 per cent since 2008, while opposition has grown from 31 per cent. Nevertheless, the backing of almost half the voting population is a solid starting point, at least for the principle, though it gets trickier when we come to the specifics.
Like Tony Abbott, the republic has a problem with women, with more (44 per cent) opposing than supporting (41 per cent), while only a third of men are opposed and 56 per cent are in favour. Support also is stronger among the university-educated, with 55 per cent in favour and 33 per cent opposed.
Those who are supposed to be most open to change are among the least enthusiastic about the republic: only 45 per cent of those under 30 support a republic, lower than any age group other than the over-70s. This was backed up by the focus group research, which found young people were much more positive towards the Queen and the royals generally. In part, that was because of the celebrity appeal of the Queen and William and Kate. They also liked the Jubilee celebrations, disagreeing that they were irrelevant to Australians.
On the other hand, young people also have the highest proportion of undecideds, suggesting they at least are open to persuasion on the republic. But there no longer is the sense of inevitability flowing from the previous assumption that young republicans would replace ageing monarchists.
Overall, the majority sentiment is indifference, with UMR finding that little more than a third of Australians are strong supporters or strong opponents. Only 18 per cent regard the issue as very important, and they are more likely to be monarchists. In the words of the UMR report, “as passion grows, republican support declines”.
At the same time, there is widespread ignorance about the issue: only half of those in the focus groups nominated the Queen as Australia’s head of state, with many saying it was the Prime Minister. No-one in either group knew how the Governor-General was chosen, though they were not happy when told it was a decision for the Prime Minister alone.
“To a large extent,” says the UMR report, “the ARM is rebuilding from scratch.
“This is an emotional battle — first and foremost, the hearts must be won.”
This explains the ARM’s focus in its new campaign on Australian identity. But that is only the first, relatively easy step. Much harder is getting enough information through to a largely uninterested people to inoculate them against the inevitable scare campaign that has proven fatal for most referendum proposals in Australia, including the last one on the republic.
UMR nominated as probably the largest “blocker” to a republic the feeling that it was all too hard. “I just don’t know how we would pull it off,” said one focus group participant. “The media will squabble, the politicians will squabble.” A fight for a worthwhile outcome is one thing, but many people see no practical benefit in the change.
And then there are the differences over the right model. Polling before and since the 1999 referendum has found consistently and overwhelmingly that people want a direct say by electing the president, rather than he or she being chosen by a two-thirds majority of federal parliament, as was the proposal in 1999, let alone the Prime Minister making the decision. Yet when Newspoll asked voters in June this year to choose between remaining a monarchy or becoming a republic with an elected president, the vote was 60 per cent to 34 per cent in favour of the monarchy. As much as anything, that may be a sign of the extent to which the issue has slipped off the public agenda. But it also points to the enduring split among republicans.
In the same way that many republicans who favour direct election refused to support the parliamentary model in the 1999 referendum, many conservative republicans, including Liberal politicians, would rather vote down the republic than agree to an elected president, even one with reduced powers. As lawyer and academic Greg Craven puts it, “a Queen in the hand is less trouble than the Constitution gone bush.” That is, he sees popular election as creating an independent source of power challenging that of the prime minister and thereby destabilising the present system of government.
ARM policy now skirts around this issue by not advocating any model. Rather, it supports a three-stage process, with an initial non-binding national plebiscite on the threshold question of whether we should become a republic and, if the vote is yes, a second plebiscite on options such as direct election or parliamentary appointment, followed by the formal referendum to change the Constitution. This is similar to Labor Party policy.
Morris is confident that the ARM’s new campaign will generate momentum. The real aim is to use the widespread agreement on Australian values and identity to nudge voters towards the natural next step of a republic.
As Morris puts it, “There is no lingering sentimentality about being part of the Empire. We are now a mature nation with our own identity. It is just a matter of working out what is the best time to resolve this.”
But he is under no illusion that it is going to happen quickly.
“I think Australians always take a bit of time to come to a decision on these big issues of identity and nationality,” he says, citing the two national votes required to achieve federation, the fact that the legal concept of Australians as British subjects was not completely abolished until 1984 and that it took until the same year to change our national anthem from ‘God Save the Queen’ to ‘Advance Australia Fair’. “I think the republic is the same. [In 1999] people felt as though they had something foisted on them. They didn’t like the idea that only one option was given to them.”
Morris thinks republicans missed a big opportunity to revive the issue during the last decade.
“In 1999, most people thought that they would get a second chance,” he says. “I think we should have started actively campaigning again in the mid-2000s when our support was high. Mr Rudd might have put it on his agenda and the republic could have been part of a big picture national narrative for the ‘07 campaign.”
A consensus on national identity is one thing, but achieving a republic also requires political leadership. No referendum has ever been carried in Australia without bipartisan support. Not only has Tony Abbott been one of the most prominent campaigners against the republic, including as head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, but Julia Gillard has shown no interest in advancing the issue.
But, argues Morris, “There is no point in sitting and waiting for political leaders to emerge. This is a grassroots, ground-up campaign. We have to get on with it so the next crop of political leaders might think it is worth putting it on the agenda.”