The popular success of the Queen’s visit last month, combined with polls showing a clear majority of young people supporting the monarchy over a republic, has generated deserved self-satisfaction among Australian monarchists. But those who pin their faith on the ability of the Royal Family to forestall the republican movement in this country forever are being short-sighted. Rather than an asset for the anti-republican cause, the monarchy may soon become a liability.
The Queen is in the last years of her reign, and some time within the next fifteen years or so, Charles will succeed to the throne. That will quickly make the position of Australian monarchists much more difficult. Charles and Camilla are neither a glamorous nor a popular couple. Indeed, if Camilla were to be named Queen, few in Australia would regard her as the real thing, and the legitimacy of the couple would come under question. Moreover, if Charles stays true to form, his erratic views alone could reverse local opinion polls.
For most of his adult life, Charles has proven an easy recruit for voguish causes like environmentalism and town planning. One of the chief obligations of the British King is to be “Defender of the Faith”, meaning the Church of England. But in 2008 Charles declared his coronation would define him as “Defender of Faith”, meaning the defender of all religions—as if such a multiculturalist whimsy were a legitimate role, let alone a practical possibility, for the British monarch. Charles is a Baby Boomer who shares too many of that generation’s defects. If anything, he will be an asset for the local republican cause.
The real aim of the hard core of political and legal republicans is not simply Australian independence or maturity—as if we were deficient in such qualities still—nor to have a mate for a head of state. It is to gain a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the Constitution to fulfil their political ambitions. You cannot install a republic on minimalist grounds simply by changing the status or title of the Governor-General. It would involve so much change to Commonwealth power and federalism that it would require rewriting the Constitution. In the hands of Australia’s current political class, that process would inevitably be accompanied by clauses and phrases which, while appearing legally innocent, would embed the demands of almost every fashionable interest group claiming special treatment, and would bind us even more tightly to the dictates of undemocratic international bodies like the United Nations.
The main problem for those who want to continue to defend Australia’s existing constitutional arrangements is the way this debate has been defined into two camps: republicans versus monarchists. Yet the key issue for some of us who oppose a republic is not the monarchy but the Australian Constitution. To date, no one has attempted to create a popular movement for its preservation.
This is largely due to the unsatisfactory way Australians regard our history. Rather than seeing the making of the Australian Constitution in the 1890s as one of this country’s greatest achievements, we either pass it off lightly or reproach ourselves for its failings. (It is widely believed, for instance, that the 1901 Constitution did not treat the Aborigines as full human beings. Not true—it simply excluded full-blood Aborigines from being counted in the Census, leaving that task to the states, who had done it for many years before.) Even on the conservative side of politics, the most common view is that the Constitution is chiefly a problem to be overcome, an inconvenient barrier to a more centralised national administration.
Australian attitudes are in sharp contrast to those in the United States, where most people rightly revere their constitution as the foundation of freedom and democracy. Yet Australians actually have good reason to feel the same.
On any objective assessment, Australia has one of the world’s great constitutions. It has served us well for 110 years, far longer than most other national constitutions. It is a combination of the two most enlightened polities of modern history: the British Westminster system and United States federalism. Because of the Governor-General’s unspecified reserve powers, the writers of our Constitution did not need all the intricate checks and balances the American founding fathers built into their document to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of presidential office. So it is arguable that, in its ability to readily overcome political crises and stalemates, ours is an even better instrument for governance than America’s.
Hence, the anti-republican movement needs a second front. As well as the monarchists, we need a separate movement for Australian constitutionalists. This would provide a cultural and political identity on this issue for those who remain less than enthusiastic about the Royal Family but who are prepared to accommodate it both for symbolic reasons as part of our political heritage, and on the expedient grounds that it remains an essential, albeit inactive, component of a constitution that has served us all so well for so long.