Once again, like the villain in the last scene of any and every B-grade horror movie, the push to see Australia re-made as a republic is rising from the grave. Bill Shorten found it a convenient cause to invoke when the peculiar deals he struck while AWU chieftain re-surfaced in July on the nation’s front pages – a distraction immediately endorsed by his party’s national conference, which pledged to appoint a minister whose primary task it would be to promote the proposal. In the Fairfax press and via the ABC, those grease traps whence luvvie-think’s rancid notions are tirelessly re-cycled, republicanism is an article of faith whose advocates must always be given access to the pulpit. The usual suspects nod sagely and cry ‘Amen!’, a chorus of voices which should be enough to give any reasonable person pause. After all, any cause that commands the fealty of Malcolm Turnbull, Ray Martin and Wendy Harmer needs to be regarded as suspect purely on the strength of the company it keeps.
All these people expect us to believe that the republican cause is progressive, when all around the world literally millions of residents of disintegrating republics are desperate to move to the stable constitutional monarchies of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, not to mention those of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. Becoming a republic would be a singularly retrogressive step for Australia.
The US is often cited as a stable and democratic republic, a place where people want to move and live. But, within its first 100 years that republic was torn apart by a civil war that left between 600,000 and a million dead, depending on whose estimate you prefer. While it is impossible to imagine Australians taking sides in shades of federal blue or rebel grey, do we really want a system of government whose inbuilt flaws are so profound that disagreements incapable of being settled at the dispatch box seek their resolutions in open antagonism on our streets?
In times of political upheaval, republics are never far from tyranny for a very simple reason. If the president and the parliament disagree, there is no clear way forward. Each strives to get rid of the other first. There is no principled way to resolve a deadlock by intervention of a monarch.
No wonder would-be republicans argue incessantly over which “model” works best. Evidence round the world is that almost every republican model may prove unstable. Either an elected president becomes dictatorial, or a divided parliament left undissolved descends into chaos. How often have we seen TV news footage of fist fights in diverse republican assemblies?
By contrast, if severe division occurs in a constitutional monarchy, that is the one and only time its citizens expect their monarch to step in and make an umpire’s non-partisan decision. As we have seen repeatedly in, say, Thailand, where royal edict has quietened open conflict, citizens are reminded that the fiery passions of the moment can only be indulged at the cost of peace, unity and possibility of amity at some point in the future.
Sir John Kerr showed that this very outcome can happen in Australia, where Gough Whitlam knew that, because of our overarching monarchy, he could not overturn the Governor-General’s decision. Under a republican model, can we doubt for a moment that he would have sought to overturn his sacking, thus prompting a crisis even bigger than the one Australia endured in November, 1975. All these decades later, the whining minority that persists in painting the arrogant and incompetent Whitlam as a haloed martyr is ardent in its enthusiasm for a republic – an advocacy that conveniently overlooks the simple fact that, given access to the ballot box, their countrymen delivered a landslide verdict against the government that gave us Tirath Khemlani, Lionel Murphy, Al Grassby, Junie Morosi, Jim Cairns and Rex Connor, not to mention three years of galloping economic mismanagement.
Still, flying in the face of history and common sense, the republican movement manages to amass small gains. Already in Australia we have a nonsensical oath of allegiance sworn by new citizens notto the monarch but the country itself. Think about that: an oath to support a country — a plot of land when all is said and done — is meaningless. In the unlikely event that a civil war were to erupt, each side would be able to claim that it is the legitimate defenders and leaders of the nation as defined by the oath of citizenship.
Put simply, an oath of allegiance makes sense only if pledged to one person who represents an institution bound by pledge and convention not to play an active and partisan part on the political stage. When the chips are down, really down, each citizen knows to follow the monarch’s lead. That is the proven recipe for peace and stability, the formul a republic’s advocates never quite seem to absorb.
Accuse me of indulging in generalisations, but it strikes me as incontrovertible that citizens lead more comfortable, less troubled lives under their constitutional monarchs. That comfort may not be due to the monarchy itself, but surely it owes much to the steady, stable government that the existence of a king or queen as ultimate arbiter encourages. And there is an irony here as well: while republicans deride the monarchy as a manifestation of inequality and dynastic privilege, they pointedly neglect to note that the same US system which they so profess to admire has spawned dynastic lines of Roosevelts, Bushes, Kennnedys and, if US voters are as dim as Democratic Party powerbrokers hope, quite possibly Clintons.
So what if the heir to the throne has English, Scottish, German and Greek ancestors? So do the majority of Australians! As it happens, the current heir to the throne happens to be an eco-Greenie, with a penchant for alternative medicine and a dislike of modern architecture. If Charles lived here, the ABC and Fairfax would be fighting to place him before a microphone and see his left-wing platitudes and nostrums pour forth. See, one can be a monarchist and still regard the likely next king as a bit of a dill. Indeed, as Charles’ passions demonstrate, a constitutional monarch can reflect all humanity’s causes, even to the oddball ones, but most particularly those of the poor and marginal in our society. One big problem with an elected president is that he or she will always feel at least some degree of obligation to reflect the more narrow views of the voting majority.
Finally, how much more memorable is it for those doing good works in hospitals, schools and defence forces to be thanked and appreciated by royalty in person. As a man, Charles might not be to everyone’s liking, but when he expresses a nation’s thanks to emergency workers and the like it is the society’s supreme institution that conveys such gratitude. One doesn’t need to be corroded by cynicism to appreciate that the alternative, an appointed or elected president, is quite likely to be just another superannuated politician, possibly a grubby one, owing his or her position to some backroom deal, factional demad or, if the post awarded by popular vote, the partisan rhetoric of the stump.
Now is not the time to consider another republican roundtable, summit, plebiscite or referendum. There are pressing and important issues to keep our country competitive, our population in work and our nation a secure home for both current and new Australians, as fresh arrivals once were known before social engineers perversely decided that dividing a country along lines of ethnicity and heritage is the path to unity.
A republic will achieve nothing good and much that is bad. As the spectre of yet another republican push stirs once more in its crypt, let us take up the stake of good sense and hammer it through the beast’s heart.