Federal Politics

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Republic floats away as royal reign lingers

My uncle has a scruffy old yellow and green ''Yes'' T-shirt that he still wears proudly around the town where he lives in regional Victoria. Ten years ago, it attracted plenty of reaction when he walked down the main street in what is a long-time conservative electorate. But these days, when he dons it to go to the shops, it hardly raises an eyebrow.

As far as political T-shirts go, it now seems even more retro than an ''It's Time'' shirt. People may even be confused about what the ''Yes'' actually stands for. Gay marriage? Legalised drugs? The carbon tax?

The republic is certainly not the hot-button issue it used to be. A recent Morgan poll found that support for constitutional change in Australia is at its lowest for 20 years. Of those surveyed, 34per cent were pro-republic, compared with 55per cent who preferred to keep things just the way they are. Earlier this week, British newspaper The Independent noted the ''strange death'' of Australian republicanism, while Reuters reported that the Queen's visit had left the republic a ''distant dream''.

It's certainly true that with the Queen in Canberra, nobody in federal politics has wanted to touch the issue. Republican Prime Minister Julia Gillard simply said the Queen would be ''warmly received'' in Australia, while fellow republican Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said the debate was a non-event for now. ''I don't see this issue returning to the Australian political agenda for some time,'' she told ABC Radio.

Even old republican warhorse Malcolm Turnbull registered his support for Her Majesty. ''Nobody could fail to have enormous respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth,'' he said, before repeating his view that the best time to revive the debate would be after the Queen goes.

It's a far cry from the emotion, energy, pitched battles and column centimetres that characterised much of the 1990s. The republic was one of the issues of Paul Keating's prime ministership and was a flashpoint during the early Howard years, with the Constitutional Convention in 1998 and the referendum in 1999.


In the lead-up to the referendum, 54per cent of Australians polled wanted a republic with only 38per cent wanting to keep the Queen.

But the actual referendum in November 1999 - which asked Australians to specifically support the model of a president elected by the Parliament - garnered much less support. Nationwide, 54.87per cent of voters said ''no'' to the proposed model with 45.13per cent voting ''yes''. The only state or territory that voted in favour of the referendum was the ACT, with 63.27per cent.

In the wash-up, much was made of the fact that the question was overly complicated by the Howard government to guarantee a ''no'' vote. And that the result was not a true indication of how Australians felt about a republic.

However, there has been nothing approaching that '90s kind of momentum (or even interest) since. Indeed, if anything, progress towards a republic has gone backwards, to the point where it's arguable that there is currently a more serious debate about a republic in Britain.

Australian Republican Movement deputy chair John Warhurst has been formally involved with the republic cause since the mid-'90s. The ANU emeritus professor readily admits that now is not a boom time for the movement. ''Twelve years on, we're not any closer,'' Warhurst says.

He nominates several reasons for the slow progress, but says a key factor is the lack of prime ministerial buy-in. As Warhurst notes, until 2007, Australia had a monarchist prime minister. Since then, it hasn't had a prime minister willing to take charge of the issue.

''I think some republicans thought Kevin Rudd would be their saviour,'' he says. Even when Rudd relegated the republic to a second-order concern in 2007, it was hoped he might tackle it in the second term he never got (so far). Given all Gillard's problems and distractions, it's not surprising she has also deferred the issue.

But it takes two to do the republic tango (an important lesson from the referendum). So another factor is the lack of support from the Coalition.

Apart from the brief period between 2008 and 2009 when Australia had both a republican prime minister and leader of the opposition (in Turnbull), this has looked decidedly unlikely. Indeed, the Coalition is now headed up by the first executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (in Tony Abbott).

Even though there are a number of high-profile Liberal republicans, it would be unrealistic to expect Turnbull, Bishop or Andrew Robb to take a destabilising stand on the republic, when, as Warhurst notes, it's not a vote-winning issue.

Australians for Constitutional Monarchy convenor emeritus professor David Flint says that from his organisation's point of view, the debate has moved on. Today he is more concerned about educating Australians about the constitution - and the role of the Crown within that - than the republic versus the status quo. ''We had a decade of navel gazing of this issue, we've been through it ... the defeat in 1999 was overwhelming,'' he says.

With a national agenda dominated by contentious, tricky issues - from the carbon tax to asylum-seekers, Afghanistan, potential economic doom and federal political instability - there has also been precious little space for the republic in recent years. ''I just can't see any real reason why anybody would be interested in a republic debate at this time,'' Monash University senior lecturer in politics Dr Nick Economou says.

Even in symbolic terms, there are other more pressing political issues, such as gay marriage or indigenous recognition in the constitution, than the question as to who our head of state is.

Warhurst agrees that the number of issues on the menu for debate has not assisted the republic cause. ''I think there's only room for a certain number of high-profile issues at any one time,'' he says, adding that even for those on the progressive side of the spectrum, refugees and the environment have been seen as more important since 1999.

The political outlook has also changed significantly since the referendum. The 9/11 attacks and the global financial crisis have not only taken up air-space, they have made people feel less secure, and therefore more likely to favour what they know.

''In times like these, where Australians feel uncertain about the future ... we cling to icons that we see as uniquely Australian,'' Quantum Market Research managing director Imogen Randell says.

The annual AustraliaSCAN (which surveys 2000 Australians) has found that support for keeping the Australian flag has risen from 57per cent in 2001 to 65per cent in 2011. Support for changing the flag dropped from 19per cent in 2001 to 13per cent in 2011. ''We love the flag ... despite the fact that it looks exactly like New Zealand and is a derivative of Great Britain,'' Randell says.

There is a similar feeling towards the monarchy and the royal family. ''They've always been part of our culture and history,'' she says. ''We seem to love tradition at the moment.''

While the republic may mean scary change for Australia, the idea of it has certainly been around the national agenda for long enough to become part of the furniture. And long enough to take the edge off the republic movement. ''There's been the sense among many people that the republic will come. They don't need to get too excited about it,'' Warhurst says.

The lack of urgency is not helped by the fact that our constitutional monarchy ain't broken. ''We are a republic in everything but name only,'' Economou says. ''The prevailing attitude is, our system works reasonably well.''

The fact that the republican side has not been willing or able to agree upon a single model - the ARM's preferred model is to have a plebiscite to decide the model and then take it to a referendum - has meant that the ''yes'' case is less unified than the ''no''. The amount of complicated work involved in constitutional change doesn't help. In the absence of any pressing need or pressure, it's much easier to say ''stuff it, don't worry about it'', Economou says.

Tied up in the inertia is the widespread notion that Australia should wait until the Queen has ''moved on'' before it makes a decision. Even though the Queen has said it is up to Australia to decide (and was apparently surprised we voted ''no''), it is perhaps seen as disrespectful to ditch an 85-year-old monarch with a 60-year history on the throne.

Indeed, the issue is not simply a lack of support for the republic but the popularity of the royal family. Whether you're an Elizabethan, a monarchist, a conservative or someone with a crush on one of the princes, there is enormous interest in and affection for the British royal family.

During the 1990s, the royals suffered annus horribilis after annus horribilis and couldn't seem to put a sensible pump right.

While Flint says the ACM has always argued in favour of the constitution and not the quality of the royal family, he agrees that the royals are now enjoying much improved PR. ''The royal family went through a bad period,'' he acknowledges. Despite the fact that marriage break-up is common in modern society, ''people want to look up to them''.

These days, the Di-vorce and toe-sucking stuff seems like it is behind them with a bright young crop of next-generation royals. Not only do the likes of William and Catherine and their siblings grace the pages of the gossip mags and best-dressed lists, they present a more relaxed and accessible royal front (she is a commoner, he has a day job, they both wear jeans and had two kisses on the balcony after their wedding).

They also play straight into modern-day celebrity culture. ''The one thing Australians love is international celebrities,'' Economou says, noting that members of the British royal family are the ultimate form of international celebrities. ''People like soap operas [and] here's a real life soap opera, it's got everything.''

The royal show comes complete with pomp, ceremony, regalia, centuries of history and corgis. So the die-hard romantics and traditionalists are catered for as well as the stargazers. ''Even they can get their jollies,'' Economou says.

Randell notes that it was originally Princess Diana who reinvigorated the monarchy in the public's minds in the 1980s - providing endless fodder for women's magazines. ''Her children are a continuation of that,'' she explains. While they were growing up, they were a ''no go area''. But today, everyone loves Harry the ''larrikin'' and warms to William as the guy that ''does the right thing''.

And as Canberra has witnessed up close this week, the Queen is approaching icon status. Australian author Nikki Gemmell has recently returned to Australia from a long stint in London with her family. Despite being a self-declared republican, last week, Gemmell flew to Britain just to attend the Queen's pre-visit reception for Australians. Explaining her decision to ABC TV, Gemmell said that the Queen was ''the ultimate celebrity ... I was dazzled, absolutely dazzled by the experience.''

Australia's politicians, our political outlook and the world have moved on since 1999. So too has the royal family and its PR machine.

For Flint, the republic moment in Australia has been lost. Or at least the battle continues to be won. ''I think Labor will get over its republicanism,'' he predicts. And of the broader republican church, he paraphrases Monty Python. ''The republic is not dead. He is only resting.''

Economou is more philosophical about the strange ways of political change, likening it to a wave. ''Sometimes it goes backwards. We've been through a long period of backwardness.''

Warhurst is not so much philosophical as patient. He says the odds are with the monarchists at least until 2020 - but he doesn't believe 1999 was the only chance for constitutional reform. ''Republicans have to grab the second chance if it comes.''

Before that, what the republic really needs is a vocal champion in Parliament. ''It has some good friends [but] what I would like is for some people to really stick their necks out.''