Republicans shouldn't shy from Queen visit

If the occasion is fitting, republicans should stand up privately and publicly for their beliefs during Her Majesty's Australian visit.

In 1999, Canberrans voted 63per cent for an Australian republic, when the whole country, apparently to the Queen's surprise, rejected the proposition by 55per cent to 45per cent. Let's not forget that when the Queen comes to Canberra she is in republican territory. This should add a certain frisson to the visit, though it will not cool the official welcome. But it is a paradox that wherever you look in Canberra there are republicans who want constitutional change.

At the community level, it is notable that the members of the Legislative Assembly are largely republican, including the leaders of the three political parties. At the national level, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her party are republicans. The Chief Justice, Robert French, is a republican. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins, is a republican. Many, if not most, federal departmental heads are republicans. The same will probably be not the case at Duntroon, where she will present the colours to the Royal Military College, but that gathering will be an exception.

Republicans shouldn't shy from Queen visit

Just who will welcome and meet the Queen in Canberra has not been announced in detail, but one can assume, on the basis of the usual suspects, that many of those who do so will be the republicans mentioned above. Just how they choose to manage these occasions is up to them. Many will share the deep affection and respect for the Queen expressed recently by one such republican, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Philip Flood, in his memoir of his diplomatic career, Dancing with Warriors. Personal relations will not be difficult; nor are they the issue. This is all about the Australian constitution.

Nevertheless the social interchanges should be frank as befits relations between such experienced people. Flood's memoir suggests that is just how the Queen likes it. Presumably she will not want to be surrounded just by monarchists. It will be a shame if social relations are conducted on a don't ask, don't tell basis. If the occasion is fitting, republicans should stand up privately and publicly for their beliefs.

The visit - she arrives in Canberra next Wednesday - is complicated by the deep-seated complexity in the position held by the Queen, Australia's head of state. She wears many hats, first and foremost as British Queen, which is a matter for the British alone. But she is in Australia primarily to open the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. She does so in her role as head of the Commonwealth, in which a majority of members are republics, including South Africa and India. Australian republicans have no quarrel with the Queen when she wears this hat. Furthermore the Queen is coming to Canberra, and also visiting Brisbane and Melbourne, as the Australian head of state; this certainly is a matter for Australians. This designation as head of state is widely accepted, including by the Australian Monarchist League. The Queen's fourth hat is as Queen of each of the six Australian states, most of which she will not be visiting. This illustrates the partial character of this 10-day visit. When the Queen first visited Australia in 1954 she came for almost two months, visited all capitals and 70 country towns, and made 100 speeches. That is the difference between then and now.

The British don't quite know what to make of the desire by Australians to continue the constitutional appointment of the Queen as Australian head of state. The author of Adventures in Correspondentland, Nick Bryant, who until recently was the BBC's Australian correspondent, exemplifies such bewilderment. While he suggests some possible explanations, his confusion is clear about what he calls a conspicuous Australian paradox: ''how an increasingly patriotic country that has always prided itself on its informality, irreverence, anti-authoritarianism, lack of snobbery and egalitarianism continues to countenance an institution that stands in defiance of so many national nostrums''. That is, the British monarchy is based on the anti-democratic principle of hereditary appointment, encapsulates discrimination against gender and religion, and cannot represent Australian values.

The desirability of an Australian republic is nicely framed by considering together the three visitors that Canberra will be welcoming soon. The others are Princess Mary and Prince Frederik of Denmark (November 19-26) and American President Barack Obama (November 16-17). The term visitors is telling. What self-respecting country receives a visit from its own head of state? The Queen has made just 16 visits over the almost 60 years of her reign over us.

Mary, the Aussie Princess, and Frederik exemplify what an Australian head of state could do for Australia and what a British monarch never can. The Danish royal couple, who now visit Australia as frequently as members of the British royal family, are leading a Danish export and culture promotion, focusing on Denmark's green energy, sustainable living and food technologies.

They are a living embodiment of Danish life and culture in a way no member of the British royal family can ever be for Australia. They serve a practical function as well as an expression of national identity. These arrangements are a model for Australians to aspire to, an Australian head of state. The governor-general is no substitute.

Obama is in a different category. In constitutional terms he is head of state and head of government, an executive president model that few Australian republicans wish to copy. But he too represents his own nation in an unambiguous way that we can aspire to.

Americans chose to break with Britain in a decisive War of Independence. Those two nations remain the closest of allies; as will Australia and Britain after Australia takes the incremental way forward and eventually votes ''Yes'' at a referendum of independence.

  • John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and deputy chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.

    john.warhurst@anu.edu.au