Journey towards republic must not be sidetracked
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Journey towards republic must not be sidetracked

After a recent speech in which I called for a renewed national conversation on an Australian republic, I was met with a curious response: ''Why now? Is this really the right moment?'' The Australian republic, it seems, always raises the crucial question of timing. ''When?'' To monarchists the answer is always ''never''. To the cautious the answer is usually ''not now'', or at least ''not until Queen Elizabeth's reign is over''. Others argue that we should raise the issue again only after global recession has been conquered once and for all, and people can concentrate on the future free of practical worries.

The time may not indeed be right for an immediate referendum, but it is my belief that it is always the right time to argue for the merits of a republic and prepare the ground for future constitutional change. The road to an Australian republic is long, without a timetable, and so the journey must continue.

An Australian republic: Not if, but when, argues Wayne Swan.

An Australian republic: Not if, but when, argues Wayne Swan.

The case for a republic is as simple as it is compelling, and one that I have been making since my maiden parliamentary speech in 1993. It's about democratic principle. How can it be that in a modern democracy one of our own citizens can never aspire to be our head of state? How can inherited privilege be the sole qualification? As a passionate Labor supporter, I add an extra question: how can we be a truly egalitarian nation when the humblest and best Australian cannot aim for the highest office in the land?

To me these questions are ultimately without answer. Just as the argument that ''if it isn't broken, don't fix it'' is without merit. It's the universal argument of conservatism that over the centuries has protected aristocracies, prevented parliamentary reform and denied the vote to the common man and woman. It should not now be used to deny Australia its true constitutional independence.

There have been times when the monarchy has been broken. The sacking of the Whitlam government, including the unwillingness of the Crown to take the advice of an elected prime minister with a majority in the House of Representatives, is an obvious example from our nation's past. An Australian president with clearly defined powers would help prevent such an injustice from occurring again.

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One could argue that the almost universal respect in which Queen Elizabeth is held makes her the right person for the job, notwithstanding that unfortunate constitutional crisis of November 1975. But constitutional arrangements are not about personalities. Queen Elizabeth is much loved and respected for her unfailing record of public duty. But what if history had been different, and a less able and less reliable head of state had ascended the throne in 1952? After all, we are just two English monarchs from the short and disastrous reign of Edward VIII. This reminds us that a good result is not always guaranteed.

With the economic and political balance shifting to our part of the world, the idea of an Australian head of state who resides in London seems anachronistic in the extreme. Bringing our constitution home would be the right way to focus our minds on the fact that we are now an independent nation that can succeed fully only by taking advantage of the development of the Asia-Pacific region. The symbolic statement made by an Australian republic in the Asian century would ram that crucial point home.

As a prosperous, successful and proud nation, we are selling ourselves short when we don't also have the confidence to chart our own way in the world led by an Australian head of state.

The best way to proceed is set out in the Australian Labor Party's platform a two-stage process, a plebiscite to determine the best model of a new republic, including the method of choosing the head of state and the powers they will be given, followed by a referendum.

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It is the task of all of us who believe in the idea of an Australian republic to reinvigorate the national dialogue on the issue. Is a successful referendum inevitable? I think so. Time and the progress of history, as well as the evolution of our national culture, is on our side. But the answer to the eternal question - when? - depends on how passionately and persuasively we republicans put our case. It is my hope therefore that the volume of essays launched on Monday, Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a new Australia, educates more Australians about the case for change and brings the establishment of an Australian republic closer.

Wayne Swan is Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. He and opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull will speak at the book launch of Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia, (Penguin Books) at Parliament House on Monday.