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Autumn 1999 cover

National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Editorial Comment

The Republic - a Lack of Consensus

The current debate whether Australia should become a republic has many unsatisfactory features. One of the most important of these is its treatment in the national press.

Mr. Rupert Murdoch has long given up his Australian nationality to become a citizen of the United States. He is apparently moved by some animus against the British Crown. He controls many newspapers in Australia, of which The Australian may be taken as an example. His newspapers, and particularly The Australian, have adopted a very strong pro-republic stance. Mr. Murdoch's lead has been followed in most other newspapers also, and particularly in the Fairfax press. It is not a matter of surprise that it is echoed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

If the treatment of the issue in the media is one-sided, its treatment among politicians is hardly better. The setting up of a republic is in effect a Labor Party policy, and in the Liberal Party most leading spokesmen have espoused the same cause. (There have been some few exceptions, notably Mr. John Howard and Senator Nick Minchin.) The National Party is virtually alone, in that its politicians generally are seen to favour the existing constitutional monarchy.

Amongst politicians it is difficult to determine who are taking particular positions as a matter of principle and who are taking opportunistic positions. When the treatment of the issue in the press is so one-sided not a little courage is needed for a politician to defend the status quo.

An Irish Republic

A further matter of note is the active role being played by many of Irish ancestry. Traditionally the Irish have been anti-British, and their rejection of the Crown is foreseeable. But although foreseeable their active enthusiasm for departing from our constitutional monarchy has an unfortunate basis. It is better if historical prejudices are not acceded to, but are left behind in the countries from which our immigrants originally came.

The powerful Irish influence in the republican movement was highlighted on the visit to Australia in March 1999 of Mr. Gerry Adams. Mr. Adams is a well-known spokesman for the Sinn Fein party, which is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The latter organisation has been responsible for acts of terrorism that have been generally condemned as barbaric and disgraceful. During his visit to Australia - in which he was unfortunately welcomed by many Irish-Australians - he repeatedly advocated that Australia should become a republic. His views were of course foreseeable, but their expression may well have been counter-productive. Even although there was a surprising lack of criticism of him in the press, many Australians were sufficiently aware of his background to cause all his comments to be treated with suspicion.

The strong Irish influence on the republic debate has given rise to general comment and is perceived to be a central issue. But a further matter that has not assisted the republican cause has been the identity of many of its leading advocates. Whatever may be the merits of Mr. Neville Wran, Mr. Malcolm Turnbull and Mr. Paul Keating, they are controversial persons. They are admired by some Australians but disliked or distrusted by others. Indeed, one of the difficulties that have been encountered by the republican movement has been an inability to attract leading Australians who are respected generally, and this in itself is a matter of some significance.

An Absence of Consensus

It is certainly true and it is not denied by leading republicans that the present system of a constitutional monarchy has worked well from its inception. It has produced stability, and a general confidence that the largely nominal functions of the Crown are carried out lawfully and with propriety.

Although all institutions should be re-assessed from time to time, to determine whether they can be improved, it is very doubtful that so large a change as conversion to a republic is appropriate at the present time. When a stable position exists, a change of this nature should not be effected without a substantial consensus in the population. In fact, there is no such consensus. To the contrary, the issue has proved to be divisive. There is even a division amongst the ranks of republican supporters, because some support the republican model that has been chosen for a referendum later this year and others are strongly opposed to that model.

Indeed, the republican model that has been chosen for the referendum has been criticised, on the basis that it is defective in a number of respects.

These defects will be commented upon in detail in future issues of this journal, but what is important in the present context is that when a far-reaching and complicated proposal is advanced under pressure, despite substantial opposition, its formulation is likely to contain inadequacies or errors, and this is what has occurred in the present case.

In order to accept a republic Australians should be assured both that a republic is agreed generally to be desirable and also that the form of republic chosen is satisfactory and does not contain risks of abuse. Since these matters have not been established it may be hoped that those now advocating the abandonment of our present system will not be successful.

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999