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Saturday, 22 October 2011

Republic a scheme just too daring for Australians

Mike Keating, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, knows a thing or two about Australians' sense of independence. Keating was interviewed by Fairfax journo David Marr for a long story about the republic debate that appears in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Two things in particular that he said are worth commenting on.
"People say when the Queen dies it will happen. But it's not inevitable. We are pretty resilient when things are done to us. Take world wars: we responded well. Take natural disasters, fires and floods: we respond well. Take the global financial crisis: we respond well. But with the republic issue it's not a matter of responding. We have to take the initiative. It's our issue. Unless we summon the national will, nothing will happen."
This is the first thing: Australians are reactive doers, not proactive thinkers. And this feeds into the second thing that Keating tells Marr: we are not actually who we think we are. In the story, Marr and Keating have been talking about the current head-of-state situation and Marr gets Keating to sum up, which he does.
"None of this is consistent with what we say is our Australian ethos. We say we are egalitarian, so where does this aristocratic family come in? We say we value all religions equally, so why does our head of state have to be Church of England? We say we value men and women equally, so where do they get off favouring males? We say we value people and admire people who advance by their own achievements, and our head of state just gets it by birthright."
Then maybe, I venture, we aren't who we think we are. He ventures a quiet: "Perhaps."
Australians are not great initiators and we are faithful followers. The two things don't automatically proceed one to the next but, in this case, they buttress each other to create a reliable frame of reference. In innovation, for example, Australia does not lead markets or industries. Innovation is devilishly hard to bring about in Australia where neither governments or other sources of funding respond enthusiastically to novel proposals. This is my observation from experience gleaned by writing, for the past two years, about innovation in a number of industries. We need to be told that something will work by an already authoritative source, before we will believe that it will work and venture capital to make sure it does. Just look at the way governments have dealt with large-scale solar-power plants seeking funding.

And Australians respond well when put in a position of subjection. Larrikinism is not, as many think, an independent pose. The larrikin scoffs at the unusual, and belittles the outsider because that is what his betters would do, he thinks. Without those betters the larrikin does not know how to behave. He is automatically subject and, given the chance, will run off a few objectionable lines but shuts up as soon as he is called to account. A larrikin is not a dreamer, he is only too aware of his position.

Australians actually love to be subject. As Keating says, we are not who we think we are. Then, of course, there's not a lot to find attractive about the label 'republic'. In most cases that we routinely see, republics are struggling nations that are often beset by corruption and civil discord. The alternative is America. But Americans are a bit full of themselves, a bit brash and proud of who they are. Yes, they innovate to die for but do we really want all that independence when our current system serves us just as well? Keating knows all this but is too polite to tell it straight. He mutters the truth, rather than spells it out clearly. He is, after all, an Australian.

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