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Monday, 3 June 2013

Not the bloody republic thing again

It looks as though Wayne Swan and Malcolm Turnbull are beating the drums to gather support again for a debate on a republic for Australia. They'll be speaking at a book launch at Parliament House today dealing with the issue. As an ALP man, Swannie has his pride, and we remember Turnbull as one of the movers in the lead-up to the conclusive 1999 referendum, on the side "for" a republic.

While many people will be again looking back, due to the ABC's current screening of a series about Gough Whitlam's government, at the events of 1975, I think that there needs to be more awareness in Australia about the relationship between British monarchs and the people they have governed - and continue to govern - and specifically about the nexus between the Crown and popular self-determination, in other words democracy. With an unelected monarch the issue is always going to be about priorities. Are the monarch's priorities the same as those of the governed? If Australia continues to keep its head of state overseas, this issue will eventually surface. And because the monarch can have a material impact on Australia's government - cf Whitlam's sacking - it is not a trivial matter. Swannie brings up some of these ideas in his op-ed piece.

He also notes that the matter of the quality of the monarch is important. Most people like Elizabeth II, he remarks, but some other, less adept family member might sit on the throne one day. It's an important point, especially when you think of George III (pic); I see a distinct resemblance to Prince Charles, don't you? Look at the mouth and the eyes in this 1799 portrait, a portrait made in a time of war. Another war.

George III's dynastic priorities had been instrumental in bringing England into war earlier in the century, between 1754 and 1763. The matter of colonial trade was also involved. Ironically, it was the gain of France's Canadian colonies during that war by British forces under the command of General Wolfe in 1759 that ultimately enabled the American colonies to declare independence - they could never have done so with such a formidable enemy breathing down their necks - in addition to the more well-known matter of the British Parliament passing laws to tax the American colonies. On this matter, understandably, the colonials protested, and with reason, pointing to the 1689 Bill of Rights which said there could be no taxation without parliamentary consent, and since the colonists had no representatives in Parliament they felt they were exempt from taxation. What's notable in this conflict is how politically aware the American colonists were.

The British Parliament might have been more intent on raising revenue to pay for the long war just finished, but George III should have reflected more on how jealous the British Americans were of their rights. Especially, he should have given more thought to how the earlier conflict between Parliament and the monarch - in that case Charles I - on precisely the same point of sovereignty, had turned out. (Charles - 0, Cromwell - 1.) What the American case shows us though is how the Crown can easily come to make the same stupid mistake twice, so there is no reason why 1975 cannot occur again.

As to the relations between the Crown and the colonists on the Australian continent, we might want to remember that when she was asked by the New South Wales colonists to grant them the franchise, Victoria agreed, in 1856, although the upper house was still populated by gubernatorial appointees. Her willingness to concede elements of sovereignty to the New South Wales colonists is one reason why Victoria has such a good reputation still in Australia today. But what issues arose in the debates leading up to the event are largely unknown here, which is a shame, although there are books available, such as Peter Cochrane's 2007 Colonial Ambition. While Americans all have opinions about their Founding Fathers, and bring up their long-past utterances in political debates that occur every four years when the time comes to elect a new president, it says something about Australians' identity that men like democrat William Wentworth are largely ignored while mere property barons like John Macarthur are well-known.

Economic matters dominate much of what passes for debate in Australia, where many people feel relieved to have dodged a bullet in 2007, one that hit America and Europe especially hard. Why would you want to change the nature of government in Australia, when our system of bank regulation clearly worked better than the system that failed Americans so badly? Such comparisons to the dominant global hegemony animate the minds of Australians when they think about the matter of sovereignty. For example, secular-minded Aussies might feel happy that religion is so much less important where they live, compared to how it frequently enters politics Stateside, and possibly feel there is less need for the comfort that religion gives to people for the precise reason that we look to the British monarch for moral and spiritual guidance, rather than to a church preacher.

And anyway debates about sovereignty are so out-of-date in Australia, because they largely took place at the time of the gold rush. That was the time, for instance, when my own ancestors arrived - in the period of expansion that followed the cessation of Transportation - making me a 6th-generation Australian. We wear our rights like a soft, long coat so well-used and comfortable that we hardly feel its weight hanging on our backs. We look at the spastic gyrations of politics in countries where the head of state is elected by the people and we wonder why they can't just get their act together, and get along. We are ignorant of the battles fought in Britain following the French Revolution over the matter of self-determination, because a universal franchise is something that we take for granted. Sydneysiders might ride past the Wollstonecraft train station on their way to a business meeting in Chatswood and never give a thought to who the place is named after: women had the vote here in 1901, at the time of Federation. So what's the fuss all about? Why worry?

"Charles is a good bloke, right?" But will Charles III be a good king?

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