Thursday, 3 October 2013

If the government shuts down, who needs a republic?

This blogpost started with a humorous tweet - "Let's shut the government down & immediately start it up again and hope that fixes the problem like with my wifi." - that appeared a couple of days ago in my feed where it had been retweeted by someone I follow, and it got me thinking about the events in Australia of November 1975 when exactly that happened, as the Washington Post reported. This story appeared in social media soon after I had remarked there that the differences between the two cases warranted examination in the media today. The events it recounts are writ large in the memories of many liberals because it was a progressive prime minister who was dismissed by the governor-general; Gough Whitlam - who is still alive - looks to most Australians like some sort of unfettered sage looming over the decades that have passed since those days long gone.

After I posted the link to that story on Facebook someone I know remarked that the US government shutdown was the reason he remained a monarchist, and I countered - because I personally would prefer to see Australia as a republic - that just because the US polity has the problems it does now would not necessarily mean that every republican model you constructed would be liable to the same phenomena. The guy said I had a healthy imagination, and: "Up till now I haven't seen anything that does the trick... but I remain open minded!"

Staying open-minded is part of the trick. As recently as December I came up against questions about Australia's political system from a skeptic. Although Australia is the world's fourth-oldest democracy we sometimes get reminded that the British Queen remains the head of state. Is Australia a real democracy? The question gets asked, it does. In the main, foreigners tend to be more censorious than locals. Yesterday someone used the word "neo-colonialism" in a tweet responding to one of mine: a Brit as it happened. But Australians are far more blase about the political settlement that has served the country so well for such a long time - elections began to be held in New South Wales in 1856. The country is the world's 15th-largest economy although its population is a mere 23 million. There has never been any major episode of civil conflict to mar the record. It is a liberal, pluralist, successful polity that continues to attract hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year who want to work, live and raise their families here; our bureaucrats and politicians - regardless whether they're conservative or progressive - encourage this inflow.

But still the question remains as to why the country does not choose to go it alone. Certainly, the drama in Washington DC currently must act as a disincentive. How much more civilised, many will say, to simply abolish the government, call for new parliamentary elections, and carry on. On top of the smug feeling our record in this space evokes there's also the matter that the British royal family is wildly popular in Australia, evidenced by the regular appearance of royals on the glossy covers of women's magazines. The flag has Britain's Union Jack set in the top lefthand corner. Australians are remarkably comfortable with the political settlement mainly because it has operated so well for so long. Students of Australian democracy might well point to episodes other than the one in November 1975 to show how the monarchy functions to adjust the progress of government in Canberra, but there has been no other major one to frighten children with.

In the final analysis the current Australian political settlement is a very reasonable one, and if there's any one characteristic that symbolises government in this country it is that it's reasonable. The can-do-anything imaginitiveness fostered by Americans' foundation myths is less overt in Australia, and for that reason probably more complex. The fact remains that when Australians asked for representative government the British monarchy complied. It has been complicit in the trick ever since. Nothing to see here, move along.

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