King Charles won’t help, republicans need a conservative in charge
Published in The Australian today, May 2:
When asked about a republic, Bob Hawke would settle on the formula, “Yes … but after Queen Elizabeth II.”
At the time I thought Hawke might have overlooked the public’s ability to make distinctions; for example, to enjoy a fondness for the reigning Queen but be ready to vote for Australia to have its own head of state. Just as later Australians could make a distinction between supporting the US alliance but disliking George W. Bush and his war in Iraq.
But I thought the Hawke formula also overlooked the warmth bound to flow when Charles succeeded his mother.
On one of his visits I saw him at work in Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. “I like the way you perform your duties!” came a call from the roped-off crowd. “A thousand years of breeding!” came the self-mocking response from the Prince of Wales as he sprang up the steps. An heir to the throne capable of that give-and-take with the public would appear to have inner resources enough, even before the sugar hit of a star-studded coronation.
I record in my diaries my visit to the prince’s residence at Highgrove with our high commissioner, Mike Rann. We were able to converse about biodiversity, grasslands management and the forestry reform in NSW that gave the state 350 new national parks. This heir to the throne was a far cry from historic playboy archetypes, those who became George IV, Edward VII or, briefly, Edward VIII. As I noted in my diary, “Charles would be a good monarch. My republicanism wobbles. Who would we elect in his place? A general? A tennis star?”
But there’s a bigger truth about the state of the republican debate: it is permanently stalled until the conservatives decisively adopt it as their own.
I’m serious about the decisive part. If John Howard had championed a minimalist model and taken it to the Australian people in 2000, a cunning campaign from the Right — from a few dissident Liberals and Nationals — might have undermined it, stirring up a feeling that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, suggesting messy royal prerogatives unspooling on the polished floors of Yarralumla.
Even a mischievous Greens campaign — “the people should have a say” — might have agitated the traditional Australian reluctance to change the Constitution. We all know the litany — since 1906, only eight of 44 proposals have been carried at referendums with a majority of votes in a majority of states.
It’s hard to imagine a post-Abbott Liberal prime minister seeing any advantage in elevating the issue. It would likely be opposed by sections of their party.
Meanwhile, Charles succeeds to the throne amid the glories of the first coronation since 1953, his own Prince of Wales hovering dutifully behind him, the heads of grandchildren above the parapet.
As Bronx judge Edwin Torres famously said, “Your parole officer ain’t been born yet.” Australian republicans have got to hope that’s not true of the Australian conservative who will lead his party towards a republic. All republicans can do in the meantime is to probe public opinion and keep polishing a minimalist model.
The one to cleave to is one I’ve long advocated: a simple amendment to the Constitution that declares the governor-general is Australia’s head of state, the post to be filled by a two-thirds vote of the parliament.
Remove the Queen and royal assent. Don’t insert “president” or “Republic of Australia”.
Don’t attempt to codify the reserve powers.
This is the pared-down minimalist minimalism.
But it’s a Liberal prime minister who will sell it, if it is ever to be sold.
For Labor there may even be relief to know that delivering this change is beyond it alone. Relief, and an opportunity to savour the fact that at least the heir to the throne and our head of state is a serious believer in anthropogenic climate change and the need to respond to it with resolution.