Since his election as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull has spoken of the tremendous opportunities open to an agile, optimistic, forward-looking Australia. The images of his meetings with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany point to Australia’s future.
Pictures of our foremost republican meeting the Queen at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta, by contrast, remind us of Australia’s past.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, we engaged in a gradual process of stripping away the Britishness of our symbols, leaving them wholly Australian in character. Finally, our passports referred to us as Australian citizens, not British subjects. Distinguished service was recognised by an Australian honours system, not an imperial one. Final appeals were made to the High Court in Canberra, not the Privy Council in London. Our national anthem, once a prayer for the monarch’s wellbeing, was now a call for Australia’s advancement.
But in recent years that process slowed and stopped. The Rudd and Gillard governments did nothing to restart it. The Abbott government put it into reverse. Cabinet ministers once again swore allegiance to the Queen. Knights, dames and Queen’s Counsel returned. Mr Abbott was heard to say that our troops wear ‘the Queen’s uniform’, rather than the Australian uniform.
The decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip caused a huge brouhaha, partly because knighthoods seem anachronistic to most Australians and partly because poor Philip needed another one like a hole in the head. But the public response also revealed that the underlying constitutional issue has not been settled. The real problem with knighthoods is they remind us that our head of state is a foreign monarch.
I am a republican. I believe the Australian head of state should be an Australian – someone who has chosen to make his or her life with us and among us. A term at Timbertop doesn’t count.
Our head of state should be an Australian citizen, who lives in Australia, who is chosen by Australians and who represents Australians. No self-respecting country would want anything less.
Becoming a republic would make us prouder and more purposeful. It would be a demonstration of confidence in our shared future. It would be an expression of faith that there are Australians capable of filling every office under the Constitution, including the highest one.
An Australian president would travel abroad as our representative, in the same way the Queen represents Britain so ably when she travels. But I don’t say we should become a republic so that others respect us more. We should become a republic so that we respect ourselves more.
A move to a republic wouldn’t even prevent future Australian leaders from attending CHOGM meetings (if, for some obscure reason, they wished to do so). Most Commonwealth countries are already republics. Most countries that compete at the Commonwealth Games are republics. Even Malta, this year’s host of CHOGM, is a republic.
The republic is neither a dangerous idea nor a revolutionary one. Naturally monarchists will tell us it is all too hard. But Australians are not uniquely incapable, of all the world’s peoples, of giving constitutional expression to our patriotism. And to those who say there are more important issues for us to debate, I ask: what is more important than believing in ourselves?
Becoming a republic would not make Australia a great power. But it would help make Australia a great nation.