Big crowds wait for Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex on Bondi Beach. Picture: John Appleyard
Big crowds wait for Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex on Bondi Beach. Picture: John Appleyard

The republican movement is far from dead

YOU would be hard pressed to find a more congenial and down-to-earth couple than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Their sunny demeanour and easy charm during their recent Australia-Pacific tour showed these royal rock stars to be genuinely engaged with adoring subjects.

It was easily the most successful Royal tour of Australia since Charles and Diana's first visit in 1983.

In fact, so popular was the tour that former Labor minister Graham Richardson argued "the republic is a dead issue in Middle Australia … the sons of Princess Diana have squashed the republican movement … in the wake of the couple's wildly successful tour, it has now completely dis­appeared off the radar."

No, Graham, Australian republicanism is far from dead.

While it's true that republicanism for the vast majority of Australians ranks low among daily concerns, that's because we're so vexed by a cost of living rising faster than wages that we have no anxiety left to worry about an Australian Head of State.

Many Australians love the Queen and the royal family — but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be a republic, either.
Many Australians love the Queen and the royal family — but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be a republic, either.

Opinion polls bear this out. In the weeks leading up to the glamorous Harry and Meghan wedding this year, for example, Newspoll found 50 per cent of Australians still supported a republican Australia, with just 41 per cent supporting the status quo.

That means a referendum this Saturday would almost certainly approve our greatest constitutional change since 1900. But only if the right referendum question is asked (more on that later).

More significantly, republican support declined by just one percentage point during the Harry and Megan romance between 2017 and 2018.

As others have observed, a Republican Australia has little to with the British Royal family and much to do with us as Australians. And that's the point Queen Elizabeth recently made when she argued an Australian republic, consciously timetabled against the current monarch's mortality, is currently "untenable". If Australia wants to become a republic, then we shouldn't wait, she said.

After all, Britain didn't wait for us in the twentieth century when the Mother Country cut the apron strings via the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

She didn't wait for us when Singapore fell in 1942, now when she sought her own trading partners when (quite rightly) joining the European Common market in the 1970s.

And since the Governor-General's dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 - demonstrating the ill-defined powers of the Queen's Australian representative are strangely stronger than the Queen's own - and after the 1986 Australia Act than ended legal appeals to the British Privy Council, Australia's relationship with Britain has been largely cultural and not legal, political, militaristic or economic.

And with a growing immigrant population for whom an English royal family is both alien and anachronistic, those cultural bonds have grown weaker, too.

No, young Australians' love of English royalty today is rooted in a love of Hollywood celebrity and not English constitutional history, as may have been the case when a young Queen Elizabeth first visited Australia in 1954. Don't believe me?

Ask anyone under the age of 30 two questions: name three Kardashians, and explain the 1936 British Constitutional crisis around Edward VIII. You know which will be better answered.

And that returns us to how majority support for an Australian Head of State can be harnessed at referendum and turned into an Australian republic.

Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex on Fraser Island. Picture: AAP/Darren England
Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex on Fraser Island. Picture: AAP/Darren England

The first step is to acknowledge that, under a republic, Australia can still compete in the Commonwealth Games and welcome British royals to our shores as often as we like.

Second, we might eschew the gritty "Republic of Australia" label and return to "Commonwealth of Australia" as our official handle.

We could even keep the title "Governor-General" if "President" is too jarring.

But the real issue is how to appoint the head of state.

I'm a passionate supporter of two-thirds of parliament appointing a head of state - a genuinely bipartisan appointment across party political interests - that would see an eminent scientist or artist take an esteemed job that carries no real power.

But I concede most Australians want to elect their president, probably in the mistaken belief we'd be electing an American-style executive leader.

So, if Australians do opt for an elected president, we'd need to ensure two things: a strict screening process of candidates to ensure a loutish sporting yobbo isn't elected and, second, a strict proscription of powers to ensure the Westminster system of cabinet and prime ministerial governance is maintained.

Yes, the British royal family has some lovely virtues. But it's Britain's family, not ours.



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