Stringing them along

Tuesday, 22 April 2008 

The problem with the republic debate was that there used to be two debates rolled into one.

On the one hand there was the debate we always heard about, the one within the political class and their supporters over the best way for them to be represented here and overseas. While they would no doubt like to stand on their own two feet, they have had too little authority to do so and so have had to cling to a Monarchy on the other side of the world. That solution has been getting well past its sell by date as the Monarchy loses credibility even in the UK, and even some of those on the pro-Monarchy side of Australian politics recognised a need for a new solution. It was what gave Keating the impetus to try and resolve the issue by creating a new political basis for an independent stand.

However, that attempt failed because of the second debate that is less readily acknowledged: namely between the political class and the broader public who are less interested in how the political class want to represent themselves but just want a say on who is the Head of State. The republican side always contained an uneasy coalition between these two differing reasons for supporting the republican model – a national identity one and a broader democratic one. The two may want to get rid of the monarchy but there is a conflict between them over who was to have the final say. The second argument would occasionally break through in Australian politics usually in dramatic circumstances such as the conscription debates of the World Wars and the 1975 Dismissal. It is the flaw in the republican argument that was exploited by Howard the last time it emerged, in the 1999 referendum.

It was nice to see Bob Carr on the TV the other night and be reminded just how patronising Labor luminaries were during the 1999 referendum to those opposing the attempt to keep the choice of President in politicians’ hands. The usual reason given for Keating’s model of restricting the choice of the President to MPs was that it was less radical and so more likely to win the referendum with a supposedly conservative/stupid electorate.

There were three problems with this. Firstly, it was less democratic. Secondly, because of this it was less popular. Thirdly, they lost anyway. Once the Australian Presidency became presented as the property of Australian politicians, it allowed Howard and the Monarchists to turn it from a referendum about an unpopular British Monarchy to one about an even more unpopular Australian political class. With the Monarchists warning of a “politician’s republic”, the republican movement managed the singular feat of losing a republican referendum in a republican country.

They looked to have learnt little from this. Bob Carr still seems to be believe the reason they lost is that the Australian electorate is too conservative/stupid. So his answer is the “minimalist republic”, changing arrangements as little as possible so that one day we all wake up and find the G-G is now called the President, effectively administering the republic to a reluctant electorate much as one gives unpleasant medicine to a child.

However, behind all the spurious discussion over tactics there was another reason put against the direct election model that got a little closer to the truth and shows the problem for any re-run. There was a palpable fear that any directly elected President, even with restricted powers, would have an authority that would rival those elected in Parliament. This touched on the central problem of the Australian republican debate. The factors that were eroding the authority of institutions such as the Monarchy in the UK are also at work here and undermining the credibility of the political class. The irony of Keating’s national identity project was that just at the time significant sections of the Australian political class decided to take the leap for an independent stand, their authority to do so was weaker than before, something that led to Keating losing power in Canberra and for them to lose control of the republican argument three years later.

If anything that problem has become even worse today and those in Canberra on the weekend who thought Keating’s republic was back are wrong. There was a fairly perceptive article by Denis Shanahan yesterday on the nature of the alliance that has now been set up at the Summit between Rudd and what Downer thought looked like all the old Keating ‘luvvies’. As Rudd said, the main purpose of the Summit was less the ideas themselves but to set up a process to bypass the old political system. The ‘best and brightest’ played a useful role, namely having the presumption to unquestioningly rush in and fill the gap left by the political parties.

For now, Rudd has used the revival of the republic as the keystone of that alliance. Michelle Grattan’s view that he is getting swept along by the momentum of the call for the republic at the Summit makes little sense since it was Rudd who reflagged the republic and started the whole ball rolling a few weeks ago just before meeting the Queen.

But Rudd is not Keating. In fact he is almost the opposite. Whereas Keating’s project was to create a new identity for the Australian political class, Rudd’s is to displace it, even if he uses Keating’s issues to do it. He has already shown this with the apology, which for Keating was a way of rehabilitating the political class and bring an apologetic nation behind it, whereas for Rudd it was the basis of a full frontal attack on the political class – and on them only. For Rudd, Australian politicians are not even suitable anymore for the role of G-G, something he made clear at the beginning of the year when there was speculation over Beazley taking the role. It is hard to believe that he will think they should choose the President.

For Rudd, the republic is likely to be viewed like the apology, i.e. ‘unfinished business’ to be tidied up, rather than a new foundation on which to build a new political project going forward. By all his ducking and weaving when asked whether it will happen in the two years wanted by the Summit participants, he seems to still see it no more urgent than he did a few months ago. What is more important for his current purposes is that he keeps his new ‘political class’ on-side talking about the republic while he displaces the old arrangements. In fact for Rudd, keeping an ongoing debate alive is probably more important than the bit of constitutional housekeeping that is likely to be the end result. Like a true technocrat, he is all about process.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 22 April 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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