A former colony’s republican surge aims to dethrone its British Queen
A battle royal down under
A former colony’s republican surge aims to dethrone its British Queen
Paul Keating has never been one to shy away from a fight. And now, Australia’s scrappy Prime Minister, the son of a boilermaker from the working-class Sydney suburb of Bankstown, has picked himself a big one. Fresh from his Labor Party’s March 13 victory in a toughly fought election battle and convinced that his opponents are reeling on the ropes, Keating has fixed his sights on another crown.The prize? Nothing less than the transformation of his country, which has deep and historic links to the British throne, from a constitutional monarchy into a republic headed by an Australian president.
Within days of beginning a three-year term, Keating, 49, reiterated his revolutionary campaign pledge to hold a countrywide referendum on whether the nation should become a republic by 2001, the centenary of the federation of six British colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia. And late last month, the Prime Minister announced the formation of the republic advisory committee, a 10-member body of eminent citizens that will report by September on what constitutional changes are required to dethrone the Queen as Australia’s head of state. “I think we should start now on the journey,” Keating declared in a Sydney speech. ‘We need to be in every sense, including the symbolic one, our own masters.”
The launch of the advisory committee is part of an intensified campaign to win bipartisan support for switching to republican status. “This needs to be a nonpartisan issue,” advisory committee chairman Malcolm Turnbull, a 38-year-old Sydney lawyer and merchant banker, told Maclean’s. “Australia used to be a happy part of the British Empire, but the monarchy is busted here now.” Keating has appealed to opposition parties to participate in the transition, but they are deeply divided over the issue and some monarchists accuse the Prime Minister of trying to skewer his political rivals with a republican sword. Whatever his motives, Keating has not waited for opposition approval to take some first steps. When Michael Lavarch, 32, was sworn in as Keating’s attorney general last month, he became the first-ever cabinet minister to recite an oath of office that pledges allegiance to “the Commonwealth of Australia” rather than “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors.”
Far from casting the debate in purely emotional terms, those who favor a republic argue that it simply reflects national realities as Australia enters the 21st century. “Our head of state should be Australian,” said Turnbull. “It is simply an overdue affirmation of national identity.” And the nature of Australia is changing. Under an unwritten “white Australia policy,” which was adopted in 1901 and not fully dropped until 1973, the country severely restricted non-white immigration. The result was that until the 1970s, Australians were almost ex-
clusively of Anglo-Celtic origin. Now, although more immigrants still come from Britain than any other single country, the next eight sources for newcomers in 1991-1992 were Asian nations. The government predicts that within the next 25 years, a quarter of the country’s population—currently 17.1 million—will be Asian-Australian. “Ethnic Australians would rather have symbols they understand,” said New South Wales state Labor MP Carl Scully, who heads a parliamentary task force on amending oaths and legislative references to the Crown. “All the silk stocking and breeches stuff can go.”
The republican movement has also been fuelled by shifting economic conditions. As Australia struggles to emerge from its worst recession since the 1930s—unemployment now stands at 10.7 per cent—Keating hopes to forge even closer partnerships with the booming, nearby Asian economies. In the past, strong ties with Britain were seen as a necessary deterrent to Chinese and Japanese power to the north, especially during the Second World War. Throughout the Cold War that followed, Australia closely allied itself to the United States as a bulwark against communism. But with Britain binding itself to the European Community and the United States pursuing hemispheric free trade, Australia sees closer ties with Asia as essential to its future prosperity. And Keating maintains that its Asian neighbors do not understand why the British monarch remains Australia’s head of state. “Australia will be taken more seriously as a player in regional affairs if we are clear about our identity,” Keating has argued, pointing out that Asia consumes more than twothirds of his country’s exports. “I think that in the area in which we live, which is an area of ancient cultures, there’ll be a greater willingness to include us in the affairs of the region if we are of an independent mind.”
Japan, Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly a third of both its total exports and imports, has eagerly embraced those republican sentiments. “A multicultural, international and Australian Australia is an invaluable friend for Japan,” said Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in Canberra during a visit to the country in late April. ‘We look forward to working closely together with you.” Officials from Japan—which has its own monarchy—confirmed that the supportive language was no accident. Keating respond by siding with Tokyo in its dispute with the United States over closed Japanese markets. “There is no doubt that, politically, Tokyo and Canberra are, at the moment, as close as two bugs in a rug,” wrote Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the national daily newspaper, The Australian, after the visit.
Cultural links between the two countries are also burgeoning. Tokyo’s leading FM radio station, J-Wave, recently featured a ninehour ‘Terra Australia” special that included such leading Australian pop stars as INXS, Diesel and Wendy Matthews. “I knew about beaches, sheep and opals, but I had no idea Australia would have such a high cultural fragrance,” J-Wave producer Shigeru Saito told The Sydney Morning Herald after returning from a visit. “The food is delicate, the fashion very sharp, the social scene so sophisticated. This is an Australia unknown in Japan.”
Australians, too, eagerly reach beyond their borders. “It is only a couple of hours to Asia,” says Sydney businessman Neil Weatherstone. We are not intimidated by Asia. More Australians are at ease in Asia now, on business and holidays.” And Weatherstone, whose 10year-old daughter, like many other Australians, is studying Japanese, adds that his country has been heavily influenced by its northern neighbors. “I can’t remember when I ate steak and eggs last,” he said. “But I eat lots of rice and noodles.”
Still, while national polls consistently indicate that a majority of Australians support the idea of a republic, pockets of fierce resistance re-
main. Among them are the 250,000-member Returned Services League, a war veterans’ group, and the 1,500-member Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). “I think the republican movement is a smoke screen for the Labor Party,” said ACM chairman Lloyd Waddy, an eighth-generation Australian whose father was a much-decorated fighter pilot in the Second World War. “Their motivation is to fundamentally change the balance of power. Canada and Australia already have the best systems. If the system ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But the official opposition, a coalition of the Liberal and National parties, is too divided to become the focus of resistance to the republican push. The Liberal Party’s platform is officially committed to a constitutional monarchy, but younger Liberals favor severing ties with the Queen. Liberal Party Leader John Hewson, who also heads the coalition, acknowledges that “a hardline monarchist position is out of touch with the realities of Australia today.” Hewson’s challenge: how best to modify his party’s historic pro-monarchist stance in the face of the republican surge. “The monarchy is a lost cause for the Liberals,” declared republic advisory committee chairman Turnbull, himself a onetime Liberal. “If the Liberals are seen as the last defenders of the monarchy, it will destroy the party.” So far, however, Hewson has refused to accept Keating’s invitation to appoint one of the 10 members on the committee, calling it a “blatantly political exercise.”
Keating, who has indicated that he favors a ceremonial president elected by Parliament, has also said that he would prefer Australia to become a republic with as little change as possible to the constitution. But the road ahead may well be bumpy. “The republic is inevitable,” said Lois O’Donoghue, an Aboriginal member of the advisory committee. “But there needs to be constitutional changes to recognize Aboriginal people as prior owners of the country, as the first Australians.” Last week, Queensland Aboriginal leader Bob Weatherall called for a separate referendum for the country’s indigenous people. “If we have a white referendum, there will be non-Aboriginal people determining the destiny and future of Aborigines,” he said. “We should be given the choice of deciding whether we would like to have our own autonomous nation.” And politicians in conservative Western Australia, who often argue that their state, a bastion of loyal British ancestry, is being economically exploited by easterners, have begun to suggest that they, too, should hold a referendum—on separation. If Keating is not careful, what now appears to be a foregone conclusion could well turn into more of a brawl than he bargained for.
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