Head to head to head: Should Australia become a republic?

Three students take on the monarchy.

Art by Deaundre Espejo.

For: Kiran Gupta

By now, we’ve all heard about Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Unlike some others, I didn’t feel a great deal of sympathy for the couple. Harry’s comment about ‘only’ having Diana’s inheritance to spend (estimated to be $17 million) was incredibly tone-deaf, especially in the current economic climate.

Their comments only renewed strength for the argument that Australia should become a Republic, including from the chair of the Australian Republic Movement, Peter Fitzsimons, who decried the ludicrousness of an English family having a generational ‘divine right’ over Australians. The debate has always been interesting to me, especially given many monarchists are progressive (such as Michael Kirby) and many Republicans (such as Malcolm Turnbull) are conservative. In my view, the argument for becoming a Republic centres around functionality, practicality and the social impact of having a ‘Royal Family.’  

Many monarchists believe that the Crown holds an important role in protecting the sovereignty of the government. However, Professor Anne Twomey, an expert in the Monarchy from the University of Sydney, believes that the Queen’s reserve powers, such as to appoint and dismiss the Governor-General, are extremely limited and if exercisable, are generally only on the advice of the Prime Minister. “Buckingham Palace has always insisted that someone come physically with the advice to London, which in our case means it takes at least 24 hours to get there,” she says. “By that point, the person will have normally resigned first because of political pressure.”  

Beyond the functional argument, the Royals also no longer align with Australian values. They position themselves as embodying “impeccable” behavioural standards that Australians should aspire to, placing them above the level of celebrities. Given that Australia is a multicultural country, the suggestion that we should accept people with serious allegations of, continued silence towards, and infamous gaffes about racism as our head of state, is highly problematic. After all, royalty is a colonial system based on antiquated, structural privilege that has directly profited off violence and invasion. It does not seem far-fetched to assume that someone in the family would express concerns about a mixed-race child.

The monarchy is also subject to considerably less scrutiny than that of other public servants. The Royals operate under a guise of secrecy, reinforced by a carefully constructed narrative around needing their privacy. Through this, they place their importance above that of other public servants and celebrities. By exempting Royals from criticism, we not only allow for controversy but perpetuate an already rife class divide. 

To become a Republic, a referendum or plebiscite would need to occur, which would be costly and somewhat time-consuming. However, despite that, Professor Twomey suggests that becoming a Republic is not incredibly difficult, just that “someone needs to sit down and do the work consistently. But … Sensible, capable people are able to do it,” she says.

Professor Twomey does believe that it will take some time to achieve. “People seem to think that once the queen dies, we can say, that’s it, we’ve become a Republic,” she says. “There’s a lot of work to tie up all the loose ends [in the Constitution]. You’re looking at at least a couple of years. But it can be done.”

Professor Twomey suggests that there are two possible ways in which an Australian Republic could function. The first is the Council of Elders method, consisting of non-partisan people such as former High Court judges and former Governors to approve appointments and dismissals, but still on the advice of the Prime Minister. The second could be a mandated level of bipartisan support for the appointment required, which combined with a dictate that if the Governor-General removes the Prime Minister, they must also resign, would keep power in check.

However, she warns that if Australia is to become a Republic, the direct election route must be avoided.

“If you have a direct election, you get a politician [as head of state], because who else is going to have the money to run a national campaign? It’s going to be someone supported by a political party or even worse, a megalomaniac or a billionaire… [their campaign promises] can potentially end up in conflict with the Prime Minister, which is asking for trouble.”

At the end of the day, the Royals do have influence. And their influence promotes an out of touch system of privilege that does not reflect Australian values around race, transparency and class structure. Will a Republic require an expensive plebiscite? Yes. But is this worth spending to promote a positive cultural shift? I believe so.

Against: Khanh Tran

Another day, another schism within the British royal family following Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s damning allegations of systemic, casual racism within English media and most of all, the ‘Firm’ itself. This latest controversy has seen the resignation of figures such as Piers Morgan, and Ian Murray – the former executive director of the UK’s Society of Editors – for his claim that racism does not exist in the British media ecosystem. It is no wonder that the republican question has been reignited in Australian politics.

However, Australian Republicanism must be critically re-examined against a background of Indigenous injustice. If it does not acknowledge endemic racism and enduring colonialism, an Australian Republic will not create a just Australia but instead continue to deny Indigenous Australia a meaningful voice. 

To be genuinely just, an Australian Republic must, first and foremost, represent the triumph of inclusive Indigenous sovereignty over exclusive, nativist assumptions embedded in Anglo-Saxon sovereignty. Yet there remains a damning lack of political will for meaningful constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights and sovereignty, exemplified by Parliament’s lukewarm response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Despite the fact that the Statement was a carefully constructed political compromise in its recognition of Crown co-sovereignty and non-justiciability, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected it out of concerns proposals for a representative voice amounted to a ‘third chamber of parliament’.

That such a modest compromise for constitutional recognition of Indigenous sovereignty was mired in political intransigence so quickly is a clear indicator that Australia is not yet ready to become a republic premised on equity and social justice.

Scathing findings by the Scanlon Foundation suggest that Australia has yet to reconcile with its multicultural present. As of 2020, only 36% of Australians surveyed agreed with the statement: “ethnic minorities in Australia should be given Australian government assistance to maintain their customs and traditions”, with 63% disagreeing. These numbers suggest tensions between public support of multiculturalism and a reluctance to generously finance community events that maintain its multicultural identity. 

Without reconciliation, a new Australian Republic will remain burdened with grossly unresolved inter-generational trauma from its treatment of First Nations Peoples and nativist underpinnings. This is no hyperbole as past republican struggles have not necessarily entailed a more racially just politics. For instance, despite having attained independence, the United States’ sordid historic and ongoing marginalisation of Black Americans through voter suppression and racialised policing is an example of the glorification of republican freedom at the expense of racial equality. That is, an Australian Republic would likely mislead the country into thinking that racial injustices have been resolved which is, at present, patently not the case. 

Following a hypothetical republican victory, what would our constitution look like? Would it affirm Indigenous Australia through honest constitutional recognition and practical policies, or, amid the fleeting euphoria of electoral triumph, would Australia revert to colonial form and ignore Indigenous sovereignty?

Thus, the proverbial extrication of Captain Cook’s Union Jack from Australian soil without due respect for Indigenous Australia would be akin to extracting a corrupted nail from a wound without care or post-procedure treatment.

Although republican revolutions should not inspire fear nor overly incrementalist minutiae, an Australian Republic will only be a Pyrrhic victory if 60,000 years of Indigenous, Black Australia history does not supersede its recent 233-year Anglo-Caucasian past.

Against: Ben Hines

The move toward a Republic presents a counterproductive focus on symbolism, that has drastically hindered tangible, pragmatic outcomes and does nothing to solve underlying political issues causing these failures.

A Republic will likely not germinate meaningful social change. It does nothing to ameliorate instantiated political mechanisms that hinder significantly progressive policy, and will likely mean any head of state will reflect, if not entrench, this wider political status quo. It is no coincidence that major political platforms often seek a media sententia; the wider population, or, at least swing voters, drag the Overton window to the centre or in some circumstances to more conservative positions. Even in a scenario where a Republic energises a progressive voice, it is unlikely in a system of compulsory voting and political disengagement to cause significant systemic change.

Why is this fundamentally negative?

First, if the head of state was, for electoral viability reasons, predisposed in favour of the status quo and took an active political role, then progressive policymaking at any level, from government to minor party review, will likely be at best passively hindered or at worst actively undermined. The need for a Monarchy rests upon the manner Constitutional Monarchy stays out of politics and policymaking. An elected head of state may believe themselves to possess a mandate similar to that of the government by virtue of their democratic appointment, and even if given a role largely analogous to the current system, may seek to circumvent conventions seeking to ensure neutrality or hesitance to rely on reserve powers. This is important not only in principle, but in that any such interventions are unlikely therefore to be positive.

Second, transitioning to a Republic would be time-consuming, expensive, and contentious. Whilst this might unite a certain portion of the population it will also represent a significant drain on the capital and resources that could otherwise be put to direct use elsewhere, particularly in democratic politics. If this capital sought not to remove a symbol, but rather to effect meaningful change — investing in under-supported indigenous communities, working to reform systemic issues in the legal system, etc. — it would enact tangible pragmatic outcomes for those that need it most. That is not to say that this capital is, particularly over time, finite, but rather social change is an activity of competing priorities at the whim of public willingness. The best that could be hoped for would be to have no effect on these outcomes. At present a Republic is not a necessity, whereas solving these other issues should be viewed as such. More perniciously, any symbolism associated with the change, alongside inaccurate promises of pragmatic benefits, might create the sentiment that the “job is done” in many areas requiring social attention and political capital, rendering these outcomes less achievable.

Furthermore, there is also no guarantee that a move away from what, to many, is ostensibly a symbol of Australia’s colonial past, will actually elicit, or be the result of, progressive sentiment or create positive new symbolism. This is not to downplay genuine concerns surrounding allegations of racism within the Royal Family — which very much require deeper consideration- but there is also the very real possibility that support for such a movement may stem from, or at least reinvigorate, a deeper Australian nationalism of the kind that is seen when suggestions such as changing the date of Australia Day are raised. Even if the changes were the result of progressive ideals, it is not certain that what might be seen as the shedding of a colonial past will be replaced by anything other than the continued neglect of First Nations peoples and their role in Australia as again there is no compelling case that it will suddenly enable justice in Australia’s underlying political mechanisms. In this way the “symbolism” of Australia’s new “independence” may actually hinder important discourse surrounding the very concept of what “Australian” means.  

At the end of the day, substantively, Australia is already independent. The passing of the Australia Act afforded legal independence, the Governor-General is in effect an Australian head of state, and when people think of the leader of Australia they likely think of the Prime Minister. The symbolism of the Monarchy as an overseas ruler of Australia is largely lost, and practically any change won’t lead to the tangible progress or benefits that Republicans claim.

Nonetheless, whichever decision Australia makes, it surely will make for an interesting season of the Crown.

Filed under: