The British Empire is long gone. However, watching the procession of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall late on Wednesday, it was evident that the United Kingdom can still put on a fine military parade.
The occasion served as a reminder of what English critic George Orwell wrote in the New English Weekly in March 1940, at a time when members of the pro-communist left were opposed to the war effort because of their support for the Hitler-Stalin pact. Orwell reflected: “The socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.”
Shortly after the Queen’s death was announced, the Australian Republic Movement released a somewhat pompous statement expressing its condolences to the royal family. It carried the name of the ARM chair, who was referred to as “Peter FitzSimons AM”. It’s not clear why the reference to FitzSimons’s postnominals was necessary on this occasion. After all, the former monarch was referred to in the ARM statement by the post-nominals-free title Queen Elizabeth II.
The ARM statement was misleading in that it claimed “the Queen backed the right of Australians to become a fully independent nation during the referendum on an Australian republic in 1999”. Now, I am a republican. And I voted Yes in the November 1999 referendum to establish Australia as a republic, with the Queen and governor-general being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of members of the federal parliament.
However, I never thought the Queen was backing the referendum – as the ARM statement implied. Indeed, I believe Elizabeth II wished that Australia would remain a constitutional monarchy. It was just that the sovereign is meant to be above politics and the Queen held the constitutionally correct view that Australians were completely free to become a republic if this was their wish. In short, Elizabeth II did not publicly back or oppose the referendum.
I did not believe that the referendum would succeed. For starters, the republicans were divided between those who favoured a head of state chosen by a two-third majority of federal parliamentarians and those who proposed a head of state directly elected by voters.
Moreover, the ARM’s leadership seemed out of touch. In late 1999, the ARM was led (and substantially financed) by a multi-millionaire investment banker who lived in the exclusive Sydney suburb of Point Piper on the shores of Sydney Harbour. The reference is to Malcolm Turnbull. Now Turnbull has style. Not so much FitzSimons who, until recently, spent a decade wearing a red bandana on his head for reasons that were never explained.
It’s easy to see why so many Brits, along with visiting foreigners, wanted to watch the procession of soldiers, sailors and aviators marching alongside the Queen’s horse-drawn casket with the sound of ceremonial gun salutes in the background. A republican procession led by a well-off Sydney-based journalist with a red rag as headwear would be somewhat less inspiring.
Anthony Albanese has been wise to rule out any move that Australia become a republic during his first term in office. There is no evidence that any such referendum would succeed so soon after the Queen’s death. Moreover, the Labor government is committed to put the proposed Indigenous voice to parliament to a referendum by no later than mid- 2025.
In view of the tendency of Australians to vote No concerning proposals to change the Constitution, the voice initiative will be hard enough to achieve without the introduction of another referendum proposal on the republic.
This is the case whether or not Australia’s republicans can agree on a model with which to replace the existing constitutional monarchy.
The fact is there has been very little debate about the republic in the past two decades, apart from discussions among those who advocate the cause. These are not debates in the genuine sense of the term, although many of those engaging in such discussions choose to believe otherwise.
Take the 2022 Melbourne Writers Festival held last weekend, for example. Increasingly these taxpayer-funded events resemble the ABC in that they present panels where essentially everyone agrees with essentially everyone else about essentially everything. It’s a case of literary festivals channelling the taxpayer-funded broadcaster as conservative-free zones.
As it turned out, because of the Queen’s death, the powers that be at the MWF cancelled a session – titled The End of the Monarchy? – scheduled for last Sunday. There was considerable criticism of this decision that was reflected in the reporting in The Age and on ABC Radio Melbourne.
Indigenous lawyer Teela Reid, one of the intended speakers, told the ABC Radio Mornings program on Monday that the decision had prevented “a really robust intellectual conversation” on the topic. Which led ABC presenter Warwick Long to ask: “Are we immature as a nation?” The implication being that Australians are too immature to debate constitutional issues.
In fact, there was no genuine debate proposed. The panellists were academic Dennis Altman, Nine columnist Julia Baird, ARM chair FitzSimons and Reid. All are opposed to the monarchy to a greater or lesser extent.
The left intelligentsia, who effectively control what is presented as debate on the ABC and at writers festivals, are delusional if they believe a majority of Australians in a majority of states can be won over to embrace the republican cause by means of what are termed conversations where everyone essentially agrees with everyone else in a left-of-centre way.
The fact is that referendums will not succeed unless a substantial number of political conservatives support the cause – whether it be the republic or the voice. They are rarely found at literary festivals or on ABC platforms.
Here the ARM can learn from the late monarch who was a force for unity. FitzSimons, on the other hand, is a divisive figure with his constant sneering at political conservatives, Christian believers and the like while failing to recognise the absurdity of a middle-aged wealthy man of socialist ilk wearing a cheap bandana while urging others to follow him. Kings and queens usually have better sense.