Oh no, here we go again. A bunch of celebrities, business leaders and politicians think it’s time to have a republic so abracadabra, one will appear. I have an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu about all this, because back in 1999 when I ran the Republic Referendum campaign for Malcolm Turnbull many of the people who attended the 2020 Summit were around then were barracking for Australia to have its own head of state.
I would say this to Kevin Rudd and other Republic supporters – do not be fooled by the 2020 Summit’s enthusiastic support for a Republic. It is as much a curse as a blessing.
While the support of sports stars, actors, CEOs and political heavyweights was welcomed by the 1999 campaign, the lesson I learnt was that these are not the people who can deliver a Republic. Cate Blanchett’s support for an Australian Head of State counts for nothing in voter land. The average voter rightly reasons that Cate is a terrific actor but what she knows about constitutional reform you could write on the back cover of a theatre program. What does count to the average voter is education about the issue and making people feel comfortable that Australia becoming a republic is as natural an evolution as was the move to Federation in 1901.
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If the desire expressed at the 2020 Summit for a republic is to be translated into reality then it will be important that it be a bottom up campaign as opposed to a top down strategy. Ordinary Australians, 99.99% of whom had no voice at the 2020 Summit, need to feel a sense of ownership of the republic.
Many Australians are ready for an Australian republic, but what tempers their enthusiasm is their belief that there are “more important issues” with which Australian needs to deal. Typically, these issues will relate to healthcare, education and matters pertaining to taxation and welfare. The republic, for the vast majority of people, does not figure in their top three lists of concerns or issues upon which they adjudge the performance of a government. It’s a circular argument here — if the political elite push the republican issue up the agenda through proposing a referendum or plebiscite then many voters reject that elevation and become hostile towards a republic.
The key then is to ensure that the political and societal circumstances are propitious for the republican cause so that people do not resent its presence on the national political agenda. As Judith Brooks has put it albeit in an exaggerated way, “when a choice of [republican] models for a new constitution is being discussed at netball practice we are on the way to a successful referendum.”
Greg Barns ran the 1999 Republic campaign for the Australian Republican Movement, was Chair of the ARM from 2000-02 and is the co-author, with Anna Krawec-Wheaton, of An Australian Republic (Scribe, 2006).