When John Howard and his monarchist cronies set their minds to ensuring in 1999 that no Australian could become our Head of State one of their favourite lies, and yes it was a lie, was that only the well educated, latte sipping elites wanted a Republic. Out there in “real Australia” no one cared about it, or if they did they thought the existing system was fine. That strategy worked to some extent, and was one of the ingredients that killed the Yes vote in the Republic Referendum of ten years ago.
When I took over as ARM Chair in 2000 I spent the majority of my time out in the bush and the suburbs. I traversed the country from Cairns to Kalgoorlie. I went to Leeton and Griffith in the Riverina, Port Augusta in South Australia, and Townsville, Mackay and Cairns in Far North Queensland. The Australian’s Stuart Rintoul came with me to Charters Towers and Corryong. The idea was to get people interested in the idea that Australia should have its own head of state. I addressed gatherings as small as five in the Corryong pub to over 200 at a school in South Australia.
What interested me was that people in the bush and in the burbs, the people taken for granted, and for whom Howard and the monarchists arrogantly assumed to speak, were very interested in the Constitution, the republic and Australia’s future. This included school kids, their parents, elder folk and local media and shire councilors.
If my experience is any guide, the decision by the Rudd government’s charter of rights consultation committee headed by Frank Brennan to adopt a strategy of getting out and meeting ordinary Australians, rather than simply chatting with opinion leaders and politicians, is a smart one.
Tammy Williams, an Indigenous lawyer on the panel, says that “It’s the people in the streets, the people who are part of CWA meetings, who are the backbone of the Australian community, who we haven’t heard from — the issue is how do we coax them to come out and share their views.”
It’s not hard Tammy. You will find that people are energized by being consulted on matters so fundamental to our nation. It will surprise you that even in the most conservative parts of the country, you will find people who are supportive of a charter of rights, just as they are supportive of a republic.
The important thing to do is to seriously engage them and come back to them — don’t just waltz into town, have a one hour meeting, a head out to the local airport. Wander through the town, go to the schools and even visit the supermarket.
It was on one of these street walks in 2001 that I encountered an elderly woman in Port Augusta, sitting having a cup of tea with a friend. This women, well into her 80s and who had lived all her life in rural South Australia, told me she backed a republic, not for herself because she loved the Queen, but for her grandkids and their friends. Her octogenarian friend nodded approvingly.