This week, the Australian National University published its Trends in Australian Political Opinion 1987-2016. The document compiles the results of the Australian Election Study surveys, which have been undertaken after every election to gauge political opinion.
Among the fascinating findings is the percentage of Australians who favour a republic. After the 2013 election, with a monarchist prime minister, support for a republic had ebbed to 53%, its lowest level in nearly three decades. In 2016, with the Australian Republican Movement’s former leader as Prime Minister and an opposition that had made achieving an Australian republic a key part of its 2016 election platform, support for a republic was unchanged, at 53%.
Could this be spun positively? Perhaps. It is the first time since 1996 (when support was at 66%) that support for a republic has not fallen in the Australian Election Study surveys. Yet the brutal reality is that even if 53% support carried through to referendum day, there is little likelihood that a referendum would carry the required four out of six states. Despite the barnstorming efforts of Peter FitzSimons and the Australian Republican Movement, support for having one of our own as head of state is as low as it’s been in a generation.
Last week, Labor leader Bill Shorten wrote to Malcolm Turnbull and repeated his offer to work with the Prime Minister in turbocharging the republic discussion. However, this work won’t be helped by the Prime Minister’s timid approach of tying Australian republicanism to the longevity of Queen Elizabeth II. Naturally, Australians of all stripes respect the Queen’s service to her role, but it shows a distinct lack of respect to our own national identity to say that we cannot stand on our own two feet while she does.
Can one really imagine George Washington failing to fight for American independence while King George II was on the throne? Or Mahatma Gandhi saying that it wasn’t time for Indian independence while King George IV reigned? Turnbull’s approach is a “little Australia” mentality — and one that makes it increasingly likely that Australia only becomes a republic under a Labor government.
So what should republicans do instead to provide the unrelenting pressure? The rhetoric, the passion and above all the inherent positivity that defines our vision for the Australian republic?
One answer is to keep modernising our institutions, just as we have done in the past with our citizenship oath and anthem. For example, we could start by replacing the Queen’s head on all our coins with the faces of famous indigenous Australians. Our first peoples have achieved so much and what could better acknowledge the past than recognising a history that goes back not just centuries, but tens of millennia?
Another answer is to keep publicly asking the big questions about our system of government.
For example, if our constitution were written now, would we cop the fact that no British citizen can ever be Australia’s head of government, but only a British citizen (as long as they are not Catholic and are born into one particular Germano-British family) can ever be Australia’s Head of State?
Would a nation that prizes egalitarianism assign the job of head of state based not on talent and effort, but luck of birth?
Would a nation that seeks reconciliation with its original inhabitants choose a system that barred any indigenous Australian from ever becoming our Head of State?
Would we find it acceptable that the Australian head of state cannot and will not support Australia in the Ashes, by virtue of being British?
Could we even be bothered to make the effort of defining ourselves so closely by reference to another nation?
Would we, given the chance, instead prefer to make it a bit clearer to all — not least ourselves — that Australia has grown-up?
That we can, and do, trust ourselves?
That we can, once and for all, let every Australian child dream of one day becoming our head of state?
*Andrew Leigh is the Member for Fenner and Shadow Assistant Treasurer