AUSTRALIAN REBULIC MOVEMENT DINNER
TUESDAY, 26 NOVEMBER 2019
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If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago what I planned to say to the Australian Republican Movement tonight, I would have had a couple of ideas.
Modest ideas but, I like to think, hopeful ones.
Then the Prince Andrew interview happened.
Everything changed at that moment.
So here’s my revised speech.
Congratulations everyone, we’ll become a republic next year.
You can all just put your feet up now – you’ve all earned it.
To be honest, I think even the Queen wouldn’t mind putting her own feet up and having a short break from it all at this point.
I mean, where do you start with Prince Andrew’s TV appearance?
It was to trainwreck interviews what Everest is to mountains.
Reflecting on Andrew’s performance, Marina Hyde wrote this in The Guardian:
“The Duke of York is widely agreed to have done his job so abysmally that a hereditary monarchy has had to resort to a version of meritocracy.”
We can laugh at Prince Andrew and his claim that he lost the ability to sweat when he suffered an overdose of adrenaline when being shot at in the Falkland Islands.
But I’ll admit that on that count at least, I sympathise a bit with the bloke. I myself lost my ability to sweat back in my Sussex Street days.
Amid the jokes, though, we should never shy away from pondering the road ahead.
It’s worth mulling over some of the more ambitious hypotheticals.
Last night, someone tweeted a question to the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green. And I quote:
“Is it true that if Britain became a republic, under current arrangements, their president would be our president?”
Green’s reply amounted to just one word:
This was followed by a question from someone else:
“What if Britain were conquered by alien invasion? Would the space overlord also be our head of state?”
Antony Green didn’t answer this. It was a silence that spoke volumes.
But amid the humour, you could sense the dismay at this reminder that, nearly 119 years after federation, we are still very much tied to the domestic arrangements of another country.
A hugely important country in the story of Australia – historically, culturally and linguistically – but, when it comes down to it, still another country.
So here we are, 20 years and 20 days after the republic referendum.
It was quite the campaign.
Those few parts of the nation that weren’t aware of the existence of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull soon had this blank spot in their knowledge filled in.
Those who’d been craving the vision of Bob Hawke revving up a crowd as only Hawkie could soon got their fix.
Such was the excitement that even that sober paper of record, The Australian, was moved to abandon subtlety and go with a front-page headline that simply said “Vote Yes.”
In very large letters.
It’s not exactly a plot spoiler to mention that, in the end, not enough people did vote yes.
So, where to now? With the exception of the bloke who was rostered on in 1975, and maybe the one who used to be an archbishop, we have served very ably in the modern era by our governors-general.
But they serve as representatives of the Queen.
Elizabeth II has a special place in the affections of the Australian people, there’s no question about that.
But there are growing questions about the bigger picture.
The point before about Britain wasn’t entirely flippant.
We are in a time when the monarchy is once again under siege.
And the united nature of the kingdom is strained by Brexit-fuelled disquiet in Northern Ireland and fresh stirrings of independence in Scotland.
If the stability of Britain is meant to be one of the great underpinnings of our own democracy, where do we go if it comes asunder?
Britain has survived much worse, of course. But what it’s going through should prompt us to ponder the nature of the bond between us.
I still see an Australian republic as likely, as long as it’s fought for.
But momentum was lost in such a comprehensive way on that long gone November night, it’s still being rebuilt.
This room is crackling with the energy to rebuild it.
I understand Peter FitzSimons is willing to travel the length and breadth of Australia and singlehandedly explain to every single person why we would benefit from becoming republic.
And if he misses a couple of people along the way, don’t worry – he’ll get them on Twitter.
So the last thing anyone here should do is abandon hope.
When the 1999 referendum didn’t work out the way republicans wanted, there was despair and more than a bit of self-flagellation about Australia’s fear of change.
Yet, as we are reminded from time to time, there are occasions when Australians are willing to embrace change.
The outcome of the campaign for same-sex marriage last year was a happy reminder of that.
A lot of nonsense was said in that campaign, but as a nation we considered the issue carefully and said yes.
We said yes. And it won’t be the last time we do.
I am on record as saying that a modern Australian republic is an idea whose time has come.
But there are ideas whose time came even longer ago and they need to be addressed without any further delay.
Chief among these is an indigenous Voice to Parliament.
As I said earlier this year:
“Forty-five times we have opened the Parliament in this country without a Voice to Parliament for the First Nations of this great land. The 46th Parliament should be the last in which we do that.”
It would be a fulfilment of that great Australian instinct: the fair go.
Australians don’t rush to tinker with the Constitution, but nor do they avoid it altogether.
There is, I feel, a general recognition that our Constitution was designed to be enduring, but not unchanging.
That is what gives me hope that we will as a nation get it right for our First Peoples.
And that is what gives me hope we will get there on the Republic, and that eventually, our head of state will be one of our own.
Or as the old 1999 bumper sticker put it: A resident for president.
In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed that Prince Andrew’s wish for a second interview is granted.