„… for we are not a republic… but Australians are deeply obedient and conformist“
Two events are guaranteed to monopolise Australian print, radio and TV news for days, even weeks: a footballer grazing his knee, and a British royal dying, marrying or acting disgracefully.
Our sport obsession is understandable, if regrettable, but my fellow Australians’ absorption in the British royal family is more troubling. It has been explained as everyday fascination with the deeds and misdeeds of the rich and famous: for a British royal, substitute Johnny Depp, Britney Spears or Ghislaine Maxwell. Like them, the royals entertain us. Our hearts soften to see the little princes and princesses at a funeral; we gleefully wonder what Harry and Meghan (called Ginge and Whinge in Australia) will say or do next; we discuss the faults and merits of Kate’s dress; we’re appalled—but somehow not surprised—if a royal associates with unwholesome company; and when the queen died, we endlessly debated the intricacies of the lines of succession at the dinner table.
But there is another edge to Australians’ interest in the British royal family: we kowtow to them because they’re aristocrats and because the British monarch is also our monarch, for we are not a republic. As a constitutional monarchy, Australia is functionally independent, but our head of state is not an Australian president elected or chosen democratically by Australians but the British monarch. Until recently this was, of course, Queen Elizabeth II, whose death in September 2022 still commands the news cycle in Australia, for we all grew up with her. I had just started primary school when she toured Australia in 1954. Like thousands of other children, I stood at a white railing and waved a little flag as she, and Prince Philip, passed by in an open Land Rover.
Now our monarch is her son, King Charles III — like her a foreigner, and not selected through merit but by birthright. Furthermore, he seems old and testy, and when this man tours other countries in his role as monarch, is he likely to represent Australia’s interests? Why should I show allegiance to him, let alone any Briton of inherited privilege?
The British monarch’s representative in Australia is the governor-general, until 1965 a British aristocrat but nowadays an Australian, usually a retired man of some prominence in business, the law or the armed forces. By convention, the governor-general is a figurehead, and not expected to exercise or abuse certain wide-ranging but ill-defined powers such as blocking laws or removing the prime minister. In 1975, however, Queen Elizabeth’s representative, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the reformist Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and his ministers, a stark reminder that Australia is not independent but subject to foreign interference (it’s said that the CIA was also involved). Australian nationhood can never be complete under the current system. We cannot have a discernibly Australian identity and join the world of nations as a full equal while still shackled to another nation.
Crucially, too, there is a growing demand from Indigenous Australians for recognition that sovereignty was never ceded when the British established colonies in Australia after 1788. The scars of colonial occupation and expropriation remain.
The system is also badly outdated, failing to reflect Australia’s maturity and shifting sense of identity. Owing to waves of immigration after 1945, Australian society has become racially and culturally diverse. Furthermore, it is quite secular, which does not accord with the British monarch’s role as head of the Church of England. And Australia is a society of young people. Only a handful of older Australians of British heritage seem to support the monarchy these days.
Certainly, the death of Queen Elizabeth has stimulated the republican debate, but only at a muted level. There is no sense of Australians actively striving to become a republic.
Perhaps fear lies behind it—that we might elect a megalomaniac like Trump. An unfounded fear: as envisioned by republicans, an Australian president would simply replace the monarch and the governor-general in the role of an elected head of state who performs certain constitutional duties and symbolises unity and guidance. Governance of the country would continue as it does now, by way of a system of parliamentary democracy. Others argue that if the system isn’t broken, why fix it? But it is broken, in that it’s anachronistic, irrelevant, liable to abuses and unrepresentative of a country that’s grown up.
Or perhaps we haven’t grown up. The main obstacles to republicanism are inertia and sentimentality. Blame our passivity on the sunshine, the beaches, the comfortable way of life, the relative absence of testing events. Blame the pandemic: the royals are a much-needed distraction. And blame the essential conservatism and caution of Australians. According to the Australian legend, the true Australian is rebellious, egalitarian, independent and suspicious of authority figures. In fact, Australians are deeply obedient and conformist, and feel adrift without a strong maternal or paternal figure in charge. They’re lazy, too. To change the system is just too difficult.
Garry Disher’s latest crime novels published in Germany are Moder (Kill Shot; at Pulp Master) and Stunde der Flut (The Way It Is Now; at Unionsverlag)
Garry Disher in Germany/ Siwtzerland/ Austria – nearly 20 of his novels are in print here.