Australian republicanism has always been about more than just a republican constitution, with one of our own as head-of-state. It’s been about national independence from the British Parliament and Government — and from the class system that underpins it.
It’s been about the creation of our own political institutions, our own symbols of nationhood, and our own global alliances and partnerships. It originated in opposition to our status as six British colonies but developed as a creed opposing the colonial mindset more generally, including when it was applied to the dispossession of Aboriginal land. It’s been about autonomy, not just freedom as independence but freedom as the responsibility to think and act with an eye to the future as well as the past and present.
The republican creed has always been there in the political mix and helping to achieve much of that which defines our political character — responsible and representative government, nationhood and the constitution, the flag, the anthem, the system of honours, the citizenship law and the Australia Act 1986 — so much so that many amongst the supporters of the Australian monarchy describe our system as a crowned republic.
The very fact that they use this term indicates the strength of republican ideas within our political culture; illustrated so powerfully when Tony Abbott sought to re-introduce Knights and Dames into our system of Australian honours.
When it comes to the specifics of what an Australian republic would look like there are differences in the republican tribe.
Some favour a head-of-state very much in the mould of our Governor-General and Governors and appointed in the same manner. Others say we should go further and elect either through Parliament or directly by the people.
Some again say the office deserves a clearer definition — and perhaps more rather than less powers than at present.
However, if history is a guide we can assume that we won’t see an American-style republic in Australia but rather an updated version of our parliamentary system with a head-of-state above the party-political scrum but with better defined powers and perhaps even enjoying the authority that comes from direct election, as is the case in Ireland.
In any case when it comes to analysing what a republic may or may not mean for the economy this up-dated version of our existing constitution would be my working assumption.
What we see in Australia today is a contradiction at the heart of our culture, between the democratic beliefs and rights and liberties we say we have and respect, and a British (and hereditary) head-of-state we have inherited from our colonial past.
We’ve learnt to live with it, but as an itch on our soul rather than a spark to our collective life. Try as she does the Queen can’t represent the Australian people in any meaningful way. At one level she is little more than a cog in the machinery of Australian government but at another she casts a long shadow over all our proceedings.
Interestingly it is often Australian businessmen and women working hard in the international marketplace who feel this contradiction more than the rest of us. They have to explain to their overseas partners that the British Queen is also the Queen of Australia.
Salt is added to the wound when members of the royal family — also our royal family - go out to bat for British industry in market places where we too are active. Indeed they see it as their duty to do so — and it is.
The defenders of the Australian monarchy see nothing of value in this disappointment. They say be proud with what we have inherited from our British past; it can’t be bettered and we have locally appointed Governors-General and Governors to act as her representatives. Failing that they appeal to our fear of change or our cynicism about politics.
There it is in a nutshell, a plea for an existing interest as against a future prospect. It’s as if they’ve taken the law of diminishing returns and applied it to our constitution. What’s missing of course is an account of the opportunity cost, a head-of-state fully engaged on our behalf, working with powers we have determined and no longer in the shadow of the Queen.
In fact the case for an Australian republic today is just like the case for an innovative economy; one that acknowledges past achievement but looks to new and better ideas to sustain prosperity and is willing to allocate the resources and political capital to develop and apply them.
Menzies on Japan (1957) and Whitlam on China (1972) are two good examples from our economic history. Think too of Hawke and Keating’s freeing of the exchange rate and their development of a National Competition Policy.
These things don’t just happen and nor do they happen without a contest as there are always those who refuse to think outside the square and whose first instinct is to defend and protect the status quo whether it’s a blind spot in the Constitution, a restrictive trade practice, an environmentally unsustainable technology or an unjustifiable inequality in wealth and power.
It wasn’t just the republic that was defeated in 1999 (and there were clearly problems with the model on offer and the process for developing it) but our confidence as a people willing to make big decisions for the future.
The republic is a symbol of our confidence and our creativity and would be a powerful rock upon which to build a better future. It’s what it represents - an independent and expansive view of the national interest – that matters to our economy. Indeed when we hear the rumblings of the republic we are hearing the rumblings of a people ready, willing and able to change - and looking for leadership in that direction whether the issue be economic, political, social, or environmental.