Twelve years ago then Prime Minister Paul Keating strode to the floor of parliament, and said firmly “It is the government’s view that Australia’s head of state should be an Australian”.
Keating admitted that some were unsure about the prospect of change, but said “Governments can wait for opinion to force their hand, or they can lead. They can wait for the world to change and respond as necessity demands, or they can see the way the world is going and point the way.”
A dozen years later, some may feel that Australia is no closer to being a Republic than it was in 1995. But I believe that the challenges of the early-21st century are not that different from the challenges of the late-19th century federation movement. Just as they felt frustration and disappointment in the 1890s, so do Republicans today.
In particular, Australian Republicans face the same three challenges as supporters of federation in the 1890s:
- the wrong economic climate;
- radical supporters; and
- extreme enemies.
The wrong economic climate
In the late-1880s, momentum seemed to be building for federation. Part of this was a sense that Australia was doing well. From the gold rushes to the 1880s, Australia had enjoyed steady economic growth, with full employment and rising wages. Rising incomes helped lead to rising national sentiment.
Yet in 1891, all that changed. A drought, falling world prices for wool and wheat, a maritime strike, and a shearer’s strike all led to a feeling of malaise. The federation movement, which had looked strong at the 1891 federation convention, was essentially dropped by colonial legislatures until 1895. The depression of the 1890s didn’t kill the federation movement, but it certainly maimed it for a few years.
Fast forward eleven decades, and the booming Australian economy is - perversely - doing just the same for the Australian republican movement. Having skipped through the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, and the US economic downturn of 2002, and with the mining boom fuelling our economy, Australian living standards are higher than ever before.
But with the boom has come reform complacency. It is a strange paradox about modern Australian politics that the times of greatest reform - the early-1970s, early-1980s and early-1990s - have all been periods when unemployment was on the rise. Without the sense of urgency created by an economic downturn, it has proved strikingly difficult to drag Australians towards the ballot box and away from their flat-screen TVs and newly renovated kitchens.
National conversations about the constitution are difficult at the best of times. One of its greatest fans, Greg Craven, begins his book with the sentence: “Saying the Australian Constitution does not have a strong hold on our popular imagination is like saying fish survive better in water than on land: a statement so obvious as to be remarkable only because someone could be bothered making it.”
Most Australians adopt the prospect of Constitutional reform with all the excitement of a 10th grader sitting an algebra exam. Without a national sense of urgency, it will inevitably take longer for the groundswell to build. But build it will.
The second problem facing republicans today - and one that also faced federationists in the 1890s - is our more radical supporters.
This article isan edited version of a speech given to the ACT branch of the Australian Republican Movement on June 2, 2007 called Constitutional Reform, Then and Now.
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