Whatever happened to the republic? It was front and centre in the national debate a decade and a half ago, with support across the political divide. The republic was part of the narrative of a nation. Then it was put on the shelf, to gather dust, postponed until some unspecified date. This year, the Australian Republican Movement is back, getting organized again, starting to lay the groundwork for a new national conversation. Why, though, have progressives dropped the ball on the national narrative and will progressives embrace the republic when it returns to the agenda?
Once an issue takes hold of the popular imagination, like an Australian republic has with roughly half of the community, it doesn't go away. But it does await political leadership before such an issue can be resolved. And that political leadership has not emerged on the conservative or progressive side of Australian politics, even though many on both sides claim republican values.
It is certainly not easy to attempt constitutional reform. Political parties are well aware from their focus groups, on which they base policy these days, that there is a large "don't know, don't care" attitude and a raft of misapprehensions about Australia's national institutions.
Some say it is a good thing, others a bad thing, that we are not a nation like the United States, where most citizens can recite amendments to their Constitution and important national milestones like their Declaration of Independence. Is it the curse of colonialism that we know more of the "motherland" than our own achievements? Australians struggle to name our first Prime Minister and hardly noticed when the Australia Act in 1986 made us independent of Westminster, leaving only the monarch to be removed to make us a fully independent nation.
We of course have no independence day. We have our national day on the day we were colonized, when the original Australians were dispossessed. It is an outrageous day to celebrate a nation, but most of us are too busy at the beach to give it a second thought.
Nevertheless, for a while there, in the 1990s, it looked like we were going to take the next step and become a fully independent nation, with our institutions fully in our name and accountable to us. We were ready to bury, once and for all, the cultural cringe that had gripped earlier generations. We had a narrative about the direction Australia was taking. We were attempting to reconcile with First Australians, embracing our diversity as a successful migrant nation, engaging with our region. With each step, we were moving away from a derivative, colonial view of the world, and developing a distinctively Australian approach.
Back in the 1990s, so many of us thought we had something to celebrate when the Australian Republican Movement unveiled its theme song in its campaign "I am, You are, We are Australian." Indeed, the 1999 referendum on the republic could have been a defining moment for the new, confident and inclusive Australia, in which the people are sovereign and not a privileged person in a castle on the other side of the world.
But we all know that the referendum failed. Republicans divided on how to make the change, some full of hubris that there would be a second chance within a year or two. Monarchists sowed fear and misinformation that resonates to this day. Worst of all, the referendum was actively undermined by the Prime Minister who, as Malcolm Turnbull said at the time, broke the nation's heart.
Then what happened?
After 1999, both conservatives and progressives gave up on the national narrative.
New issues of trans-national importance have of course, captured the attention of progressives, from climate change to human rights. Conservatives also have looked to international issues, from fighting global terror to globalized economic policy, rather than a national vision.
Yet the nation remains the primary unit of decision-making and the highest level of democratic accountability. The nation is just as important as it has ever been. It is the nation that goes to war, that taxes, that funds education and hospitals, that determines most of the laws and social norms by which we live every day. It is the nation that embodies culture and community values.
David Morris will deliver this speech to the Progressive Australian Conference, hosted in the Chifley Centre at Australian Technology Park, Sydney on November 2, 2013.