Thoughts on the monarchy

While campaigning during the course of a general election campaign in Australia, Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Julia Gillard stated:

I obviously am a Republican. I believe that this nation should be a republic. I also believe that this nation has got a deep affection for Queen Elizabeth.

What I would like to see, as Prime Minister, is that we work our way through to an agreement on a model for the republic but I think the appropriate time for the nation to move to being a republic is when we see the monarch change.

Obviously I’m hoping for Queen Elizabeth that she lives a long and happy life and having watched her mother I think there’s every chance that she will live a long and happy life. But I think that’s probably the appropriate point for a transition to a republic.

Debate on the monarchy in Australia is not new. The country held a referendum in 1999 on whether or not to become a republic, with the status quo option winning 54.8% to 45.1%. Republicanism emerged in Australia long before 1999, however. Many of Australia’s earliest colonists were Irish Nationalists exiled by the British for pushing the cause of Irish independence as well as English radicals including Chartists, machinery- wrecking Luddites, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of six farm labourers exiled from Dorset in 1834 for setting up a Trade Union. Many of these migrants brought revolutionary fervour with them and continued political activities in the early penal colony. But they were up against the British Empire at the height of its world dominating power. Small-scale rebellions were swiftly dealt with. In 1854 a group of disgruntled gold miners built a stockade around the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat, declaring it the “Republic of Victoria”. The British response was swift and bloody.

It was well over a century later that the republican cause gained widespread appeal. As the Second World War ended and the British Empire dissolved, the advantages of a close relationship with “the mother country” were less apparent. Some servicemen back from the Pacific believed that Britain had abandoned Australia during the war. This view was confirmed for many when the UK turned its back on Australia as a trading partner and joined the Common Market.

Indeed, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence for decades. The democratic shortcomings in the existing arrangements were exposed in 1975 when the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Australia, dismissed then prime minister, Gough Whitlam. At the time Labor was a monarchist party, but that changed when Whitlam came into conflict with Parliament and was sacked by Governor General Sir John Kerr.

The father of modern Australian republicanism is probably former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating. In 1993 Keating established a “Republic Advisory Committee” to look at the constitutional changes necessary. In the early 1990s Malcolm Turnbull, then a prominent lawyer, started the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). It was an attempt to increase public pressure for constitutional change.

This contrasts quite sharply with debate on the issue in Canada. While it is true that the most recent royal visits – one by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the fall of 2009, and one by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in June 2010 – have sparked various editorials, opinion pieces and pundit debates on whether Canada should remain a monarchy, the issue dies down almost immediately once the Royals have left the country. There isn’t the sustained interest in the issue that seems to exist in Australia, nor is the Canadian republican movement as organized or public. While Canada has held many referendums on various issues, there is no measurable interest in holding one on the question of should Canada become a republic.

I don’t purport to know why these differences exist, but I do have a few ideas as to what might explain them. As stated above, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence in Australia. This is less the case in Canada. Granted, on the demographic front, Canada, like Australia, is increasingly less British. Immigration to both countries is significant, and newcomers hail from countries with no obvious ties to the British crown. Even without a strong republican movement, one would expect that over time, Canada’s demographic make-up would suffice to change public opinion about the role of the monarchy in this country. Despite the demographic changes taking place, however, there are other factors at play. Canada is geographically closer to the United Kingdom, and Canadian trade ties with the UK are stronger than are Australia’s. For example, in 2009, the UK was Canada’s 2nd  most important export market (far behind the US of course), while it was 6th main market for Australian exports. The UK ranked 6th as a source of imports to Canada, while it was 10th for Australia.

Canada’s geographic closeness to the UK probably explains why our trade figures are better than Australia’s, but trade figures alone aren’t enough to engender emotional attachment to the monarchy. Personally, I believe the monarchy helps define Canada for many Canadians as something that makes us different from Americans. Australia doesn’t have to worry about sharing a border with a country with ten times its population. Canadians not only look just like Americans, we sound like them too (to many foreigners anyway), and Canadians are notoriously sensitive about being mistaken for Americans when travelling abroad. No one mistakes an Australian for an American. For a Brit, perhaps, but certainly not an American. The cultural shadow of the US simply does not hang over Australia the way it does over Canada. Perhaps that explains in part why there is less interest in loosing our bonds with the monarchy.

Another important factor is that our main constitutional debate has focused for many decades, and continues to focus, primarily on the issue of Quebec’s role in Confederation. Similarly, when debate on political reform does arise in Canada, it tends to focus on issues such as senate reform and electoral reform. Australia already has an elected senate, so there is no need to debate that issue there. They also have various voting systems in place both federally and at the state level, ranging from IRV, to AV, to STV. While some of these options may be little better than First-Past-the-Post, the fact remains that FPTP is not used anywhere in Australia, while any attempt to adopt something other than FPTP in Canada has failed, while voter dissatisfaction increases and turnout continues to decline. My point here is simply that for most Canadians interested in political and constitutional reform, I don’t think becoming a republic is at the top of anyone’s list.

I don’t doubt that one day, Australia will indeed become a republic. Will Canada follow that road as well? Perhaps – once we address what I, and many others, consider much more urgently needed political and constitutional reforms.

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