Wednesday, August 8, 2018
The republican movement is on shaky ground - its leader has too much ego and Bill Shorten's plan takes the punters for mugs
The republican movement has its work cut out. Before it can get around to replacing the Queen it apparently has to remove its hapless spokesman.
Pollster Mark Textor predicts the push will fail unless “blokey” men such as Australian Republic Movement chairman Peter FitzSimons step aside. “I just think it’s an ego trip for bandana man,” Textor told Fairfax in June. “His ego is getting in the way.”
Asked to respond to Textor’s criticism, FitzSimons, 57, from the battler-free Sydney suburb of Cremorne, replied: “Whatev.”
The Fairfax commentator’s rag-topped, shaggy profile discourages us from taking him or the movement seriously. Rather, his appearance and somewhat truculent manner bring to mind those Japanese troops who fled to the jungle in August 1945, adamantly doubting the veracity of the formal surrender.
The 1999 referendum was Brexit and Trump rolled into one, a popular call for common sense and a rebuttal of those presuming to be their intellectual betters. The republic was revealed as an elitist obsession; the strongest predictor of the vote was education, not income or political allegiance. Blue-collar seats like Banks in Sydney’s west stuck loyally by the Queen while the toffs on Sydney’s north shore sipped expensive coffee salted with tears.
There is scant evidence voters have changed their minds. The Australian Electoral Study, one of the most reliable longitudinal measures of political and social sentiment, found that support for a republic in 2016 was at its lowest level since 1993, when the question was first asked.
Significantly, support for the status quo has strengthened among younger voters and migrants. No political party that aspires to win the middle ground would willingly launch a second round of this contentious debate. Bill Shorten’s agenda, however, is determined by the urban sophisticates, to whom the former workers’ party now belongs. The Opposition Leader must feed their tragic addiction to causes, even at the risk of seeming remote.
Cooler heads in the republican movement know that a carbon-copy 1999 referendum would be certain to fail. Turning around a 5 per cent deficit in the national vote is inconceivable; winning a majority in four out of six states is probably impossible. Queenslanders, 62.5 per cent opposed last time, are a lost cause. The odds in Tasmania (59.6 per cent) and Western Australia (58.5 per cent) are insurmountable.
Shorten’s solution is subterfuge. First will come a plebiscite with a high-level yes/no question. Should the result be “yes”, there will be a referendum to decide the type of republic. Shorten appears to be immune to the charge of hypocrisy. For the record, however, he adamantly opposed the same-sex marriage plebiscite on the grounds of cost.
The offence in Shorten’s proposal, however, is not the unnecessary expense but the cheapness of his politics. It avoids the hard work of persuading the public that a particular type of republic is better than a system that has functioned remarkably well since 1901. It displays contempt for the intelligence of voters, who Shorten imagines he can fool with his duplicitous plan.
It is an extension of the conspiracy to bypass the Constitution that was hatched by Gough Whitlam in 1975, who used the external affairs provision of section 51 (xxix) to introduce the Racial Discrimination Act, thereby usurping the sovereign rights of the states.
Whitlam expressed frustration at the demands of constitutional democracy, which required the party to gain the approval not only of electors but also of judges. “We were manifestly failing to do either,” he lamented after leaving politics. Yet even Whitlam, one suspects, would be startled by the audacity of Shorten’s plan that seeks to usurp not only the rights of states but the opinion of the general public.
The remoteness of the republicans is revealed in their conviction that Shorten’s stunt might actually succeed. “The ‘yes vote’ for that question will look like Phar Lap at Flemington, like Bradman at Lord’s — well ahead of the field, and looking good!” FitzSimons told the National Press Club.
Yet anyone with their fingers on the public pulse would know that Shorten’s plan will fail. It will fail because Australians don’t like being taken for mugs. When trust in the political and media class is at a particularly low ebb, it is hard to imagine them falling for this one.
Appetite for constitutional change can scarcely be detected outside enclaves like the smug-drenched paddocks of the Byron Bay Writers Festival. In 1998 two-thirds of Australians answered “yes” to the in-principle question about an Australian presidential head of state in an AES survey. In 2016 the figure was 54 per cent, while a Newspoll in April found support had fallen to 50 per cent.
With the passage of time, enthusiasm for a republic has been exposed as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder of the Left, triggered by the dismissal of Whitlam, a moment Donald Horne described as “the shock of assassination”.
The movement gained traction in the 1980s and 90s as public intellectuals, tortured with self-doubt, wrote ponderous books and essays, anxiously urging Australians to look deep into their souls and ask, “What sort of a country do we want to be?”
This elitist exercise in self-flagellation seemed somewhat strange to most Australians, who preferred Barry McKenzie’s assessment rather than that of the hand-wringers, holding that they live in “the greatest living country in the world, no risk”. This is more than blind patriotism; it is an objective assessment of a nation with an internal stability and outward reputation few nations can match.
That Australasia is one of only two continents never to succumb to tyranny or host a civil war is hardly unrelated to our institutions and the system used to settle civic disputes embodied in the constitutional monarchy.
The other continent, incidentally, is Antarctica.