Australia’s complex and even contradictory attitude to the British Crown has been on display this week as we mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of the Queen and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese appoints a new federal cabinet.
On the one hand, respect for Elizabeth II herself has never been greater. She continues to perform her ceremonial duties at 96 with enthusiasm and grace, even though she has mobility issues and had to tour the Chelsea Flower Show last week sitting on a golf cart.
Many were moved by her stoical determination to keep going after the death of her husband Prince Philip.
Britain is throwing a four-day party to celebrate her reign and many in Australia will also raise a toast to her. About 80 iconic public buildings around Sydney will be illuminated in “royal” purple, in her honour. She is well-loved and the Herald congratulates the Queen on her remarkable service.
Yet, on Wednesday, Albanese took a significant step down the road towards severing our ties with the Crown by appointing Matt Thistlewaite as Assistant Minister for the Republic.
Ending the monarchy is a long-standing Labor policy. Albanese said in a foreword to last year’s ALP platform that: “Democratic maturity and national self-confidence will be reflected in a new spirit of openness and will culminate in a national movement to establish our nation as a fully democratic republic.”
The Herald has long supported a republic, too, and the ethnic diversity of the new ministry is a reminder of why the British monarchy is losing its relevance to Australia.
Many ministers trace their roots to countries or cultures which have long ago thrown off any ties to the British Empire or never had any. Industry Minister Ed Husic’s parents are Bosnian Muslims, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’s father was a Jew from Germany, Anne Aly was born in Egypt, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong was born in Malaysia and Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney, Assistant Minister and Minister for Indigneous Australians, are both Aboriginal.
While Albanese has put the republic back on the agenda in a way that it has not been since the failure by a margin of 55-45 of the referendum in 1999, he has rightly said he will proceed with caution.
It would not, as some argue, offend the Queen to become a republic while she is alive. She and her heir, Prince Charles, showed grace last year when Barbados became a republic.
But Albanese will need time to resolve the uncertainty over exactly what form the republic would take and then build support for the model. Voters are not hostile to a republic but they are not clamouring for it either. A Herald Resolve Political Monitor in January found that 38 per cent of voters are either in favour of a republic and 34 per cent are either neutral or unsure. Only 30 per cent said they were opposed.
The strongest argument for proceeding with caution, however, is that pursuing a republic now could jeopardise Albanese’s plan for a referendum this term on a Voice to Parliament in keeping with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
He realises that the debate over the Voice will be complicated and divisive enough without adding in debate on the republic. Running both campaigns simultaneously would just confuse voters and increase the already significant chances of defeat.
Giving priority to the Voice is the right call. While becoming a republic will be an important symbol of our diverse and independent national identity, a Voice to parliament can make a practical difference in solving the enormous and urgent problems facing Indigenous Australians.
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