What Republic?

January 23, 2006, The Australian

The nation is growing apathetic about ditching the monarchy

STAND by for one of the standard stunts of summer as Australia Day approaches - the ritual demands to become a republic, the sooner, the better. But instead of the usual assertions about the need for an independent national identity, and how the awful House of Windsor is beyond repair, this year the republicans have swapped argument for alliteration with a campaign built around the simplistic statement "A Mate for Head of State". Cute but irrelevant, because this slogan will fail to excite attention for the same reason that the republican push has petered out since the November 1999 referendum: nobody much cares. Certainly, the Newspoll published exclusively in The Weekend Australian demonstrated few Australians are actively interested in the republic. Overall, only 46 per cent of people polled declared themselves republicans, the same number as last year and well down on the majority support the cause enjoyed at the beginning of the decade

Even worse for fervent republicans, once-committed supporters are abandoning them. The number of strong believers in the need for a republic dropped by 5 per cent to a bare quarter of the community. In comparison, the Crown's cause has stayed stable for years at about 35 per cent. And with 20 per cent of people indifferent to the issue, the republic is obviously off the agenda for the moment. Even the prospect of Charles III -- and his consort Camilla -- does little to excite Australian ire, with support for a republic after Queen Elizabeth goes rising to only 52 per cent.

While it will upset the republican rump, there are good reasons the electorate has decided the republic can wait. For a start, there are many more immediate issues that have a practical impact on the way we all live. From the war on terror to tax reform, from the appalling state of our hospitals to the crisis in public education, there are dozens of issues that properly dominate debate. The Government won the last election by campaigning on economic management. The party that wins the next one will do the same. This political pragmatism obviously appals affluent activists, wedded to the three Rs of symbolic politics: reconciliation, refugees and the republic. But the days when symbolism mattered more than substance in politics ended with the 1996 defeat of the Keating government. Since then, the debate has focused on practical issues such as how to end the economic dispossession of too many Aborigines, how to increase opportunities for all Australians and how to best assist the disadvantaged. The republic has fallen off the agenda because the issues involved do not matter very much. And the movement has no hope of attracting attention until activist republicans sort out among themselves how they want to pick a mate to be head of state: by parliamentary appointment or popular election.

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