Why Australia needs the monarchy

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The Independent Online

That infamous encounter which the hand of the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating made with the small of Queen Elizabeth II's back - first managerial, then familiar, then, as the world watched breathless, positively exploratory - may well have been the defining moment in Australia's relations with the monarchy. Though what it defined, nobody is yet sure. We should know some time after 6 November, when Australians vote either "Yes" for a republic enshrining the right of every Australian to put his hand wherever he likes, or "No" for retention of the old slap-it-down monarchical protocol.

That infamous encounter which the hand of the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating made with the small of Queen Elizabeth II's back - first managerial, then familiar, then, as the world watched breathless, positively exploratory - may well have been the defining moment in Australia's relations with the monarchy. Though what it defined, nobody is yet sure. We should know some time after 6 November, when Australians vote either "Yes" for a republic enshrining the right of every Australian to put his hand wherever he likes, or "No" for retention of the old slap-it-down monarchical protocol.

Also at stake, and vexing the issue considerably, is the method for electing an alternative head of state. According to the republican model being put to the Australian people, the president, or whatever he or she is to be called, will be elected by a two-thirds majority of the Federal Parliament. You see the catch. He or she will be the sort of person of whom politicians instinctively approve. That's to say a lawyer, a businessman, a fellow politician, or the usual itchy combination of all three. Someone by no means certain to be less imperious or patrician than a monarch. None of those responsible for this model will come right out and say it, of course, but the reasoning behind a parliamentarian-picked president, as opposed to one elected directly by the people, is the fear that if left to elect a head of state directly, Australians will choose Kylie Minogue. Which puts a bit of a dent in the republican argument that Australia is now grown-up enough to look after its own affairs.

What this means in practice is that many republicans will be voting against themselves on Saturday in the expectation of a second referendum, this time offering Australians a direct responsibility for electing their president. An entirely false expectation, according to Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the official republican campaign. "What our opponents are trying to do," he said recently, "is to fool Australians into believing that if you vote 'No' you'll get a different kind of republic... That is probably the biggest political lie we have ever seen in Australia." Since that last one, that is. But whoever is lying to whom, Turnbull himself encapsulates the problem of divided republicanism. The promise of a republic is also, necessarily, the promise of a new dawn. It undertakes to narrow the gap between ruler and ruled. It fills people's minds with ideas of equality. And Malcolm Turnbull does not. A Sydney merchant banker and lawyer who first attracted international attention by successfully defending publication of Spycatcher against Mrs Thatcher and every British QC she could throw at him, Turnbull is possessed of the dark glamour of left-liberal privilege. And privilege is a sleeker, meaner beast in Australia than it is here, at once more plausible and more belligerent. Given the choice of letting your hand wander in the area of the Queen's coccyx or Malcolm Turnbull's, many Australians would feel safer with the Queen.

At a debate in Sydney Town Hall last weekend, the art critic and firebrand Robert Hughes, still bearing injuries sustained in a horrific car crash, delivered himself of that Irish-radical convict rhetoric which made The Fatal Shore an oratorical masterpiece. If you're going to tell of how the Crown sent the "bitter claws of the cat-o'-nine-tails" to Australia, along with "the road-digger's pick" and "the leg iron", it does your case no harm if you happen to be leg-braced and hobbling yourself, albeit not as a consequence of deportation. Old scores with the British Government of 20 years ago are still being settled in the course of this referendum. For some, two fingers to the monarchy now will vindicate those crimes against property and state which transportation was invented to punish in the first place. It will throw history in the teeth of the British, making a virtue of what was once considered vice.

But a more silent rhetoric also stole into the minds of those attending the Town Hall debate. Listening appreciatively to Hughes was Sydney's deputy lord mayor, one Lucy Turnbull. Another Turnbull. Who just happens to be Robert Hughes's niece. Living proof that dynasties will rise from the clear soup of republicanism no less than from the primordial mud of heredity.

Despite a recent headline in The Sydney Morning Herald - "How Howard Killed the Republic" - my only public contribution to the republic debate was on Newsnight a few years ago. Strictly speaking it isn't my business. I am only a friend of Australia, at best a sort of son-in-law. Newsnight fished me out anyway, perhaps because I was putting it around that, at least as far as Australia was concerned, I was a monarchist. Opposed to any such tomfoolery was the renowned novelist and arch-republican Thomas Keneally, speaking live via satellite from Sydney. For most of our encounter Keneally called me by every conceivable Christian name except my own, settling finally for Basil. Was he trying to make a fool of me? Without doubt. Australians don't like it when Poms take an ironic tone with them. This, too, fuels the drive for a republic - enough, now, with the Poms, and enough of being treated as a joke country.

Myself, I think the more mirth that inheres in a political system, the more sound that political system is bound to be. It is, and has been for centuries, of incalculable benefit to the English to have a comic-opera family playing out its dramas talismanically, as a sort of wax-doll effigy of all our families, at the highest level of power - an infection of knockabout ludicrousness amid the greed of elected politics. A nutty pageant that serves to remind us of the folly of all pageants, the inevitable compromise of all government, and the necessity to be forever sceptical about nationhood, citizenship, flags, anthems and the rest of it. A few mad monarchists who don't get the joke are a small price to pay for the benefits of being free from the sin of patriotism.

And this is the opéra bouffe which Australians may enjoy without a string attached. No shame to them when Diana psychobabbled. Nothing for modernist architects in Canberra to worry about when Charles espies another carbuncle. Sever the connection and where is the gain? Less is less. Take away a network of largely comical, vaguely familial associations, the disadvantages of which in money and interference are negligible, and the consequences to the culture are all negative.

Unless we count feeling independent and grown-up a positive. Maturity has been one of the key words of the debate. "Standing tall", in the language of the official "Yes" campaign. Do I detect national machismo in that? Do I hear John Wayne? Without doubt there is a problem of adulthood in Australia. The country is forever at play. Mothers dress like their daughters. Fathers dress like their sons and their daughters. But it is hard to see how turning republican will significantly change that. Maybe the infantilism is only skin-deep. Maybe Australians are simply confident enough emotionally to love the child in themselves. And it is certainly the case, whatever Saturday's outcome, that the watering down of the republican model, for fear that the people will elect Kylie Minogue or some other childish icon as president, has backfired. There is a whiff of condescension, not to say contempt, in the air, and Australians can smell it.

It is my suspicion that multiculturalism - a concept as routinely rejected by one section of Australian society as it is routinely propagated by another - is also a spanner in the works. How can an English monarch, republicans argue, represent the rich and various multiculture of Australia? To which the obvious answer is: how can anyone? Fine, make it an Australian; but what, in the face of multiculturalism, is an Australian? Malcolm Turnbull - though he has never proposed himself as president - might be just the ticket in the eyes of white Australo-Irish males reading law at Sydney University, but to a Filipino barmaid working topless in the pubs of Tenant Creek, Turnbull will look no less outlandish a representative of her aspirations than the Queen.

Which is how Australia's Aborigines appear to be viewing the choice. On the one hand they relish the symbolism of cutting ties with the first invaders; on the other they accept that those who go on dispossessing them won't vanish on the stroke of the republic. A Preamble to the Constitution - "honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country" - is also to be voted on. Few seem to care much for it. Least of all, to the surprise of no one but the Prime Minister, "the nation's first people" themselves.

Carefully skirting the issue of Aboriginal right to land, the Preamble isn't mightily convincing as poetry, either, "ancient cultures" being as much a nonce phrase as "standing tall". But then, it is as vain to look for inspirational poetry from monarchists as comedy from republicans. No grand conception appears to be at stake for anyone. Everything is mired in cynicism, neither side daring to trust the Australian people in whose name now the monarch, now the republic, is invoked. If those people do say "No" on Saturday, as is expected, they will be saying "No" to more than just a model of reformed government.

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