The tang of sheepishness surfaced several days ago, along with the first intimations of defeat. Oz should have entered the 21st century with a spring in its step and an independent air; achieving a coming of age in time for a new age, a time to re-define itself for the next period of history. As it turned out, the first foray of the republican movement has been a long day's journey into nothingness.
Despite the stakes, why did so many of us for so long, feel so curiously dispassionate? "It's like getting excited about the law of gravity," I said to Malcolm Turnbull years ago. "A republic is inevitable". Maybe it is, like the movement of a glacier, which is a suffocating pace for a century where change will be measured at the speed of light.
Meanwhile, there was no shortage of distractions - a furtively managed Olympics, vanishing rain forests and reefs, a bloodbath on our doorstep.
Another reason for my lack of input into the debate was a lack of excitement about the model. This was nothing to do with the wrangles over who would choose the head of state - the parliament or the people - because either way the victor was likely be dull and dependable. Some pundits feared a Kylie Minogue: if only. No, the problem for me was that a new millennium should have brought forth a new dimension of republicanism, rather than a moth-eaten hand-me-down.
This was the moment to acknowledge the wisdom and traditions of tribal cultures, by incorporating into the model a chief of state to be guided by a council of elders. That is, men and women of high degree from various walks of life and ethnicities to provide a source of spiritual nourishment; an ethical ballast, a circle of leadership based on collaboration and creativity in an age that will welcome it.
The question of leadership was, after all, at the bottom of people's rejection of "Yes!". Yesterday, when I phoned one of my oldest friends to lament the likely result, he shocked me by revealing his voting intentions. This was a brilliant satirist who had made his name by mocking the Royals 30 years before it was fashionable. I asked why he was rejecting the republic, and his answer seemed to speak for the heartland, as well as many wrinkled radicals: "Too many crooks are keen on it."
Not crooks, necessarily, in my view, but the hard hats of power, wealth and number-crunching. Malcolm Turnbull has been magnificent overall, as has Natasha Scott Depoja and others, but our cause never found its dashing populist. We needed a Henry Lawson or a Banjo Patterson, and we got the Treasurer, Peter Costello, We wanted Joan of Arc or Thomas Jefferson, and we got the Murdoch family. (The huge front page graphic in the Australian newspaper commanded "Vote Yes!", thus alienating more swinging lefties, who anyway seemed much more gripped by the rugby World Cup).
As I walked in the drizzle towards the polling centre, friends met along the way confessed to confusion and doubt. It's too late for that now, I hectored, we may not get another chance in our lifetime. A flawed republic is better than no republic. The chirpy monarchists at the high school gate held up their placards: "No Republic. No Worries!" No republic, I thought, no coming of age.
Next time I'll hurl myself into the fray, up to my neck.
t Richard Neville was founding editor of `Oz' magazine in London, subject of the 1971 trial. He returned to his native Australia in the early 1980s.
REVOLUTION? CULTURE, PAGE 1