Keating knows Australia's mood

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MELBOURNE - the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is making big headlines here with his statements this week in Paris renewing his commitment to make Australia a republic. The leader of the Liberal opposition, Alexander Downer, is attacking Mr Keating on what he describes as patriotic grounds. The idea, apparently, is that it's not cricket to drag the French into what ought to be a family matter between Anglo-Saxons.

In fact, both leaders are making a bid for Australian nationalism, without being quite sure how it works and where to find it. I suspect, however, that Mr Keating is nearer the mark on this point than Mr Downer is.

The whole thing is full of oddities. Mr Keating seems, for example, to think that, since France is a republic, the French will be delighted to learn that Australia is about to follow the French example. This is not probable. To the French, the Australians are a variety of English, and this condition is incurable. For Australians to say they want to be republicans, like the French, is just another example of Anglo-Saxon eccentricity - or possibly impudence. How can they be like the French, since they speak English?

Nor was Mr Keating's appeal to the French revolutionary tradition calculated to appeal to the French of the late 20th century. The French whose hearts used to beat faster at the thought of the Great Revolution are gone for ever. They were the old left, with, at its heart, the French Communist Party. That is all now terribly vieux jeu. So to the French, Mr Keating must have sounded archaic, as well as otherwise peculiar.

But of course Paul Keating doesn't care very much what impression he has made on the French - or the English, for that matter. What is important to him is what impression he is making on the Australians. The jury, obviously, is still out on that one.

On one point, Mr Keating's argument did not seem to me to be well- designed for the captivation of his fellow countrymen. 'Australia,' he said, 'cannot fully make its way in the Asian-Pacific while the head of state is the monarch of Great Britain.'

That one is surely a turkey. Of all the reasons why Australians might want a republic, the least plausible is certainly a desire to please its Asian neighbours. It is true that Australian official statements abound in commitment to the region and brotherly sentiments towards the Asian neighbours. Ordinary Australians are resigned to such statements being made on their behalf, since they are believed to be good for business. But even those Australians who least like the Pommies vastly prefer them to their Asian neighbours. The idea of changing the Australian constitution out of deference to the sensibilities of those neighbours is inherently repugnant. If, or when, there is a referendum on the monarchy, that particular argument is unlikely to be heard at the hustings - at least from the proponents of change.

Yet I think the change will come, for internal Australian reasons, and the Liberals are unwise to oppose it. By doing so, they make themselves sound backward, out of tune with modern, confident, dynamic Australia. Their case has no appeal to the most recent immigrants - Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese - or to their children. These would feel more at home with a president whom they would share in choosing, than with a distant monarch with whom they have no cultural or ethnic ties.

But even Australians belonging to older-established groups - mainly British and Irish - include many people who would prefer an Australian president to the link with the Crown. Even Australians of wholly British stock have tended to resent what they often regarded as British condescension and neglect, felt through experiences in two world wars.

And then there are the Australians of Irish stock, among whom I have been speaking much of my time during this lecture tour. Australian Protestants living outside the great cities, who are the staunchest royalists in the country, generally put the blame for the drift towards a republic on the Catholic Irish. These are believed to be motivated by rancour towards Britain.

My experience on this tour, for what it is worth, suggests that the Anglophobia count among middle-class Australians of Irish descent is very low indeed. I have lectured in Perth, Canberra and Melbourne on 'Nationalism and Catholicism in Ireland'. In each city, several hundred people have attended each lecture. In the nature of the case, most of the audiences were Catholics of Irish origin. My analysis was critical of Irish nationalist pressure on Northern Ireland, and inimical to Sinn Fein-IRA and those in collusion with them. The reception of these views was warm and friendly, with only very small pockets of dissent, rather tentatively expressed in an uncongenial environment.

Relations between Protestants and (mainly Irish) Catholics in Australia were bad as recently as 25 years ago. Now all that has changed, partly because of Italian immigration, and the discovery by the older groups that the linguistic bond between them is of greater practical importance than the theological differences, which were in any case decaying. The Australian middle class consists mainly of people of British and Irish origin, for whom the differences of origin are no longer felt to be particularly significant.

I think the constitutional change will come, but that it should not be attended by any worsening of relations between Australia and Britain. On the contrary, it should lead to an improvement in these relations. Through this change many Australians will get old resentments out of their system, and the positive aspect of a love-hate relationship should come to the top.

This will depend to some extent on how the change is received in Britain itself. But even if the immediate transition is attended by some recriminations, I thing the long-term outlook is good.

Most Australians - as many of them have told me - feel themselves to be 'culturally part of Europe'. And the part of Europe with which most of them have real cultural ties is the British Isles.

(Photograph omitted)