Bless me, reader, for I have sinned. It has been more than five years since my last confession. So brace yourselves, because this one is a whopper. No, I haven’t been snorting lines of cocaine off the breasts of a supermodel in a New York nightclub. (Actually, I know plenty of people for whom that is emphatically not a sin.) It’s much, much worse. But we’re in the waning days of the penitential season of Lent so I thought it was time to ‘fess up.
Back in late 1999, I did not vote for Australia to become a republic. There, I’ve said it. Like John Howard, I was one of those people who, in Malcolm Turnbull’s words “ and they were great words “’broke a nation’s heart’.
I almost succumbed to the intellectual seduction of Turnbull, the romance of Thomas Keneally, and the sentimental pull of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser sitting together proclaiming, ‘Yes, it’s time.’ I wrote lots of articles and editorials in the Sun-Herald plumping for the cause. I even stored thousands of pro-republic leaflets under my bed until the local canvassers came for them at the crack of bloody dawn on referendum day. But when the moment arrived to tick the ‘yes’ box, I simply couldn’t do it. I would have been voting for a dud republic.
Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian
It was almost certainly the only time in my adult life when I have indulged my politically purist tendencies. Normally, no matter how brain-dead the candidate, no matter how rancid the machine out of which he “ or, increasingly, she “ has crawled, I am a reliable progressive voter. But no matter how hard the proponents tried to frame it as an issue of ‘national identity’, to me the 1999 referendum simply didn’t matter. Nothing “ or at least nothing much “ was at stake. Here’s why, and let this be a lesson for the current generation of republican activists.
The 1999 campaign, with its push for an unelected, titular president, was a debate simply about how to appoint “ so I thought, ‘What’s the point?’
When Paul Keating initiated the republican debate back in the early 1990s, I was immediately suspicious, mainly because I thought it was another manifestation of his faux-Irish Anglophobia. Besides, whenever I thought of republics, I thought of America under Ronald Reagan, while monarchies looked to me, not like the dysfunctional House of Windsor, but the bicycle-riding royals of social democratic Sweden and Norway. I was especially enamoured of King Juan Carlos of Spain, who in 1981, thwarted an attempted coup d’etat against Felippe Gonzales’s socialist government, ordering the rebelling troops back to barracks. A king defending a socialist! I even had a soft spot for Prince Charles, who in the 1960s, as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, tried to join the university Labour Club (when Labour had ‘Clause Four’ on nationalisation), until the former Tory cabinet minister R. A. Butler warned against it.
But come referendum day, having lived in America for three years, having even gone to the Australian embassy in Washington to lodge my postal vote for err, um Bob Ellis as my first choice of delegates to the 1998 constitutional convention, I was a fiercely committed republican. But I was a real republican and a real democrat. I wanted to decide my president. I wanted to be able to campaign for my president. Dammit, I might even want to run for president! (But only in that quirky, lost-cause, never-gonna-win kind of way in which writer Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California in 1934 on an end-poverty platform.)
I had been around politics for long enough to know what was on offer. Now, I know John Howard rigged the game from the start by insisting that only one republican option be put to the people. But I had also read of how Malcolm Turnbull and Gareth Evans had manouvered around the constitutional convention as if it were the back corridors of a Labor Party conference, stitching up the numbers for an unelected figurehead. And I knew what an unelected figurehead meant “ a superannuated cabinet minister, a retired judge, a pensioned-off general. When they spoke of the president having to be elected by two-thirds of a joint sitting of parliament and, even worse, of being a ‘unifying national figure’, I knew it was the worst of all options. Anyone who can muster the support of two-thirds of parliament, in a fiercely contested democracy like ours, must be someone who has never done anything, never said anything, never stood for anything even vaguely controversial “ or meaningful.
Before you all shout ‘What about Bill Deane’, of course I loved Bill Deane “ didn’t all people of conscience? “ but remember, we never really knew about his quiet radicalism until after he became governor-general, and even then it was always muted by his office. Anyone with a mandate to be a ‘unifying national figure’ would have faced the same limitations.
During the debate, one of my all-time favourite political heart-throbs, Barry Owen Jones, kept talking up Sir Gustav Nossal as a potential (unelected) president. Let me make it clear “ Gus Nossal is a great humanitarian, a brilliant scientist, one of those people who enrich the thinking and dialogue of our country. But he is precisely the kind of on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that intellectual we do not want as a president.
We do not have to invest a president with any more powers than the current governor-general enjoys (although we should codify them) and I’m not for a US-style executive presidency. But in a proper republic, an election for president should be a great contest of values and each side should scramble and fight to get 50.1 per cent for their candidate. Most of the time, I admit, progressives would probably lose. But when we win, our victories will be that much sweeter because, at least for a few years, a majority of our fellow Australians will have embraced our vision.
A solemn, bipartisan ceremony in the parliament, to rubber-stump a ‘distinguished’ Australian into a job where all he, or she, does is attend memorial services or open academic conferences and never takes sides, is not the way to revive our rotting body politic. I say, ‘Bugger distinguished!’ Give me provocative! Give me passionate! As a progressive, I say, give me someone who would have stood with the strikers during the 1998 waterfront dispute or marched with the 250,000 other Australians during the protests against the Iraq war. Give me someone who says, ‘I might not be able to end injustice with the stroke of my pen but my presidency is my bully pulpit.’ I’d love a Robert Kennedy but I’d settle for a Teddy Kennedy, for anyone who can knock me over with oratory like, ‘the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die’.
We progressives would not often win such a contest, but when we did, we could truly savour the moment.
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