As David Cameron delivered his radical "in-out" UK-EU referendum speech to a salivating British press, most Australians were probably fast asleep.
However, with a resurgent Australian Republican Movement gaining momentum, and an Australia Day that saw the broadsheets alight with republican vows, we may have a new window of opportunity to ask, whether we are in or out when it comes to the monarchy.
Behind the rhetoric driving support the UK referendum is the premise that the EU bloc is absorbing the UK’s sovereignty. As David Cameron put it, the UK is an island nation "passionate in defence of our sovereignty" — much, we might say, like Australia. However, many Britons "feel that the EU is now heading for a level of political integration that is far outside Britain’s comfort zone".
Cameron’s argument is essentially based on the idea, developed by the philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau, of the social contract; that any form of authority must receive express or implied consent from the people in order to be considered legitimate.
The EU is a regional authority. Just like the British Parliament, it relies on such express or implied popular consent for legitimacy. Cameron believes that the British public’s consent is "wafer thin". To retain its legitimacy, the EU must therefore be exposed to an explicit test of popular consent — in the form of a referendum.
The social contract argument trades on a simple proposition — the willing surrender of "liberty" to the ruler, which occurs when the social contact is strong, but the right to reclaim that liberty when the social contract expires. Where regional organisations are concerned, state sovereignty amounts to liberty; Cameron is using a carrot and stick approach to repatriate UK sovereignty (and liberty) back to Downing Street.
In Australia there is no breakdown of the social contract. As a nation, we have more "liberty" from the monarchy now than at any other time in our history. In legal and cultural terms, Australia has already repatriated about as much sovereignty as it can without becoming a republic.
Yet the republican campaign sounds incredibly similar to the Cameron rhetoric — the message is still focused on a simple question of winning back images of a sovereign identity, principally through the installation of an Australian Head of State, and the call for an in-out plebiscite similar to Cameron’s referendum.
Yet the contrasts between the UK and Australia could not be starker. In the UK, there is a popular view that national identity and sovereignty is under attack from the massive EU harmonisation regime that has become the backbone of the EU "promise". The European Court of Justice and the European Commission are seen as swelling, bureaucratic bodies far removed from the day-to-day issues of the average Briton.
Meanwhile, Australia controls Australia. Indeed, many Australians probably view the Prime Minister as our Head of State, and the Queen of England as some relic of a bygone era. While this view doesn’t match our legal situation, it would be an understandable mistake to make when considered against the backdrop of a quiet independence. For example, we have long since lanced the boil of the Privy Council, leaving an Australian High Court, staffed with Australian Justices, as our constitutional guardians.
We have also enshrined, through the adoption of the Statute of Westminster Act, and ultimately the passing of the Australia Acts, a legal regime that frees our states from off-shore rule and terminates the UK Parliament’s previous ability to legislate on our behalf.
This is in stark contrast to the situation in the UK, where European Community legislation has full force of law in the UK, and in the event that there is a clash between UK law and European Community law, the European Community law effectively wins out.
While it is technically possible for the monarch to dissolve our parliament, ironically the only time such a controversy has reared its ugly head was during the 1975 onstitutional crisis, ultimately "resolved" by the then Governor General Sir John Kerr — an Australian.
While I strongly support an Australian republic, and can not stand the idea of our Constitution existing in a section of an Act of the UK Parliament, without the pervading sense of a loss of sovereignty to another power (whether it be a state, regional or institutional power), the republican dream is hardly likely to strike the populist chord required to win a double majority in an Australian referendum.
Indeed, the true republican challenge is to convince Australians of the need to explicitly renew the social contract; in essence, to explicitly formalise an already implied view of Australia as a truly sovereign, independent nation already free from the vestiges of a colonial past.
Born in the Enlightenment period, and immortalised as a republican call to arms in the brutal days of the French Revolution, Rousseau’s argument is still the bedrock of any true republican movement. It’s clear that David Cameron appreciates that the social contract is the only game in town when it comes to winning his EU-UK referendum call to arms.
Indeed, the social contract is the premise upon which we build any argument for a referendum. Committed Australian republicans ought to be asking the same question as Cameron, but taking note of the vastly different circumstances. That is, how can we articulate an equally powerful argument, but in the context of a proudly sovereign nation that doesn’t perceive the social contract to be in need of urgent renewal; that, perhaps understandably so, doesn’t believe there is much more "liberty" to repatriate?
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