Australia's new republic

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Whatever the result of the Australian election, there is bound to be one big loser: the British monarchy
Wed 21 Nov 2007 14.00 EST

On the other side of the world, there is a political contest taking place which could fundamentally shape the future of the British monarchy. Australians go to the polls on Saturday, and all indications are that Kevin Rudd's Australian Labor Party will defeat John Howard's conservative coalition. If that happens, Australia will once again be asked: "Do you want an Australian head of state?" And this time around, they're unlikely to say no.

As one Australian commentator noted, the departure of Howard will see the back of the last of the "avowed Queen's men". Even if he were to stage a shock comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat this weekend, he and his republican Treasurer have already publicly agreed to a handover of power by 2009.

A Howard victory, however, would be a monumental political upset. The more likely scenario is that Labor will win, and win comfortably. Their new star leader, Kevin Rudd, has already committed to allowing Australians a second chance to abandon the Crown in favour of an Australian head of state. The first attempt was in 1999, and was defeated by a pro-monarchy campaign led by none other than Prime Minister John Howard. Contrary to the fantasies pedalled by monarchists back here in the "mother-country", the 1999 vote was not an unswerving pledge of loyalty to "Her Maj". In fact, it was quite the opposite - the Australians weren't saying no to a democratic alternative, they were saying yes to the most democratic alternative, but one that wasn't on offer: a head of state elected by popular vote.

Australians have wanted their own head of state for some time now, since well before the 1999 referendum. According to Professor John Warhurst of the Australian National University, since 1993, the Australian Election Survey has shown the republican majority "has always been about two-thirds of the electorate". Among young Australians, a staggering 90% want Australia to cut its last colonial ties with the UK. The issue is genuinely cross-party, with Labor, the Australian Democrats and the Greens (now Australia's third party) all supporting a republic. The conservative Liberals are held back only by their leader, who is on his way out, one way or another. Given that widespread support and the lessons learnt from the first attempt, it is all but certain that Australia will be a republic within the next five to 10 years. The debate could get underway as early as the middle of next year. Labor sources have suggested the referendum could take place in 2010, the likely date of the next federal election after this one.

Such a move would be a major earthquake under the foundations of the monarchy. For the first time in living memory (perhaps in history), a peaceful and prosperous democracy will freely choose to abandon this feudal relic in favour of a democratically elected head of state. Australia will be big news back here in the UK and around the world - news about the debate; news about the referendum and the result; news about the transition; news about the election of the first Australian-born head of state. Every time this topic is raised, the question will automatically be asked: if Australia, why not Britain? And every time it is asked, supporters of the status quo will find it that much harder to answer, because there is no good answer. What Australia can and wants to do, Britain can and should want to do.

Moreover, the debate will be further reinforced by Canada and New Zealand, not to mention other smaller Commonwealth nations, all of whom would likely follow suit if Australia took the republican path. New Zealand's prime minister is on side, and recent polls show (pdf) that over half of Canadians now support severing ties with the British monarchy - and that support is across the political spectrum. The Australian debate could set off a chain reaction, which would, at the very least, leave the UK as the only remaining Commonwealth country with the Queen as head of state.

Perhaps the biggest effect an Australian republic will have will be the inspiration it will give to republicans in the UK, and the example it will set for all of us. Australians will prove beyond doubt that this change is not the enormous undertaking monarchists like to think it is. Australia will show that pride in one's nation, love of one's country, do not have to be articulated by a backward-looking obsession with outdated institutions; it can be demonstrated loud and clear, around the world, by taking a strong and bold step toward a more democratic and forward-looking society. Australia will prove false all the hollow arguments of the monarchists: that the constitutional changes are too complex; that the transition would be too painful; that from among our citizens we cannot choose one upstanding woman or man to represent us; that national identity is bound up with the Windsor family.

Although the headline figures in UK opinion polls have barely shifted in recent years, attitudes towards the monarchy have, as Mark Lawson was recently pointing out. Much of the institution's support is reserved solely for the Queen. At 81, she is approaching the twilight years of her reign, and the debate about the succession will grow in tandem with the debate in Australia. Had Australia chosen a republican future 20 years ago, the effect back here may have been limited. Today, news travels further and faster, and our changed attitudes toward celebrity and royalty will make the ground that much more fertile for the republican cause. Who wins in the Australian house of representatives on Saturday is set to have long-lasting implications for the house of Windsor.

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