The republican movement in Australia, or at least the latest public manifestation of it, has rightly confined itself to the symbolic issue of Head of State and not muddied the waters by wider issues of constitutional reform. This has prompted different conclusions by different respected and largely neutral commentators. The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, says it tends to show that the rest of Australia’s constitutional arrangements do not need radical change. Professor Leslie Zines, of the Australian National University, says it shows that Australians are easily distracted from issues of substance in constitutional reform by the emotive and symbolic. Professor Zines argues there are other pressing issues of constitutional reform.
Both have sound points. The Head of State is a symbol and the Australian electorate can get easily distracted from more pressing questions of reform, constitutional and otherwise.
People in the republican movement have said theirs is not a distraction from broader economic issues. Surely, Australians are intelligent and mature enough to run two debates at the same time. It would be nice to think so. But the history of the Australian electoral process shows otherwise. Elections have been won and lost on last-minute emotive appeals: guns in NSW in 198? and the green appeal in the Federal election in 1990 are examples. Indeed, most Governments and Oppositions appeal to emotions rather than reason at election time, usually because it works.
It would be a shame if the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, were to make a great debate over the republican issue in the current climate. It is not a significant priority for Australia now. Mr Keating and his team must keep their eyes on the main game of getting Australia back to work. The temptation will be to pick up a few emotive votes on the issue. Opinion polls showed that last time he ran the new-flag argument he got some short-term support. Mr Keating must resist the temptation, for the long-term good.
In this climate it would be better for the debate to continue outside the political arena. It clearly has a long way to go: though the movement talks of a symbols-only change, once the Crown is removed from the constitutional arrangement, the question becomes what replaces it. Few would accept the present de-facto position of the Prime Minister choosing the Head of State.
A divisive debate on the monarchy between the major parties over the ten months to the next election will not help Australia. Fortunately the sentiments of Australians are about evenly divided at present and Mr Keating must know the political risks are high. If that alone keeps him out of that debate and his eye on the main economic issues, rather than the intrinsic merit of doing so, it will be no bad thing.