An item of news about Australia that has received considerable attention in the British media is the debate about the republic. What view does the Anglican Church here take about the question and how is it viewed by ordinary people in the pews?
I will try to answer the second question first. What is probably not realised overseas is that while the chattering classes and the media are heavily in favour of the move to a republic, all the polls suggest that at least a third of the population remains adamantly opposed. Up to half are expected to vote against in the promised referendum. Constitutional change has always been difficult to bring about in Australia and the proposal for a republic is no exception. My own observation suggests that the opponents of change number a good many Anglicans amongst their ranks.
Leadership in the Anglican Church is divided. Expatriate poms like the Bishop of Ballarat and myself have been careful not to take sides. The Archbishops of Brisbane and Adelaide have voiced their opposition. The Primate, Archbishop Keith Rayner of Melbourne, made headlines during the General Synod by affirming that the Anglican Church has no official position on the matter but then going on to accept that a republic was inevitable and making suggestions about precisely what form it should take. He came out on the side of those opposed to popular election of a President and argued that the so-called “reserve powers” should be codified.
Both these issues are crucial in the republican debate. Public opinion is massively against a president chosen by Parliament but constitutional experts are, with good reason, afraid that poplar election would politicise the office. At present everyone agrees that the Governor General has reserve powers to act in an emergency but no one is certain what they are. Paul Keating would like this situation to continue with the President’s reserve powers also left indeterminate. Few agree that this would be safe when the Crown was no longer there to act as a final check.
The strategy that Mr Keating has adopted is to go for the minimum amount of change necessary to given his what he says is his real objective, an Australian head of state. Under his proposals, the country would continue to be known as the Commonwealth rather than the Republic of Australia.
Stress on the need for an Australian head of state is undoubtedly Keating’s strongest case. His opponents fall into two groups. On the right are those who argue that he is needlessly dividing the country and stirring up old antagonisms between those Australians who trace their roots to England and those who are descended from Irish settlers. Keating, of course, is of Irish ancestry, and there are those who suspect his real agenda is not so much the need to give Australia a new identity as the desire to settle old scores.
On the left opponents of Keating’s proposals claim that he is missing the opportunity to bring in much-needed fundamental constitutional changes that are more important than the switch to a republic. Fr Frank Brennan, a Catholic priest and a well-known advocate of aboriginal rights, has called for self-determination for Australia’s indigenous people. He believes that aborigines and Torres Strait islanders should have the right to be governed as far as possible by their own laws and legal institutions and should also be given representation in Parliament.
To an outsider what is most noticeable about the Republic debate is how un-Australian the whole business really is. Unlike Americans or Canadians, Australians have been fairly laid back about their nationalism. As one scholar put it: “Australia slipped into formal nationhood almost unobtrusively: it had no specific legacy of emotive political symbols; it lacked heroic figures, and it has not developed them since”. Australians do not give their flag the same importance that Americans accord to the stars and stripes and they certainly do not follow Americans in surrounding the state with an almost sacred aura.
Mateship, giving others a fair go, the battle with the land – these have the defining characteristics of Australia. There has been no manifest destiny and no starry-eyed idealism to distort national priorities. It could be argued that the arrival of multi-culturalism gives rise to the need for unifying national symbols that will command widespread allegiance. As a fresh arrival to these shores, I think I prefer the older, laid back nationalism to the newer, brasher variety. As a Christian I feel at home in a country which has not felt the need to turn the state into an idol or treat national institutions as sacred cows.
David J. Tracy, a scholar of Australian literature, has just published a book arguing that spiritual change and political development must go together. On the republic he is at best lukewarm: “The republic would appear to satisfy progressive longing for change and the desire to break away from the old, parental European culture. However, I suspect that at least some of the energy fuelling this debate arises from the desire to terminate uncertainty and anxiety by inventing a new cultural and personal order. The political ideal of a republic may be a good one, but if the idea is premature and inspired by a reactionary psychological need for closure and certainty, then the `radical’ gesture would be, ironically, to remain with the monarchy and the post modern condition.” (see David J. Tracey: Edge of the Sacred page 120).
Paul Richardson, the author of this letter, is Bishop of Wangaratta, Province of Victoria..