While Britain mourns, Australia confronts its unfinished business

With hearty and humble affection, we promise him faith and obedience. So pledged David Hurley, a retired soldier standing ramrod straight, while the band played God save the King. Australia proclaimed its new monarch, and the governor-general, in reciting these carefully drafted words, reminded everyone how faintly absurd the whole situation was.

Amid genuinely held affections and warm reflections for our recently departed queen, it was an unsettling moment. So was the sight of Victorian Governor Linda Dessau and NSW Governor Margaret Beazley, outstanding jurists both, solemnly repeating the same, archaic sentiments in Melbourne and Sydney, in scenes repeated by the governors of every other state.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese lays a wreath at the statue of Queen Elizabeth outside Parliament House.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Most of us hadn’t previously lived through what is technically referred to as the demise of the Crown. The Prime Minister’s Office adopted the wording of Australia’s proclamation from 1952, the last time we had cause to issue one. The death of Elizabeth II and accession of Charles III is a fascinating, real-time civics lesson and, for many, an uncomfortable reminder about who Australia serves.

“Seeing such things as our formal proclamations of our obedience to the new monarch, or parliament having to be suspended, or a public day of mourning is quite jarring,” says constitutional lawyer George Williams. “There is a king or queen of Australia and that system means that we owe obedience and fealty to that hereditary monarch.

“One big advantage of the monarchy is ignorance. Ignorance has let people be happy and complacent with the system because they didn’t understand the reality of it and what it meant to be a constitutional monarchy. People think of monarchs in magazines and popular culture, but this is the reality of the system.”

A week after the Queen died at the age of 96, her body lies in state inside Westminster Hall, an ancient place of kings first built at the end of the 11th century. The queue of people waiting to see her coffin stretches seven kilometres along the banks of the Thames. Britain’s formal mourning period, which will extend for several days after Monday’s funeral, is being deeply felt and widely observed.

People queued through the night along the River Thames to see the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall.Credit:Getty

In Australia, protocol dictates that we should mourn, too, although there are no signs of shops closing or city streets being any quieter than they have been since the pandemic abated. On Friday night in Melbourne, Geelong and Lions supporters crammed into the MCG to raucously proclaim allegiance of a different kind, while in Sydney over the weekend, Swans, Souths and Sharks fans will do the same. An official day of mourning has been gazetted as a public holiday on Thursday. Victoria will have a four-day weekend devoted to its sporting sovereign; the AFL grand final.

In the meantime, as the spectacle of a medieval succession is continuously streamed in high-definition images, we are confronted with what author Thomas Keneally, a founder of the republican movement, calls the unfinished business of Australia. That business centres on a republic and reconciliation, though not in that order. One addresses an anachronism, the other an injustice at the heart of our national identity.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, an avowed republican, stood in tight-lipped observance as the British national anthem was played outside Parliament House. He says now is a time to pay tribute to the life of Elizabeth II, not debate our system of government. While few would argue with the PM about this, debate is happening nonetheless.

“There has always been this tension in Australia and the tension point is, of course, when the monarch dies, particularly such a long-serving one,” Keneally tells The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. “It is a pious hope that the conversation won’t come back, but it is the next paragraph. If you talk for more than two sentences about the monarch then it comes up again.”

Author and Australian Republican Movement co-founder Thomas Keneally.Credit:David Mariuz

Australia is one of 14 Commonwealth realms outside Britain. Republican sentiment is strongest across the nations of the English-speaking Caribbean, where Britain’s slave trade persisted well into the 19th century. Barbados split from the monarchy last year and the governments of Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda have flagged their intention to do the same.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she hopes to see a republic in her lifetime but shifting to one isn’t on her agenda. In Canada, the constitutional bar for severing ties with the monarchy is set even higher than it is here. It requires “amendment by unanimous consent”: the support of both houses of parliament and all 10 provinces.

In Australia, republicans and monarchists alike have long understood that once the Queen died, the simmering argument over Australia’s constitutional arrangements would come to a boil again. Malcolm Turnbull, the former Australian Republic Movement chairman who led the failed 1999 referendum campaign, declared six years ago that we would never see a republic while Elizabeth reigned.

Now that the Queen is dead, the republic will return to the national political conversation, but in substantially altered form and context. Key figures involved in the push for a republic and constitutional recognition of our First Nations people acknowledge that, although proposals for a Voice to Parliament and an Australian head of state must be decided by separate referenda questions likely to be held years apart, the two issues are fundamentally entwined.

Keneally says recognising the “tower of history and human occupation” that existed before 1788 is crucially important and a necessary step towards preparing Australia for a republic. This is a significant development in the republican movement since 1999 when, according to Yawuru man Peter Yu, the concerns of First Nations people were barely paid lip service.

Yu, through his previous leadership of the Kimberley Land Council, cut his teeth in the fiercely contested native title debates of the 1990s and is today a member of the prime minister’s advisory group on the Voice to Parliament. He sees the Voice, a truth-telling commission, treaty and eventually, a republic, as progressive steps on Australia’s path towards a modern, social democracy. “We are on that journey and we have been on it for some time,” he says.

Peter Yu, a member of the prime minister’s advisory group for the Voice to Parliament says reconciliation and an Australian republic are now connected.Credit:Enrique Ascui

It is an agenda of immense ambition and one the Albanese government is committed to, one step at a time.

Albanese and Aboriginal leaders are alive to the risks associated with blurring the campaigns required to build consensus for constitutional recognition of First Nations people and removing the Crown from the constitution. The PM was emphatic this week that only the Voice would go to a referendum in this term of parliament. “I couldn’t envisage a circumstance where we changed our head of state to an Australian head of state but still didn’t recognise First Nations people in our constitution,” he told ABC TV.

Dr Jackie Huggins, a Bidjara and Birri Gubba Juru woman who is also a member of the advisory group on the Voice, says this is the correct order. It will allow First Nations people to be heard on the question of the republic; a foundational consideration in any debate about sovereignty.

“I was involved in that process of looking at a republic referendum leading into 1999, and it was very white bread,” she says. “Now it could be more informed, one would hope, which would give the campaign more gravitas. I’m pretty optimistic that will happen.”

University of Sydney Professor Mark McKenna says that in the decade leading up to the 1999 vote, the republic and reconciliation movements ran in parallel, with almost no communication between the two. “What we effectively said back then was: ‘Look, our republic matters more than your exclusion from the constitution’. Now, we can see how wrong that was.”

Phil Cleary, an outspoken member of the direct election camp that helped sink the Australian Republican Movement’s preferred “minimalist” model at the last referendum, agrees that the Voice, if established, will have a big role to play in any future republican campaign. He also argues Australia cannot fully reconcile with its First Nations people unless it severs its links to the institution ultimately responsible for their dispossession.

He says Australia’s ceremonial response to the Queen’s death, particularly the juxtaposition of welcome to country ceremonies with minutes of silence and renditions of the British national anthem, exposed contradictions that can only be resolved through constitutional change.

“We can’t institute an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and turn a blind eye to the wrongs that began with the Crown’s act of dispossession and flowed into every fabric of Indigenous life,” Cleary says. “It’s inevitable that the Queen’s death will generate a conversation about how we marry the Voice to a new parliament free of that old empire.”

Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer Teela Reid says if Australia is to become a republic, these are conversations we need to have. “You can’t talk republic without understanding what we are putting on the table. If you are going to engage in that dialogue around a republic you have to have an equal conversation with First Nations people about what that means to us. The Voice is just one part of reframing that relationship.”

University of Sydney First Nation’s lawyer in residence Teela Reid.Credit:Steven Siewert.

The ARM is maintaining what its chair Peter FitzSimons describes as a “dignified silence” while the Queen is commemorated and mourned. Earlier in the week, he momentarily broke that silence on Twitter to point out that, given the visceral public reaction to the Queen’s death, it was “right and respectful that the ARM takes a very brief pause”. Once its campaign resumes, it is likely the ARM will formally throw its support behind the Voice.

What does the public response to the Queen’s death tell us about the prospects of Australia becoming a republic? Professor David Flint, a monarchist who helped lead the “no” campaign in 1999, says the loss expressed by so many Australians suggests there will never be another referendum on a republic, let alone a successful one. Mark Latham, a strong supporter of a republic when he led the Labor Party, believes the cause is now dead for a generation, if not longer.

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley, who was 23 years old when she campaigned for the republic in 1999, offers a different take on the public mood. “She [the Queen] was the wallpaper of our lives, that wallpaper you have as a kid,” she says. “It is incredibly familiar, you probably don’t even see it, you know it has to go but when it does, it sparks a whole lot of unexpected trauma and nostalgia.”

Huntley points out that, although many people are exhausted from dealing with COVID and, perhaps, overwhelmed by climate, energy and geostrategic challenges facing Australia and its place in the world, the election of so many “teal” independents at this year’s federal election shows there is an appetite to challenge and improve our political culture and institutions.

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says: “If we are going to have these conversations … let’s really have them.” Credit:Nick Moir

“In 1999 there was a minimalist model where we weren’t going to talk about the quality of our democracy, we are not going to talk about First Nations people and their fight for justice and reconciliation and truth, we are just going to have the teeniest, tiniest model because we think it is going to be successful,” she says.

“There is now a sense that if we are going to have these conversations, which are going to be polarising and difficult, let’s really have them. It would seem extraordinary to have a conversation about becoming a republic that doesn’t engage in larger questions about the quality of our institutions and democracy.”

The past week has shown the idea of a minimalist republic – establishing an Australian head of state through a constitutional tweak – was always a misnomer. As George Williams points out, our 1901 constitution, written near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, contains 47 mentions of the queen, 64 mentions of the governor-general and not one of the prime minister. “This reflects the centrality of the monarchy to our system of government, with the constitution creating Australia as ‘one indissoluble federal commonwealth under the Crown’,” he says.

To extract the Crown from all levels of government in Australia will require more than a nip and tuck. Peter Yu says the shift of voters away from major parties at this year’s federal election suggests the time-honoured defence of our constitutional status quo – that the system is serving us well – is perhaps less compelling than it was 20 years ago.

“When people reflect on the role of the Crown, it is about governance,” Yu says. “It is the effect and influence and leadership – or lack thereof – of governance. At the last election, we may have been fatigued, but we were fed up with the politics. We can’t not move forward on this stuff.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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