The platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II – an unprecedented event – was celebrated in Britain over a four-day holiday with the Trooping The Colour, an incredible Royal Air Force flyover, four-year-old Prince Louis mugging for the cameras, the National Service of Thanksgiving, the Platinum Jubilee Concert featuring Diana Ross, Duran Duran and Queen, as well as seemingly a million street parties. Britain, as the joke went, was 98 per cent bunting.
In Australia by contrast: tumbleweeds.
Well, not entirely. While reporters scrambled to actually find Australians who were celebrating the occasion, the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, lit a beacon and said the two countries were no longer parent and young upstart. We stand as equals. More importantly, we stand as friends. We can all agree on that.
And on Saturday we honoured the longest reigning monarch in British history by renaming an island. No, it wasn’t some sun-kissed tropical hideaway such as Great Keppel, but Aspen Island, which graces Lake Burley Griffin in the national capital and is home to the Carillon, the modernist-ugly bell tower the Poms gave us to commemorate Canberra’s 50th anniversary. The Queen opened it in 1970, so there was a nice synergy.
But considering Her Majesty’s name already graces an outer metropolitan suburb of Adelaide (which she opened in 1955), hospitals, law courts, lookouts, even a chunk of the Australian Antarctic Territory, renaming a little-known artificial island feels a bit reduced.
At the same time, the previously dead, buried and cremated idea of turning Australia into a republic suddenly disinterred itself from its 1999 grave and shook the dust off itself.
The Albanese government appointed an assistant minister for the republic, Matt Thistlewaite, who as he was sworn in joked with Governor General David Hurley your tenure is safe under us. Labor immediately flagged that a republic was not on the table for this term, and it had much more important things to deal with, such as a First Nation’s Voice to Parliament. The Queen’s representative is appointed by convention to a five-year term, so Hurley is due to retire in 2024, while the next federal election is not due until 2025.
In fact, Thistlewaite’s position was so low profile that none of Her Majesty’s Parliament House Press Gallery seemed to realise it existed while Labor was in opposition, hence this week’s kerfuffle.
This led to some predictable bleating from monarchists about the appointment being undemocratic.
But if they were smart, they would have realised that the government gave the issue the lowest priority.
It’s astonishing to observe how little attention the republic is getting. It is barely part of the discourse. Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, Me Too matters, Change The Date matters, saving the planet from the climate change apocalypse matters. The republic? Much less so. I mean, it doesn’t even qualify for a hashtag.
This suits some republicans, who believe the issue will ignite once the Queen is dead and the far less popular Charles in on the throne. Or, as one said to me: There are plenty of keepers of the flame. People are only being nice so that old Betty doesn’t fret. As soon as she shuffles off all remaining family members will be ushered down to the basement after midnight – figuratively speaking, of course.
Maybe. Rather than relying on the unpopularity of Charles, republicans should really be worrying about the growing popularity of William and Kate. The movement will need to unite an activist base and then bring the quiet Australians to the cause. Already it risks the younger generation regarding it as an OK Boomer cause that was fuelled by anger over governor general Sir John Kerr’s improper dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.
Sure, times are changing. Now 34 out of 54 countries in the Commonwealth are republics. But even when Barbados became a republic last November no-one here seemed to feel embarrassed.
And when we do debate the issue seriously, the republicans risk falling into the same trap which sank the 1999 effort, irreconcilable fights over the powers bestowed on the head of state and whether they will be directly elected or appointed by parliament.
And just who do you want to replace the Queen? A former politician such as Paul Keating or John Howard? A retired judge or military officer, like many of our governors and governors general? A former Australian of the Year? Dylan Alcott? Grace Tame? Rosie Batty? Fiona Stanley? Steve Waugh?
In January, the Australian Republic Movement released a model where voters would elect a head of state from a pool of 11 nominees selected by state and federal politicians. A kind of Australia’s Got Talent, if you will.
The infighting was immediate, with former prime minister , saying it would create a massive shift in the current model of power and change forever the model of representative governance that Australia currently enjoys. Not the best reception the ARM could have hoped for.
Yes, the Jubilee is a non event here. But the passing of Queen Elizabeth will be anything but.
Republicans will need to be ready to explain how ditching the monarchy will be a confident statement about moving Australia towards the country we want it to be, rather than a reaction against what we don’t want it to be. Until that happens, the cause shall remain stuck.