It was perhaps apt that I was in Bangkok when the Queen’s death was announced. Thailand experienced its own royal mourning in 2016 when its beloved King Bhumibol died. Just this year, Queen Elizabeth overtook his record to become the second-longest-reigning monarch in known world history. On both occasions, there has been genuine outpourings of grief and sadness by the communities they had served – in Thailand’s case more deeply because of the semi-divine regard in which they still held their king.
As someone who has supported the republican cause for most of my adult life, I was surprised at how emotional I was when I heard the news. I felt quite remote in a city where her death was not much more than any other significant international news item. I am not ashamed to say I shed tears that night and on more than one occasion in the two weeks since.
Views on the significance of the Queen’s passing will vary. I was deeply moved, for example, by Stan Grant’s words explaining why he cannot share the grief of others at her passing.
Quietly simmering beneath the mourning period has been discussion about the implications of the Queen’s death on the republican movement. That discussion is bound to become louder in the months and years ahead – and it will be years.
I have supported Australia becoming a republic since my early 20s. For me, it’s about a simple proposition – should we have an Australian as our head of state – a head of state whose only loyalty is to our own nation.
Some monarchists have tied themselves in knots arguing the monarch is not our head of state – quite treasonous of them really – but that proposition does not really pass the pub test, let alone constitutional scrutiny.
Yet today, as I have been for some time, I am pessimistic about seeing a republic achieved any time soon. It will certainly not be advanced to the stage of a vote during this term of parliament and I suspect not until a future federal government is more than confident of its success.
My pessimism is born from several factors.
Firstly and fundamentally, I don’t perceive community support exists for a constitutional referendum to succeed in the terms required for change to our constitution. Polling done in the two weeks since the Queen’s death is not particularly useful, but it is hard to detect any long-term trend that would see a constitutional amendment withstand a strong “no” campaign. Indeed, at a time when the standing of our political class is generally not great, there is likely to be more support for enduring institutions seen to be above the political fray.
At the end of last year, after Prince Charles had been so forthright in his views at the Glasgow climate change conference, I stood in the Coalition party room and asked then prime minister Scott Morrison whether the prince’s climate advocacy would change his views on the monarchy when Charles became king.
While it was an easy shot on my part, it does point to the broader challenge of the republican campaign. The monarchy is not a static entity; it provides continuity. But all successful monarchs, including the Queen, have ensured that it moves with the tides of contemporary forces. While time will tell, I do not think King Charles will make the republican cause easier.
I supported the 1999 referendum and volunteered for the republican campaign. I have seen how hard it will be to deliver change. In that vote, the majority of Australians voted “no” and, just as importantly for a constitutional amendment, no state supported the proposed republic. As a historical footnote, there was strong support for a republic in many Liberal-held seats – interestingly, nearly every inner metropolitan seat then held by the Liberal party recorded a majority “yes” vote in the referendum.
What it did show was the difficulty republicans will face to unite their supporters behind a single proposition. It’s the great advantage the “no” campaign will potentially always have. In 1999 a group of republic supporters led by people like the former independent North Sydney MP Ted Mack campaigned for the “no” case because they supported a directly elected president. It had a profound impact.
And here’s the rub. I, like many other republicans including Paul Keating, have similarly strong views about the potentially negative consequences of a directly elected president. For me, it would present a threat to our parliamentary form of democracy brought about by the existence of a head of state (the president) who has a mandate directly and personally from the people, and a head of government (the prime minister) appointed through the indirect path of parliament.
I want Australia to become a republic, but not at any cost. I would probably vote no against a model that included a directly elected president.
So what to do? Consensus will need to be built and it will be a long and hard slog – both for a consensus model and also for broad popular support. Those advocating for a republic should focus on the substantive arguments for a republic and not get sidetracked by attacking the personal attributes of the new King, as some are already, or fighting silly issues like who appears on the coins and bills we use less and less every day.
Depending on your start date, the British monarchy has lasted for at least a millennium. Republicans will require patience and perseverance but hopefully not for 1,000 years more.
• Trent Zimmerman is the former Liberal federal member for North Sydney