Should Australia keep the King and carry on? It’s a question we’ll face soon enough.
When Queen Elizabeth II passed away, there was an outpouring of affection and tributes for her remarkably long reign. Few raised the question of Australia’s constitutional tie to Britain.
Now with the coronation of King Charles III, even in Britain debate about the monarchy is sparking protests.
Here in Australia, while there is certainly a debate to be had about a system that is grossly unequal and a hangover from medieval feudalism, the question for us is about our head of state.
Do we want the new King of Australia to remain our head of state? In the 21st century, should a democratic, almost independent middle-power nation still have the monarch of a foreign country at our helm?
That debate has been simmering away since the failure of the engineered 1999 referendum, which didn’t succeed despite a majority of Australians at the time wanting a republic.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has ensured that, in his first term of government, the referendum to enshrine a Voice for First Nations Australians in our Constitution is the priority. The referendum to have an Australian as our head of state, and to become a republic, must wait for what he hopes will be his second term.
To many commentators, this is exactly the right order in which to approach the huge hurdles of constitutional change. Australia needs to be a reconciled republic, so Indigenous inclusion and representation must come first.
Yet the Albanese government has also made clear its pro-republic stance, with the Prime Minister making no secret of his personal commitment. We now have an assistant minister whose job is to prepare for the pro-republic campaign.
And there has been one telling decision already: the new five dollar note, needed to replace Queen Elizabeth’s portrait, will not have a portrait of King Charles. It will instead feature representations of Indigenous culture.
When the republic debate erupts, it is vital for Australians to realise this is far from being a sudden, abrupt departure. In fact, we have been severing our ties with Britain slowly, step by step, for more than 150 years. King Charles’s role as our head of state is a relatively small vestige of our historical constitutional connections to Britain.
The Australian colonies mostly attained representative and then responsible self-government in the 1840s and 1850s, a crucial shift away from direct British control.
Then in 1901, of course, the colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia, which would soon be considered a fully-fledged dominion of the Empire.
After the First World War, Australia gained some international autonomy, especially separate representation at the League of Nations.
The Second World War would compel its defence reorientation away from Britain and towards the United States. At war’s end, Australians took leadership positions in the new United Nations.
A significant turning point came in 1948 when Australians gained their own citizenship and passports.
In the following decades growing national pride saw us give up God Save the Queen as our national anthem, eventually for Advance Australia Fair. Our final court of appeal is now the High Court, no longer the Privy Council in London.
In the 1960s Australians finally accorded full citizenship to First Nations people. The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart is a call to all Australians to take the next step: an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and constitutional recognition for our First Australians.
Following that vital move, we will consider the other pressing constitutional matter.
The debate leading up to the republic referendum will be robust, and no doubt passionate. It must be grounded in our history. We have already come a long way, and are an independent, mature, self-governing nation.
Having an Australian as our head of state is essential for both our self-respect and our international standing.
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