The Governor-General agreed to deliver the Boyer Lectures, and they came at the end of her term as G-G. So among other things she gave us a sense of her own priorities in the Australia of the future. Two of these, delivered almost casually, were the attractiveness of a republic, and of legalised gay marriage. The timing of the republic, at least to me, seemed pretty far off. She imagined an Australia ‘where perhaps, my friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state.’
I feel much the same. One day Australia will be a republic, and my guess is that very little will change as a consequence. I’m not opposed to it at all — it’s just not high up in my set of priorities. Indeed, I feel much the same about gay marriage. I have no objection to it, but there seem to be a lot of other more important issues facing Australians.
But what a lot of tut-tutting there was from the Monarchists, along with predictable cheers from interest groups that think both goals are really important. I thought Mr Abbott said it best: the Governor-General is at the end of her term, and there is nothing wrong at all about her setting out her own views at a time like this; what’s more, she did it in style. Her views don’t bind the Government, any more than she is obliged to agree with whatever the Government puts forward as its priorities.
The problem with an Australian republic is the same now as it was in 1999, when we had the referendum. How does someone get to be the Head of State, and what powers will he or she have? My own view then, which hasn’t changed, is that the republic should in form and style be as close to the present as it can be. And that meant to me that the Governor-General (I would keep that title) would be appointed by the Government of the day for a defined term.
The republicans, or at least a lot of them, wanted a real departure from the status quo, with an elected President. From memory, Mal Meninga, then the former great captain of the Canberra Raiders and an even greater Australian Rugby League captain, was put forward as the sort of President we ought to have. There were many other possible candidates, too. But what would they know about politics and government? What would happen if a President and a Prime Minister got into loggerheads? In a way, it all looked premature, because a lot of this had not been worked out and argued about in advance. John Howard diverted the issue cleverly, and the referendum lost. Since then ‘the republic’ as a policy issue has hardly been on even a back-burner.
Nonetheless, both issues have great capacity to attract the media. First, they are controversial, which makes news editors inclined to feature them at any time. Second, they attract special interest groups with articulate spokespersons, who can be relied upon to speak confidently and aggressively. And third, it is easy for the media to try and engage politicians, most of whom would be happy to say nothing about either matter. All this happened on Friday, and I’m writing this post on Saturday. By Monday it may even be dead as news.
I can’t find anything desperately wrong with the way Australia is governed, and while there are many areas in which you can point to possible improvements, it is not at all clear that they would come about because we ceased to be a monarchy and became a republic. In some ways, the republic issue is just a distraction from other important areas of public life, like how best to improve the health system.
And if we legalised gay marriage tomorrow, it would make the gay and lesbian community feel a lot better, but what then? I don’t see any likely awful outcomes, but equally, I think there are more important areas of public and social life to worry about. The Governor-General is an intelligent and experienced person who has made a real contribution to Australian life. Her thoughts as she ends what I see as an illustrious terms as G-G are interesting, but her own choice in making them at this time suggests to me that she recognised that they are no more important than those of anyone else.
And they don’t bring the day of realisation for either issue a second closer.