In times of crisis relinquishing sovereignty is a risk

by Paul Syvret

Prominent journalist, economist and satirist Paul Syvret spoke at Queensland Parliament House on November 24, at a function for the Queensland branch of the ARM — at which he said republicans should never let a good crisis go to waste.

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Ladies and gentlemen I’ll try and keep this short to leave as much time as possible for questions and discussion, and, let’s be honest, I am no John Hirst or Malcolm Turnbull in the oratory stakes.

Anyway, as you would be aware, earlier this morning the Speaker of the Australian parliament, Harry Jenkins, resigned — making way for the Liberal’s Peter Slipper to take the chair.

This is, to paraphrase Kevin Rudd (and excuse the language), one of the greatest acts of political rat-fuckery we’ve seen in some time. And of all people, Kevin should know a thing or two about that.

Forget though for a moment though all the ramifications of this – and I am sure in a room full of republicans there’d be at least a few of us here who are no great fans of Tony Abbott – and instead consider about the mechanics of it all.

Before the parliament could convene to elect a new Speaker, Harry Jenkins had to first visit Governor-General Quentin Bryce and officially inform her of his resignation — not our elected leader Julia Gillard, but instead the agent of a monarch on the other side of the planet.

Only when the Governor-General had formally confirmed receipt of the letter of resignation did she then ‘’invite’’ the house – presumably at Her Majesty’s Pleasure if we are to stick to protocol – to elect a new Speaker.

So what we had was a paradigm shift in the balance of power in Canberra — and at the very epicentre of the process was a woman unelected and whom I’d guess many Australians would be hard pressed to even name.

I’m sure the fact our political process has to be rubber stamped by the representative of a monarch who rules only by virtue of breeding sticks in your craw as much as mine, so I won’t preach to the converted tonight.

The problem, ladies and gentlemen, is that very few people outside the likes of us in this house tonight would even notice.

For the wider public – and the mainstream media – the issue of a constitutional monarchy versus a republican model is as dead as Peter Slipper’s re-election chances. It is simply not on the agenda.

I’m sure many of you here when waving the republican flag in conversation have been met reactions along the lines of:

“who cares? We had that debate more than 10 years ago”.

In some respects it’s like attempting to spark discussion about whether we should have a Goods and Services Tax: in the public mind the issue is no longer moot. We’ve had the argument — the tax (like the constitutional monarchy) is there, it seems to work, and most importantly no-one really notices any more.

At the recent national Republican Lecture, Dr John Hirst spoke of three enemies of the republican dream, the first of these being complacency – an attitude of let’s bide our time until the Queen dies and everyone will realise how bloody silly the whole business is when we get the Charles and Camilla show, and then we’ll grow up.  This is true, and as Hirst points out the popularity of a monarch should not be the catalyst for change in Australia.

Most importantly, though, change is not going to happen on its own. It is not going to happen in a country where if you asked citizens to name Australia’s head of state I’d wager good money less than half would answer with the queen.

Joe and Julie voter are not going to wake up one morning and say ‘’bugger this, let’s cut the apron strings’’ — not while the issue is not even on the national agenda.

The other day I told a friend I was speaking at the Australian Republican Movement’s annual function tonight, and his response was:

“The Australian Republican Movement?  I thought they’d gone the way of the Democratic Labor Party – you know, still technically in existence but to all intents and purposes basically irrelevant.’’

(And, just for reference, he voted YES at the referendum 12 years ago.)

Anyway, I doubt my mate’s flippant dismissal of a cause he himself had supported in 1999 would be an isolated view.

So, the challenge, then, is how do we bring the idea of an Australian republic back into the national discourse? How do we get it on the agenda again?

At the time of the referendum, we had the natural conversation about national sovereignty that arose from the looming centenary of Federation.

Our politicians – in rare bipartisan fashion – also took ownership of the debate and the media duly gave it immense coverage. It was, quite literally, the proverbial barbecue stopper.

With political minds focused on the intricacies involved in negotiating a hung parliament (well, slightly less hung as of today), and the national focus clearly directed at matters more prosaic such as carbon pricing, mining taxes and the small matter of a global economic melt-down, there is no will in Canberra to re-engage on this front.

Nor is the media of any mind to re-ignite the debate. Sure, it flickers to life occasionally come Australia Day, or perhaps to balance some of the forelock tugging that accompanies a visit to the colonies by those with better blood and breeding than you and I, but it is not an underlying theme in the national conversation.

I do think, though,that there are ways that as republicans we can leverage the cause back into Australian newspapers and Australian thinking.

And it comes back to that old adage of never letting a good crisis go to waste.

Bear with me for a minute.

The second “enemy” of republicans, according to John Hirst, is the ‘’scorn for nationalism’’.

Today, issues of nationalism and sovereignty that directly affect the well-being of all Australians are probably one of the most talked about subjects in the world.

I’m talking here about the European sovereign debt crisis, which by the way took a nasty turn for the worse last night with news that even Germany – the so called economic powerhouse of the European Union – had failed to successfully auction a tranche of bond debt.

Without getting into the minute details of the crisis, the root cause of Europe’s troubles is a fundamentally flawed currency union, which saw countries relinquish their sovereign currency for the euro, and relinquish control of monetary policy to the European Central Bank.

At the same time, though, the grouping of nations lacked fiscal union — the model that exists in federations of states such as Australia or the US, where a single central government is largely responsible for the likes of income and corporate tax collection and major recurrent outlays such as welfare.

So what you have got now is struggling, debt laden nations like Greece and Ireland which cannot devalue their currencies (thus making their economies more competitive), cannot lower interest rates and cannot increase money supply. They await the pleasure of Brussels and another emergency hand-out.

It might sound like a long bow to draw in terms of any parallel between the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the republic debate in Australia, but there is – beyond those purely economic – a salutary lesson that all Australians should heed.  And that is — ceding control of your own destiny in any shape can be disastrous when the going gets rough.

That might seem remote in the extreme, but when, not that long ago, Ireland was touted as the world’s miracle economy, the Irish would have laughed at suggestions their membership of the monetary union was a mistake.

But then, prior to November 1975, most Australians would also have scoffed at suggestions that perhaps, just perhaps, we were not that well equipped to deal with any future constitutional crisis.

But people quickly forget these things, and the slow motion train wreck that is Europe (and to be fair, I should note that our lords and masters in Britain had the good sense to stay out of the euro) is a stark reminder of what can go wrong when you hand over one of the reins of constitutional or economic control — no matter how seemingly irrelevant it may seem to day to day life at the time.

Obviously, our relationship with Britain does not involve a common currency, and nor does the Bank of England set Australia’s official interest rates, but it remains the fact that ultimately (and as history has demonstrated) the power to make and break elected governments lies with the throne. Europe should serve as a reminder here.

It would surprise no-one here to learn that after Julia Gillard managed to scratch together a patchwork minority government in the wake of the last election, there were a fair few constitutional lawyers around the traps whose opinions were eagerly sought.

I am not suggesting for a moment we have a government in crisis — after all coalition or minority governments in most western democracies are the norm rather than the exception. And a government on the brink of collapse does not end the year by getting through a carbon pricing package, a mining tax and then managing to insert a large, slippery Queensland rat just where it hurts Tony Abbott the most.

That said, it is still a politically fragile situation, and one that is only a by-election or scandal or two away from a possible shambles — a political impasse that would not be presided over by an elected representative of the Australian people but an agent of the Queen.

The European crisis is very real. A constitutional crisis here is not, but nor is it beyond the realms of possibility.

So in closing, my belief is the best way to promote the advancement of the republican cause is certainly not to play the people (tempting as it may be whenever Prince Phillip opens his mouth), but to leverage off uncertain times; to continually ask the question — if the compost hits the cooler, whether handing ultimate arbitration of the problem over to a non-elected agent of a foreign country is the best model.

That’s what happened in Europe and it has been a tad short of a howling success.

 * reprinted with permission courtesy of The Independent Monthly

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