Australia: 'cultural cringe' and the crown

Symbols are often important in the lives of individuals and the affairs of nations. They underscore past commitments, acknowledge current goals, and point to the future. Australia faces an important decision later this year when it votes on whether it should change its Constitution and become a republic, altering its long ties to the United Kingdom.

This vote is, to be sure, largely symbolic. If Australians vote to make their nation a republic it won't lead to sweeping changes in the structure of government. The practical effect would be to select an Australian as head of state rather than Queen Elizabeth. While she has no role in day-to-day affairs, the British monarch retains certain reserve powers as head of state.

If Australians vote to become a republic it would signal a new self-confidence for a continent often ignored as a remote outpost of the British Empire.

The vote provides an opportunity for Australia to affirm itself as a truly independent and unique nation. Voting for a republic and deciding that an Australian will serve as head of state by 2001 would be a powerful way for the country to commemorate a century of nationhood and renew itself for the 21st century.

Australia was founded by the English as a penal colony in 1788, and a nation slowly emerged from this inauspicious beginning. More than 100,000 convicts and generations of free settlers arrived Down Under and spread across the continent, establishing six colonies. The colonies became states and were federated in 1901, creating the Commonwealth of Australia. The nation remains a constitutional monarchy. The queen's executive powers are exercised by a governor general whom she appoints upon the advice of Australia's prime minister. The prime minister is the head of government.

The quiet discussion about becoming a republic simmered for decades but boiled over into a serious national debate 25 years ago when a constitutional crisis erupted. Controversial, charismatic Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed in a budget crisis by the queen's governor general who replaced Whitlam with the leader of the opposition, Malcom Fraser. This abrupt move caused anger and resentment that still lingers for many Australians.

The drive for the republic gained speed in the 1990s, accelerating in '96 during President Clinton's visit to Australia. At a formal dinner, Prime Minister John Howard offered an effusive toast to the president. In an absurd but scrupulous adherence to diplomatic protocol, Mr. Clinton could not return Howard's generous words before he first toasted Queen Elizabeth, half a world away. The exchange, frequently broadcast on Australian TV, was, for many Australians, an embarrassing and defining moment that underscored how archaic the current arrangement is.

Australia held a constitutional convention on the issue, and delegates agreed in principle to embrace the idea. The convention said the Parliament should select a president who would serve as the head of state. A referendum will take place later this year to confirm the convention's decision and must be approved by the majority of the voters and by majorities in four of the six states. Most polls show a majority do favor the idea of a republic, but the referendum will turn on precisely how the issue is framed.

The republic debate has stirred great interest, with sharp philosophical differences evident between republicans and monarchists and within each camp.

The republicans make a powerful case for changing the Constitution. They note the queen is not an Australian, has spent little time in the country, and is not an appropriate national symbol for a nation markedly different from the UK in size, geography, temperament and aspirations.

"Does it still make sense for our parliamentarians and judges to swear allegiance not to Australia but to the queen?" the Australian Republican Movement asks in its campaign statement.

Republicans argue that most of the 54 British Commonwealth nations have their own heads of state. Replacing the queen with a president wouldn't compel Australia to leave the Commonwealth.

Supporters of the status quo argue that Australia is the world's sixth oldest continuing democracy, and the current governing arrangement works well in fostering an economically productive and socially cohesive society. They say shifting to a republic is more complex than is often acknowledged - requiring at least 70 constitutional changes and complicating the intricate federal-state system.

"A republic will not improve unemployment, the environment, or our national debt," the monarchists' campaign statement says.

These arguments can't be completely dismissed. Switching to a republic will be more complex than many assert and may not provide material improvements in the quality of daily life. But the case for the republic is far more compelling.

The drive to make the change, as a potent symbol of national renewal, is healthy and deserves encouragement. Australians are a flexible, talented, and tolerant people who have created a good and successful country with an unmatched quality of life. But the nation often displays a lack of confidence. Academics use the term "cultural cringe" to describe Australia's penchant for failing to assert its traditions and accomplishments.

As a republic, Australia would consolidate its national identity and confidently confront future challenges.

* John Shaw is a reporter for Market News International. He studied at the University of New South Wales in Australia in the early 1980s and recently spent several weeks there.

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