On a Monday evening in Canberra, weary, suited bureaucrats are making their journeys home along pavements strewn with autumnal leaf litter. The capital turns 100 next year, old enough to have filled in most of the gaps and acquired a settled feel. But at an off-campus pub near the Australian National University, the talk tonight is of unfinished business.
“It’s going to be a more intimate affair than we hoped,” frets Justin Ryan, local convener of the Australian Republican Movement. Student republicans were meant to be meeting David Morris, the movement’s new national director, but the emails inviting members never reached them. So Morris spends his evening with stalwarts like Dorothy Collings, who’s belonged to the movement since it started in 1991. “I think we’ve got a good one here,” says the silvery matriarch, sizing up Morris approvingly. The boss’s boyish good looks and mild manners make him the sort every mother loves, but his message will confront some of the faithful. He wants no more personal attacks on the Queen, considers monarchists to be just as patriotic as republicans and thinks it might take a decade of building consensus before Australia is ready to reconsider becoming a republic. And that’s assuming he can get the issue back on the public agenda by the middle of this decade, which all agree will be no easy task.
Morris wants to situate the republican debate squarely within a contemporary narrative of a confident, proud Australia that has grown up and is ready to look after itself. But, as becomes clear at the local branch meeting, some members reckon getting stuck into monarchists would not only feel better, it would also be more likely to get media attention and sustain the movement’s base. Morris says he’s not averse to criticising the current system, but counters that preaching to the converted won’t be enough.
It’s a view shared by his old friend, the historian and author, David Day. “We saw what happened when the republic issue became too closely identified with the Labor Party. There’s no point, nor any need to get half the country offside on this. It can only succeed if it’s bipartisan. David’s the sort of guy who can pull that off.”
In the mid 1990s, Day, then a professor at University College Dublin, and Morris, then a young diplomat, staged a week-long expo of Australian arts, business and history in the Irish capital. “It wouldn’t have happened without his help. I was impressed by his calm political nous, and contacts. It sounds strange now, but I thought at the time, ‘This guy would make a great prime minister.’”
Instead, Morris went on to work as a ministerial staffer for Labor governments in Tasmania and New South Wales, before becoming the head of government relations at the University of Sydney. It was the international engagement and coalition-building aspects of the job that he loved most. Previously, on foreign postings, he’d found that Australia’s queer constitutional arrangements, with the Queen as head of state and the Governor-General acting as her representative or even standing in for her, confused people abroad and undermined Australia’s efforts to sell itself as a smart, modern nation.
Now 48, Morris has the restless air of a man who has come to accept that he belongs only in one place, and must therefore improve it. A father of two who lives in Sydney’s inner west, he has given up a steady job for what political insiders regard as a hopeless cause.
No longer a member of any political party, he counts senior Liberals as people he’s worked with on a range of projects, and the old Labor links mean he knows how government works. On this trip, he meets Shawn Lambert, a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s office, and is forging lines of communication with Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and the Greens. Realistically, he acknowledges the lack of leadership on the issue among politicians. Julia Gillard is on record as saying nothing will happen until the Queen dies.
The alternative – re-energising the republican constituency from the ground up – seems a gargantuan task. Yet Morris exudes a patient, infectious optimism, and opinion polls suggest the issue is far more popular than the current crop of political leaders. “It’s an easier sell than the carbon tax,” quips David Day.
The only person under 35 at the Canberra meet and greet, a web designer named Julian Smith, appears to have walked in off the street, but quickly warms to the topic. He voted ‘no’ in the 1999 referendum but has recently returned from abroad fired up by the need for a “renovation” of Australian political culture.
Were enough Australians to see a republic as the vehicle for such change, politicians might well jump on the bandwagon. As for the question of a preferred model – the issue that nixed the 1999 tilt – the ARM is now officially agnostic on whether an Australian head of state should be elected by politicians or by the people.
The goal for now is a non-binding national plebiscite that asks simply whether Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state. When that question is posed, Morris believes it will be approved resoundingly, triggering a series of similar votes in which the public can express its views on the most suitable model. Only then should the final question be framed and put to the people as a referendum.
Constitutional change is rarely fast or easy in Australia, but it does happen. Morris expects social media, from GetUp! to Twitter, may help. By the time Charles and Camilla descend later this year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne of Australia and six other nations, the movement may just be getting its mojo back, for the first time in more than a decade.
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