Pub test: the republic
First things first, say punters in Matt Thistlethwaite’s electorate
Labor’s spokesperson on the issue of a republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, probably doesn’t drink at the Pagewood Hotel too often, but they know of him down there. The infamous pub is in the geographic heart of his huge Kingsford Smith electorate in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs, and opinions on the republic are decidedly mixed. In fact, if it were an electoral booth, this pub would vote No if a Labor government proposed an Australian head of state, as Opposition leader Bill Shorten recommitted, on Sunday, to doing. The issue has been simmering away this week, starting with a Newspoll showing [$] that support for a republic is at a 25-year low, and marked by a backlash from Indigenous leaders who argue that reconciliation and a voice to parliament must come first.
Labor announced the plan on Sunday, committing to a non-binding plebiscite – not a postal survey – that would cost up to $160 million based on the estimates for the same-sex marriage vote. To avoid arguments over whether to opt for a directly elected president, or one appointed by the parliament, the first question asked would be something straightforward like: “Do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state?” Shorten first proposed such a plebiscite in July 2017, and has since appointed Thistlethwaite as shadow assistant minister for an Australian head of state, and now confirmed the voting method.
The portfolio may be a poisoned chalice. Polls this year have shown declining support from 50 per cent in April to just 40 per cent now. The recent visit of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle seems to have boosted support for the monarchy here.
Then there’s been criticism from Indigenous leaders, like Megan Davis in this powerful essay in The Monthly this year, or Thomas Mayor in a speech on Tuesday, who argued that after last year’s rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its proposal for a Voice to Parliament, there is no patience left for constitutional reform that sidelines Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the unfinished business of recognition and reconciliation. “I’d be prepared to organise to see a republic plebiscite go down,” said Mayor, “because it’s a real slap in the face without a first nations voice coming first.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the locals at the Pagewood agree, although for different reasons. Stephanie, in her early 50s, is a member of the Labor Party and says she’s a friend of Thistlethwaite. But she objects to the cost of the plebiscite, and the flow-on costs – like changes to military insignia – if a referendum were to finally succeed. More important to her is the erosion of Medicare, compounded by the recent discovery that from November 1 the costs of imaging her bad knees were no longer covered. A dollar spent on the republic is a dollar not spent on Medicare. She voted No in 1999 and probably would not vote if a plebiscite was held. “I’d remain neutral and sit on the fence I think.”
Barry, 58, is a classic if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it voter who believes the question of the head of state is “rubbish” and fears the republic could lead to a dictatorship. He is not a monarchist, and reckons unshaven, no-tied Harry is a “rather inferior representation of the Crown”.
David, 66, has gone from being a member of the Labor Party, to the Liberals, and has now joined the Australian Conservatives. He thinks Australian Republic Movement chair Peter FitzSimons is a “divisive person”, and is also unimpressed by Prince Harry. “I wouldn’t call myself a monarchist [but] the Queen has absolutely no influence virtually at all here and the system works okay. Then you change it to a president – well, who decides, you know?” He doesn’t think politicians can be trusted with the decision, but isn’t sure the public should do it, either: “Well, then you’ll have Kylie Minogue as the president.” He’ll be voting No. “I give it Buckley’s chance myself.”
John, 62, is angriest. “I’d vote No,” he says. “The system we’ve got now works pretty well, and I’ve got a very, very low opinion of politicians and political parties.” He voted for Hawke and Keating, then Howard, then Rudd for a change, but something snapped forever with the Rudd-Gillard coup, and he has been voting informally since. He thinks Pauline Hanson is a “nut” but has yet to make up his mind about Mark Latham. “Just to give you a precis … 40 years ago, [Australia] was a reasonable country, you had the Liberal Party going for private enterprise, you had the Labor Party more of a socialist, social-conscience party. But now it just seems to me that once [the politicians] get down in Canberra the only fucking thing they want to do is look after themselves. They don’t listen to the people, they don’t respect the people. All they do is play their own political machinations and games, and I don’t think they’ve got much time for the Australian people, I really don’t.”
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
Labor’s spokesperson on the issue of a republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, probably doesn’t drink at the Pagewood Hotel too often, but they know of him down there. The infamous pub is in the geographic heart of his huge Kingsford Smith electorate in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs, and opinions on the republic are decidedly mixed. In fact, if it were an electoral booth, this pub would vote No if a Labor government proposed an Australian head of state, as Opposition leader Bill Shorten recommitted, on Sunday, to doing. The issue has been simmering away this week, starting with a Newspoll showing [$] that support for a republic is at a 25-year low, and marked by a backlash from Indigenous leaders who argue that reconciliation and a voice to...