A Mate for Head of State

Crowning glory would be our own head of state, Canberra Times, 26 March 2014

Walter Scott once wrote: ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead / Who never to himself hath said / This is my own, my native land.’

Alas, these fine words have never been uttered by any Australian head of state about Australia. Under our Constitution, they never could be uttered.

That is because - while no British citizen can ever be Australia’s head of government - only a British citizen can ever be Australia’s head of state.

In 1999, Australia held a referendum. It was a three-cornered contest between bipartisan parliamentary appointment Republicans, direct election Republicans and Monarchists.

As Malcolm Turnbull has pointed out, the monarchists ‘delightedly, if cynically, exploited the division by promising the direct electionists that if the parliamentary model was defeated at a referendum they could have another referendum on a direct election model within a few years’.

We have waited half a generation since then.

Some counsel patience. They argue that the push for an Australian as head of state should wait until King Charles III ascends the throne.

This fundamentally misunderstands the argument for an Australian Republic. Republicans’ quibble is not with Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and their heirs and successors. Each of these individuals has done their jobs diligently.

Indeed, a belief in the Republic does not lessen our respect for them as individuals. In 2012, when Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Canberra, I was pleased to welcome them on the tarmac of Canberra airport (wearing my Australian Republican Movement cufflinks). Respect and politeness for the royal family sits alongside my passionate belief that Australia should have one of our own as head of state.

Last year, Prince William and Kate Middleton welcomed their baby George into the world, and today, at least 800 babies will be born in Australia. I congratulate William, Kate and all their parents. To be a parent is one of the greatest blessings we can receive.

But I cannot for the life of me see why Baby George is better suited than every Australian baby to grow up to be an Australian head of state. The 800 children born in Australia will grow up around gumtrees and sandy beaches. They will call their friends ‘mate’ and barrack for the Baggy Greens, the Wallabies and the Socceroos. Their success in life will not be decided by their surname. If they say they live in a castle, it’ll be because they’re quoting Darryl Kerrigan.

In short, those 800 babies born today will be Australians.  And every one of them should be able to aspire to be our head of state.

Those who disagree with this view sometimes claim that the Governor-General is the head of state.  At best, a contentious, strained protestation. All members of the Australian Parliament swore or affirmed our allegiance to the Queen, not to the Governor-General.

At state dinners visiting Heads of State toast the Queen of Australia. Her image is on our currency. Australian Government websites say: ‘Australia’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.’

The slogan ‘Don’t know? Vote no’ has never been more powerful in Australian public life. Tony Abbott used it when he was campaigning for the monarchy in 1999, and has deployed it relentlessly in recent years, including against a market-based solution to climate change, fibre to the home broadband, and fiscal stimulus to save jobs.

It is a seductively simple line, but one that is more dangerous than ever as Australia grapples with complex challenges.

In the Asian Century, how do we think it looks to our Indonesian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends that we cannot shrug off the anachronism of having a member of the house of Windsor as our head of state? How does it sit with our claimed belief in the ‘fair go’ when the qualification to be our head of state is that one must be British, white and preferably male? Is this really the image we want to project?

In parliament this week, I moved a motion calling on the government to hold a referendum to make Australia a Republic.

In so doing, Australia would make it clear to ourselves and the world that instead of a foreign child in a foreign land, we trust an Australian child to grow up and be an Australian head of state. Such a child will be more appropriate for us, more representative of us and more worthy of us ­– a child who knows their own, native land in their living, Australian soul.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.