You would be forgiven for not realising it, but last Sunday was the inaugural A Mate For Head Of State Day. The republican movement stuttered into life with a bold new message to try and ignite popular interest in dumping the Queen for “a mate”, that is, one of us. The new slogan is certainly a powerful argument for change – to a better slogan. A less awkwardly lame slogan. Preferably one that doesn’t rhyme.
Don’t get me wrong I’m a committed republican. The ridiculousness of the Governor-General’s role, the Union Jack on our flag, and in particular any reminder about Princess Diana irritate me profoundly. In fact,I supported the ARM even when Malcolm Turnbull was in charge of it.
And the recent ridiculousness over Princess Mary’s baby’s christening just served to remind us all of how odious the fuss made over monarchy is. The fact that some people are born into unimaginable wealth and privilege and some people aren’t is something that we, as a society, should aim to reverse, not celebrate. And when we do celebrate it, it can create a monster. Like Paris Hilton.
But if we’re going to win this argument, we need something less embarrassing than “A mate for head of state”. For starters, it sounds extremely bloky – it’s not surprising to learn that Peter Fitzsimons thought it up, possibly thinking of getting one of his old Wallaby mates into Yarralumla. (Actually, John Howard would probably go for that idea.) And as the day’s organiser Anne Henderson denies it, (same link)many people think it sounds gender-specific. To my mind, it sounds like is a Singo ad campaign from the 80s, like “You oughta be congratulated” or something. The only use for the slogan I can think of is if the first candidate for President was Bob Hawke.
Henderson argues that the republican movement needs to focus on the idea of ‘one of us’, and get away from all the ‘sophistry’ and debate about models that consumed the last discussion. That’s a pretty good idea. So why not say ‘one of us’ instead of ‘a mate’? Frankly, when that word is used by members of the inner-city intelligentsia behind this push, it just sounds awkward.
Besides, do we really want ‘a mate’ for head of state? Someone you’d go for a beer with down the pub? The most popular Governor-General in recent years was Sir William Deane, who I can’t imagine anyone calling ‘mate’. In fact, judges spend their entire careers trying to distance themselves from seeming like ‘one of us’. But he was enormously popular simply because he consistently acted with enormous integrity and humanity, and his wisdom and compassion frequently shamed other members of the political elite. Calling for a ‘mate’ seems to send the wrong message about the kind of person we want. It cheapens the office, really.
I think the thing to focus on is the idea of dumping the monarchy and Britain. The Queen is popular, but Prince Charles isn’t, so Marr’s point that the referendum may need to wait until after she goes is probably correct. (Amusingly enough, Charles once offered to serve as Governor-General, and was outraged when we turned down his generous offer.) I reckon a simple poster with a goofy photo of Charles with a Union Jack, and a big slogan saying “King of Australia?” would be more than enough to rally support behind the republican cause. Better yet, a photo of Camilla with “Queen of Australia?” After all, the ARM’s membership soared even when they announced their engagement. Imagine the coronation!
The biggest problem with the republic is that seems at once radical and meaningless. It’s a huge change in constitutional terms that bears virtually no impact on everyday life. Changing whose head is on the coins won’t mean more of them in anyone’s pockets. So for this change to happen, there needs to appear to be something wrong. The ‘ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ mentality is strong in this country, and it won’t be overcome by the elite who care about this kind of thing talking about a ‘mate’ because they think that’s the kind of language that ordinary Australians understand.
Republicans need to do more than this. We need to get the whole of Australia feeling the sense of disgust we feel when we remember how closely our constitution entwines us with England, and when we see the Union Jack in the dominant position on our flag. We also need to unlock the fundamental sense of Australian resentment towards toffy Englishness that is the key to the passion of all Ashes series. These are archaic, inappropriate symbols and constitutional rules for an independent country that loves to distance itself from Britain in other aspects of life, and we need to make that tension apparent.
Hereditary monarchy, with its trappings of wealth and privilege, is a fundamentally British but totally un-Australian notion. The sooner republicans can convince the rest of the population there is something rotten at the heart of our constitution, the more likely it is that we’ll actually support it.