Monday, June 08, 2015

Queensland's last Queen's birthday holiday

Queensland looks like becoming a little less Queensland with the proposed move of the Queen’s Birthday holiday next year and no ‘Sirs and Dames’ announced today in the honours list. Does this demonstrate the ebbing of monarchy in Australia? 

Today the Queen’s Birthday is being celebrated by a public holiday in all states and territories except WA, which celebrates it on 28 September. This will be the last year Queensland continues with this date.

After the election of the LNP Newman Government in 2012, until its shock electoral loss in January 2015, there was a steady output of ideological revisionism aimed at bolstering the concept of monarchy in Queensland.

While the Queensland Government is responsible for setting the dates for all state-wide public holidays, there are only two – Labour Day and the Queen’s birthday – that have the potential to be changed. During 2011, there had been widespread consultation by the Bligh Labor Government on changing the public holiday system in Queensland and it was agreed that in 2012 Labour Day would remain in May and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday would move from June to the first weekend in October, while retaining a one-off Queen’s Jubilee public holiday in June 2012. This would be the last June Queen’s Birthday long weekend.

At the time, Premier Anna Bligh said all public holidays marked significant dates and were punctuated with official ceremonies or significance, except for the Queen’s Birthday which, unlike other public holidays, is not celebrated on a date that is particularly meaningful. She was right. Other public holidays are on dates of significance. Australia Day (26 January). Tick. Anzac Day (25 April). Tick. Labour Day (1 May). Tick. Easter. Christmas. Tick. Tick. Queen’s Birthday…errrr? It’s not celebrated on the correct date and there is no official ceremony or community engagement around it.

All this was thrown out the window in 2012 when legislation was passed through the Queensland Parliament by the LNP Newman Government to move the 2013 Labour Day public holiday from the historically traditional 1 May to the first Monday in October and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday back to its previous June timing The change in attitude towards the public holiday timetabling suggested the Newman Government was determined to take a conservative monarchical stand.

Newman Government Attorney-General and ardent royalist Jarrod Bleijie did all he could to bring the monarchy back into the centre of Queensland public life. Thankfully, he is now sitting on the Opposition benches.
With the election of the Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland it appears the language of monarchy may be beginning to become less dominant. One of the first changes the new Queensland government implemented was changing the Queen’s Birthday public holiday for 2016 to the first Monday in October and restoring the Labour Day public holiday to the first Monday in May.

Labour Day has special significance for Queensland because of its links to events in the labour movement of the late nineteenth century. The first weekend in May has been of major cultural and historical significance for the union movement in Queensland ever since the state’s first Labour Day procession and one of the first in the world took place in Barcaldine on 1 May 1891.

The Labour Day public holiday has been celebrated by workers in Queensland on the first Monday in May since 1901 and is deeply ingrained in Queensland’s history as a day to recognise workers’ rights. With the recent Palaszczuk Government decision now events being planned for 2016 to mark the 125th anniversary of the 1891 Shearer’s Strike and first Labour Day held in May in Queensland will be able to go ahead.

On 27 March 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott restored imperial honours for Australians. The re-establishment of the Imperial honours was done quickly and without consultation by Tony Abbott with his Federal front bench, let alone the first two recipients. At the time, the PM said he believed the awarding of ‘Sis and Dames’ was:
"... an important grace note in our national life."

For the first time since 1986, “pre-eminent” Australians were to be honoured as Knights and Dames in the Order of Australia. However, when Prime Minister Abbott named outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce a dame and her successor General Peter Cosgrove a knight the satirists had a field day.

Australian historian James Curran wrote in the Canberra Times, 31 March 2014 that
In the symbolic landscape of Australian civic culture, Tony Abbott’s restoration last week of Australian knights and dames perhaps stands as one of the most pompous, pretentious, nostalgic and self-indulgent prime ministerial decisions in a generation.”

When Prime Minister Abbott introduced the archaic British aristocratic titles above the Australian national honours system, Australians flooded the Australian Republican Movement with such overwhelming numbers the Australian Republican Movement server was on the verge of crashing. David Morris, then National Director of the Australian Republican Movement, stated at the time:

"Since Mr Abbott’s announcement about 'knights and dames', our annualised membership growth rate has spiked to about 5000%. Many are re-joining, having previously been members. Many are people who say they voted for Mr Abbott’s Government but are dismayed by his personal decision, apparently made only in consultation with the Queen."

Imperial honours are divisive and are out of touch with modern, multicultural, egalitarian Australia. Perhaps another own goal by the Prime Minister may be good for the movement towards an Australian republic.

But just when you thought Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision in 2014 to restore Imperial knights and dames couldn't become any more bizarre, he used the 2015 Australia Day's honour list to award a knighthood to the Queen’s consort, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (retd). One is currently the Chair of the Council for the Order of Australia, and the other … well, the husband of the monarch. As a palace spokeswoman said:

"Knights and dames in the Order of Australia are approved by the Queen on recommendation of the prime minister. We wouldn't comment further on the process."

Tony Abbott defended his selection of Prince Philip as a ‘Captain’s Pick’. Grandfather Royal, Prince Philip, apparently was ‘picked’ by Tony Abbott to be honoured by Australia with an AK for his contribution to Australia throughout the Queen's 62-year reign and his long life of service and dedication. Special mention was also made of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards in Australia, which he said had positively influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Australians. The overwhelming chorus of outrage and stunned disbelief coming from throughout Australia not only had federal LNP politicians distancing themselves from Prime Minister Abbott at the speed of light but almost brought about his dismissal from office.

It was crystal clear that the message from the Australian people was if our identity today is Australian, then surely our national honours should be thoroughly Australian. It seems that even Tony Abbott heard this. Even dyed-in-the-wool monarchist, previous National Director for the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, perhaps even still British citizen, Tony Abbott received the message and skipped appointing any Knights or Dames in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Perhaps though this may have been because he was ‘pipped at the post’ in appointing his current favourite royal as a Knight, Prince Harry.

At the time I’d suggested that as one of the only two pre-1985 AK’s living was Prince Charles and, with the provision that a knight can be a non-citizen, that good money could be laid on Princes William or Harry receiving a knighthood in 2015 for having turned up in Australia a few times. It appears Prince Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Tony Abbott’s favourite spare-heir as a ‘Sir’ in a private ceremony. With the birth of Prince George, and now Princess Charlotte, Prince Harry moves from spare-heir to sir-plus.

Australia today is one of the world’s great nations, with a bright future that must be 100 per cent in the hands of the Australian people. We are ready to move on from our colonial past and become a fully independent nation with fully Australian national institutions, including our own Head of State. 

We have our own identity as Australians. The Royals represent Britain, but cannot represent us or unite us as Australians. Australians believe in freedom and equal opportunity, not that some are born to rule over others.

What has been confirmed with the non-appointment of any ‘Sirs and Dames’ is that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has clearly received the message there is no place in contemporary Australia for British aristocratic titles. To have done differently today may have resulted in the loss of his own position. This is a reflection of the strength of republican values in contemporary Australia.

It is time to set a new agenda for Australia focussed on everyday Australian families not royal families. There is an ideological war happening in Australia skirmishing around the place of families in our society. In Queensland the changes around the dates for Labour Day and the Queen’s Birthday public holidays is a visible manifestation of this war.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Paul Keating's republican vision - 20 years on

Today, 7 June 1995 is the 20th anniversary of former Prime Minister Paul Keating's “Australian Republic The Way Forward” speech to Federal Parliament, which laid out his vision for Australia’s republican future.

Few prime ministers have provoked such strong public reactions as Paul Keating. Even fewer have presided over such dramatic changes to Australia’s economy and society. A self-professed ‘big picture’ person, Keating had his eye directed towards the future and not the past, to Australia and not over his shoulder back to Britain.

In his speech to the National Library Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Dinner on 13 August 1993, Keating stated:

If we can't imagine we can't determine our future, we can't act, we can't change.  And we'll fall behind”.

Republicanism emerged as an issue of major public debate during the 1990s. Australians have long discussed the idea of replacing the constitutional monarchy with a republican constitution, even during the 19th century before federation in 1901. In the 1960s republican activity was restarted by authors Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne. At the same time the student magazine Oz lampooned the monarchy. However, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the appointed Governor-General on 11 November 1975 outraged many Australians.

The 1975 constitutional crisis drew attention to Australia's constitutional arrangements and since those turbulent days, several notable Australians declared a commitment to an Australian republic. There were many Town Hall meetings and calls to ‘maintain the rage’.  During these years the Australian Labor Party edged towards declaring itself for the republic. This it eventually did in 1982.

In the 1990s the popular definition of ‘republic’ was simply the removal of the British monarch as Head of State. This was seen as the last step in Australia’s political development. On 7 July 1991, the Australian Republican Movement was established, with the author Tom Keneally as the Inaugural Chair. The Australian Republican Movement was formed as an organisation with the single goal of Australia becoming a republic no later than 1 January 2001.

In December 1991 Paul Keating was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia after deposing Bob Hawke as leader of the federal Australian Labor Party.

As Keating came to power in the early 1990s, his support for the republic and issues of national identity was widely known and he continued to campaign for it throughout his time in office and beyond.
By February 1992, Prime Minister Keating was calling for a new Australian flag, stating that the presence of the Union Jack in the corner of the flag was appropriate for a colony, not for an independent nation like Australia. He also gave a speech during the Queen's visit to Australia in 1992 in which he referred to Australia’s outlook being “necessarily independent”, and around the same time he announced Cabinet's decision to amend the Citizenship Act 1948 (Cth) and the Oath of Allegiance to remove all references to the Queen.

Under Keating, the republic was part of a progressive policy approach toward the Australian national image,which also included reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In April 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating appointed the Republic Advisory Committee, led by Malcom Turnbull to examine options on how to achieve a republic with minimal constitutional change.

Under Keating, the republic was part of a progressive policy approach toward the Australian national image, which also included reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Republic Advisory Committee published its report in 1993, in which it stated that

a republic is achievable without threatening Australia's cherished democratic institutions”.

On 7 June 1995 the Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, formally announced his support for an Australian Republic in a televised speech to Parliament entitled "An Australian Republic The Way Forward". This was the culmination of nearly a decade of discussion on constitutional change. In the course of his speech to the House of Representatives he announced his government’s intention to transform the Commonwealth of Australia from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. His only concession to the European and British past was

that the Australian republic  retain the name “Commonwealth of Australia”.
Commonwealth” is a word of ancient lineage which reflects our popular tradition and our Federal system”, he said.

Prime Minister Keating’s 7 June 1995  media release stated

"It is the view of the Government that Australia's head of state should be an Australian and that Australia should be a republic by the year 2001. I announced in the Parliament today the Government's approach to achieving the transition to an Australian republic. The proposals involve minimal change to Australia's system of government and institutions.

This is the final step to becoming a fully independent nation. It will permit the full and unambiguous expression of Australia's national identity.

The Government is releasing its proposals as a focus for further public discussion and debate. All Australians should participate in this important national debate.”

Keating proposed a minimalist plan for a republic, concentrating on the single task of installing an Australian as Head of State, one with the same role as the governor-general.  The intended transformation was targeted to occur before the centennial celebrations in 2001.  The President of the Commonwealth of Australia would be nominated by the prime minister after consultation with all parties and elected by a two-thirds majority at a joint sitting of Parliament.  The reserve, or discretionary, powers of the governor-general, including the power to dismiss a prime minister, would be transferred to the president without being spelled out in the Constitution.  All the other features of the Australian Constitution would remain unchanged.  The States would be allowed to determine their own constitutional arrangements and to retain a link with the Crown if they wished, and if the monarch consented.

On the John Laws radio program on the morning of the speech, Keating justified his minimalist position with reference to the Westminster parliamentary systems foundation in a representative democracy:

What you have got in Australia is a representative democracy. You have got each MP coming
from their constituency to Parliament and you can see how the Parliamentary system responds to public opinion. It is a diffuse parliamentary system in which no person is elected (at large). For instance, I was not elected Prime Minister. I was elected a member of my Party. My Party appointed me as Leader and the Governor-General appointed me as Prime Minister. I am not standing here speaking to you as the elected Prime Minister. Nor are any Ministers elected. The obvious point in that is if one doesn't remain relevant, one changes. The same with Opposition Leaders. Just take the Opposition. They have had now three leaders in this term of Parliament because the other two were no longer relevant or they thought useful. The same goes for the Government. You saw in the last Parliament, Mr Hawke removed by the Caucus where I was installed. I could be removed myself.
In other words, there is a healthy assessment by a large group representing the community in a representative way from each constituency which gives a real living feel to our democracy day in and
day out.”

John Laws responded by saying the general public has a cynical view of politics and

tend to feel that there is room for manipulation within the Parliament.”

Within this cynicism is founded the position for the direct election model for an Australian Head of State.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention helped to strengthen the debate for a republic as a major issue in the late 1990s. However, the debate became caught up in an argument about the best selection method for the Australian Head of State and on this crucial issue republicans divided.
“The Way Forward” speech was the moment when distinct camps formed over proposed republican models and the division between republican models began. Paul Keating’s minimalist position with appointment of an Australian Head of State by 2/3 majority of parliament was to be the position that would be presented at the referendum on 6 November 1999.

In March 1995, the alternative model to the Keating government’s two-thirds majority parliamentary vote was backed by the Federal Leader of the National Party, Tim Fischer – that is, a ceremonial President elected by popular vote.  In the process Fischer added legitimacy to a republic, and his comments were a tacit acceptance that a republic, sooner or later, was inevitable.  Fischer’s entry into the republican issue, along with Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and a former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen, who proposed that upon Bill Hayden’s retirement as governor-general in 1996 that Keating should allow the Parliament to vote in his successor rather than choose his own candidate, meant that the conservative side of politics was now involved in a genuine dialogue about the republic.

This bipartisan development gave the republic a growing air of legitimacy however in proposing an alternative, direct election model the field was opened for dissent and argument over republican political models. In the absence of a proper process to resolve those differences, Australians rejected the 6 November 1999 referendum, 55-45 per cent.

No political leader has subsequently emerged who wants to find common ground amongst Australian’s with respect to the different republican models and to break the logjam. This is where it has remained frozen for more than a decade.

In 1995, Paul Keating’s views on the republic were clear:

Our Head of State has to be one of us”.

He re-emphasised during a Centenary of Federation speech on 30 November 2000:

I will be arguing as strongly as possible for the preservation of the Westminster system of a Cabinet headed by a Prime Minister and drawn from the Parliament rather than a popularly elected head of state."

There are three main models. The first is sometimes called the ‘Bipartisan Model’ and was the proposal put to the Australian people in the November 1999 republican referendum. Under this model the Head of State’s appointment must be approved by a 2/3 majority of federal parliament. To its proponents, the appeal of this model is that it upholds the principle of continuity, and is also more likely to produce a non-party political, unifying figure as Head of State.

The second is the ‘Direct Election Model’ that proposes that any citizen with the required amount of nominees may run for Head of State in a direct vote of the Australian people. The reserve powers would be codified along the lines set out in the Republic Advisory Committee Report of 1993. The list of nominees would be unmediated by parliament.

Finally, the ‘McGarvie Model’ proposes the most minimal change, where the Prime Minister alone selects who should be the Head of State. This model is likely to appeal to those who think the change should be as minimal as possible, thereby (it is argued) preserving as much as possible of our current successful system.

Twenty years after Paul Keating’s “The Way Forward” speech proposed the establishment of a parliamentary republic model there still appears dissent over a political model for an Australian republic.

This seems a very long time.

Perhaps a way to break the logjam is to have a national plebiscite asking Australian's simply, “Do you want Australia to become a republic?"

If this is answered in the affirmative only then start having a national conversation on political models.

We need to follow the advice of former Prime Minister Paul Keating and first determine what we want our future to look like, and then we can act to bring about the change required.

If we don’t, we’ll fall behind.