As you return to work after the Queen's Birthday long weekend, take a moment to reflect on how this holiday looks to the rest of the world. What message does Australia’s continuing attachment to the monarchy send to bemused tourists, international students and overseas business partners?
Australian republicanism has never really gone away. Despite the setback of the 1999 referendum, there remain hardy souls who continue to campaign for an Australian head of state. Even the current frosty environment, where the Prime Minister is a former executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, has not stopped the Republican Movement from trying to establish frail shoots again.
The Australian Republican Movement held a forum earlier this month in Melbourne and asked me to speak about Australia's identity and how it is viewed in Asia. I was surprised to find that international perceptions of Australia are a significant issue for a number of republicans.
Attendees noted the incongruity of Australia being tied to Britain – the power of the last century – when the issue of our time is relations with the US and China. I cheekily suggested that if Australians were choosing an overseas head of state now they might consider selecting one from the US or China (and wouldn't that be an interesting referendum?). However, the wider issue is about how Australia views itself and, in turn, is viewed internationally.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus opened the forum with a clear call to arms for the republican cause. One common-sense comment he made bears repeating: 'Britishness is no longer the defining feature of the Australian national identity.' As Melba Marginson of the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition pointed out, Australia is now a country where almost 50% of the population was born overseas or is a child of someone who was born overseas. The problem for Australia is that the current constitutional arrangements for Australia's head of state suggest that Britishness is still at the core of national identity. This is a problem when Australia presents itself on the international stage.
The organisation I represent, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, has its own experience of separating itself from the mother country. The AIIA was established 90 years ago as a branch of the London-based Chatham House, at a time of comparative British power.
The AIIA separated 80 years ago with the mission of promoting public understanding of international affairs in Australia. The AIIA spent its early years arguing that Australia needed an independent foreign policy rather than just being party to imperial policy (at that stage, Australia had no department of external affairs). Over the following decades, the AIIA became a voice that pushed for engagement with Asia. Most recently, the AIIA was involved in community engagement for the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.
While I wouldn't say that the republic issue is a major one for Australia's international relations – it would be seen more as a peculiarity or historical anomaly – it is part of the broader issue of how Australia presents itself internationally.
Australia sometimes experiences difficult relationships in the region due to a perception of it being subsidiary to other powers. For example, Australia has to work to get many Indonesians to see Australia as more than the local branch representative of 'the West'. There's a similar attitude from some Indians who might see Australia as a weaker (and thus kickable) version of the UK or US. So any indication that Australia sees itself in some sort of 'Anglosphere' grouping detracts from the work being put in to presenting Australia as fully part of the region. For the big issues in international relations, it usually isn't helpful for Australia to look like it lacks independence. So while Australia will never lose anything as tangible as a trade deal because of its constitutional arrangements, a change – if it eventually won the support of the Australian people – would be helpful in presenting Australia as an independent actor in the region and beyond.
And in case you think these symbolic issues aren't noticed, just look at Australia's successful bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. One of the factors noted by former foreign minister Bob Carr and by others involved in the bid is how often those they were trying to convince would mention former Prime Minister Rudd's apology to Indigenous Australians. It was known; it was noticed; it was helpful.
If Australia ever decides to become a republic, this will also be noticed and will have an impact on Australia's image overseas.
Photo by Flickr user Canned Muffins.