What the hell is going on in this country’s collective psyche?
For those following public opinion polls on the monarchy, the past couple of weeks have been confusing to say the least. But they sure are revealing.
A Neilsen poll last week found that 51% of respondents did not think Australia should become a republic.
What seems to have surprised most people, myself included, is that support is weakest with young people. Just 28% of 18-24 year olds currently support a republic, with 60% against and the rest undecided.
It comes on the back of a ReachTEL poll published in the Fairfax press in February which showed similar lack of public support, particularly among ‘Gen Y’.
These numbers are all pretty much on par with a Fairfax poll from December 1976. Plus ça change…
And yet, at exactly the same time last week, Neilsen also found that only 35% of Australians supported the return of knights and dames, with 50% against. This is almost the exact proportions as the monarchy poll – only the reverse of what you’d expect. Early polls put the opposition to knights and dames as high as 70%.
There is probably some skew in this data, given the current visit by the royal baby, but the overall sentiment is pretty clear: Royals, yay; Royalty nay.
For me, this is the perfect illustration of the great paradox in the republican movement.
If Australia is ever going to break (symbolically, since all the real breaking is pretty much done) with the UK, then there needs to be a groundswell of modern nationalistic support.
One problem with this is that the younger generation, which leans further to the political left, are inclined to see overt nationalism as somewhat bad manners. Perhaps the epitome of the ‘progressive monarchist’ – an oxymoron almost anywhere else in the world – is Justice Michael Kirby.
But there is a bigger problem. Australians (like most citizens of most countries) really do believe we are the best country in the world. We’re the ‘lucky country’.
Compared with our peers we are the less stuffy Britain, the less crazy America, the brasher and bolder Canada, and the bigger, richer, New Zealand. We certainly see ourselves as an independent nation on the world stage.
But inherently bound up in all that is the feeling of looking around and not seeing another system of government we like.
If Australia is the best, we collectively ask, and all of the other countries seem dysfunctional or kooky, why should we change?
This is the paradox of the republic. To make a change we need huge nationalistic pride – but that same pride inevitably leads us to conclude that nothing needs to change.
The same sense of independence and self-worth that makes us think knights and dames are quaintly archaic, is the same that makes us proud of our stable constitution and government.
Cal Samson is a second-year JD student, and member of the Australian Republican Movement.