Converging Paths: Canada and Australia vs. The Monarchy

Key note address by Greg Barns, Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000 - 2002 and National Campaign Director of the 1999 referendum for an Australian head of state - Toronto, June 17, 2003

Thank you Tom, Randall, Susan

Congratulations on your first anniversary - I hope you don’t have too many more because once you achieve your goal of a Canadian Head of State you can disband!

The great thing about the cause of republicanism in Australia, New Zealand and Canada is that we collectively have history on our side. The end of the British monarchy in our countries is inevitable and it is only a question of time before each of our nations finally grounds sovereignty firmly in our people.

In the case of Canada it seems to an outsider utterly anachronistic that anyone should think that the British monarchy should have any place in this country. Canada has led the world in developing a comprehensive system of human rights for all, in ending discrimination and privilege be it economic or social.

In fact, when I arrived here last week I observed Canada taking another proud step forward in human rights through the Ontario courts recognising the legitimacy of gay marriages. Yet at the same time your leaders are prepared to support a constitutional system that has at its apex an institution that discriminates against women, and will not allow the Head of State of Canada to be anything other than a member of the Church of England. The British monarch of course is the pinnacle of the English system of hereditary privilege!

It is not only incongruous that this should be the case; it actually makes one stop and think about whether or not Canada is really serious about human rights and equity. This nation that adopted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms still has a Head of State who represents the antithesis of what this Charter is seeking to represent.

Yet on the horizon I see that things might be changing in Canada - I hope that this is the case.

Firstly, the man who is assumed to be Canada’s next Prime Minister, Paul Martin, gave a speech last year in which he spoke of Canada as being the first ‘post-modern nation.’ He is also on the record as being in favour of constitutional reform.

On May 7 2000 Mr Martin told his audience at Assumption University in Windsor that:

Canada's success as a society has depended to a large extent on its success as a political experiment. Our political system has helped to nurture civility, compassion, prudence and a sense of fairness - the qualities that most clearly define us as a people. The solution to the challenges we face in the modern world must be to strengthen that system of democracy, not weaken it.

Mr Martin has also proposed in recent times major reforms to the Parliament to deal with the issue of ‘democratic deficit’.

It seems to me that if Mr Martin is genuine in wanting to reinvigorate Canadian democracy then he will see to it that the symbols that define it are relevant to a vibrant 21st democracy that is nurturing of ‘civility, compassion, prudence and a sense of fairness.’ This will entail grounding sovereignty in the Canadian people by ensuring that the Governor-General is accountable to no one other than the people of Canada and that the method of selection or election of the Governor-General involves no one and no nation other than Canadians.

Mr Martin’s leadership rival, John Manley, deserves praise for his political courage. It is rare that politicians are prepared to offend a constituency to argue the case for something they believe to be right and essential. Mr Manley has joined this rare group. Along with the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, he will be judged by the historians well. Mr Manley, like Mr Keating before him and in a different place, is someone who understands that the British monarchy is essentially a ‘menace to democracy’ and genuine independence for Canada.

The third contender in the Liberal leadership debate, Sheila Copps, could be nothing other than a republican. Her views on same sex relationships, minority rights and community empowerment are utterly at odds with a system where only the eldest son gets a tax-free lifetime job!

So there you have it - all three contenders for Mr Chretien’s mantle seem to be attuned to the cause of the republic. If Mr Martin and Ms Copps are not at one with Mr Manley on this then the rest of their rhetoric and plans on enhancing democracy ring hollow.

Of both might say that a republic is a second order issue, to which I simply say - the constitutional arrangements of a nation are never a second order issue! They define what a nation is, how it is perceived and what are its core values.

But it is not only the Liberals to whom Canadians can look for a lead on this issue. I would have thought that the NDP would be to every last member, republican to the core. After all this is a Party that unambiguously opposes privilege and all the symbolism that is associated with it. I trust that you can look forward to strong and overt NDP support for the republican cause in this country just as its equivalents in Australia, the Australian Democrats have done over many years.

All Canada’s political leaders should heed the words of Randall’s excellent book, Is Canada trapped in a time warp? In it he notes that:

By continuing to seek reassurance in an obsolete monarchical authority, as the ultimate symbolic source of its own rule of law, the Canadian national state is just evading all the new democratic and other challenges of the global future.

Of course, those political leaders and the monarchists will predictably argue that the current system isn’t broken and is stable - so why tamper with it?

The answer to this argument is easy - the system is well and truly broken and its patronising and insulting to suggest that Canadians can’t agree on a first rate republican system.

That the current system is broken was evident in Australia with the recent Hollingworth saga.

The Australian Governor-General, Dr Hollingworth was forced to go because an independent inquiry found that, when he was Archbishop of Brisbane, he allowed a paedophile priest to remain in the Anglican ministry. On top of this, there emerged a legal case brought by a woman, now dead, who alleged Dr Hollingworth raped her 40 years ago.

The case was dismissed but it was another nail in the coffin of the controversial Governor-General.

As in Canada, the Australian Governor-General is appointed by the Prime Minister and the Queen - there is no wider consultation.

In Australia, every political party and most media outlets now say this secretive system must be reformed. In fact, most critics argue that the Hollingworth saga could have been avoided if Australia had voted in a 1999 referendum to become a republic.

In a republic, the skeletons in the cupboard of any candidate for the office of President, such as those that emerged in the past 12 months about Dr Hollingworth, would be revealed by a transparent and democratic election process.

As to the second string to the monarchists’ bow - that of instability if you rid us of the Queen this is elitism at its worst. Canadian monarchists are simply saying that they don’t have trust in their fellow Canadians to make a change that will ground sovereignty in them alone. This is insulting, patronising and thoroughly un-Canadian. One surely must question the Canadian monarchist’s belief in his or her country if he or she takes this attitude.

Finally, let me outline to you where I see the Australian republic debate going. The alternative Prime Minister, current Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, is committed to a republic. Our Prime Minister, John Howard is not but his most likely successor Peter Costello is I think more likely to move on the issue now that Mr Howard has decided to stay on as PM and leave Mr Costello with only one alternative if he wants to be PM - carve out a more progressive policy framework for a post -Howard government.

Our next election is due in 2004. If Labor wins it will move on the republic issue again. If Mr Howard is returned but Mr Costello becomes PM after say 12 months, the latter may well reignite the debate.

I am confident that the republic will be achieved by 2010. Despite what some commentators here believe, Australians did not vote for the monarchy in the 1999 Referendum, they voted against a particular model of republic. If they are given a clear choice of models or status quo then the status quo vote will only be around 20 percent at best.

As I said at the start, history is moving with us, and those who embrace this issue now will be judged well when our children and grandchildren look back.


Copyright © 2003 Citizens for a Canadian Republic