Last Wednesday (22nd March) ANU’s Democracy Society hosted a star-studded panel discussion on the future of Australia’s constitutional monarchy.
The debate kicked off at 7pm in the JG Crawford Building’s Molonglo Theatre, with an audience of about 50 students and community members.
Democracy Society Vice President Courtney Daley commenced the night with a Welcome to Country in the Ngunnawal language, followed by President Brodie Taylor’s introduction of the panellists.
The panellists included Assistant Minister for the Republic Matt Thistlethwaite MP, campaign Chair of the Australian Monarchist League and former Senator Eric Abetz, the Australian Republic Movement’s Treasurer, Secretary and ACT branch convenor Nathan Hansford, and student and ANU Commonwealth League Chair Anton Vassallo.
Eric Abetz began the debate after Mr Taylor expressed his gratitude towards the panellists for taking time out of their busy schedules.
“Australia is truly blessed to be a constitutional monarchy, we are the envy of the world,” Abetz stated. He continued by claiming that constitutional monarchies such as Australia lead the world in terms of democratic and economic indicators. He described the democratic deficits in our country as being the result of parliamentarians, claiming that another politician as head of state would only exacerbate this issue.
Abetz told the audience that Australia’s constitutional monarchy only exists courtesy of the will of the people. “We are part and parcel of a band of nations that are blessed to have inherited a constitutional monarchy.”
Other arguments cited by Abetz included: the political independence of the Governor General as Australia’s true head of state (a point the republican panellists hotly refuted), the Crown as a unifying symbol, the significance of the monarch to the culture of Australia’s defence forces, and the fact that Australia is already independent in its politics and decision making.
Abetz went on to pose a number of questions to his republican co-panelists. He asked what form of presidency will be proposed, whether or not the president will be elected and what powers will be at their disposal. “How will a republic improve Australian lives? How will it improve democracy?” he asked. Abetz’s remarks were not complete without applying the cliché monarchist quip: “if it ain’t broke why choose to fix it?”
As spokesperson for the Australian Republic Movement, Mr Hansford began his remarks both acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and the impact of colonialism in Australia. He explained that this impact included “many enduring positives for modern Australia” in areas of government, health, justice, transport and the “systems and institutions that form the basis of our development.” Hansford stressed that the British monarchy has played a crucial role in both the good and bad aspects of Australia’s national history, but a history that also involves tens of thousands of years of indigenous population and a strong migrant influence.
Hansford argued that being born into a position of power and privilege is fundamentally contrary to the Australian values of social inclusion and merit. He explained that for Australia to be a truly independent and multicultural country with effective global representation, our head of state must represent Australia and be an Australian.
Mr Hansford shared with the audience a recent conversation he had with his four-year-old daughter. She asked him if the King of Australia lives in Canberra, and upon receiving an answer was confused as to why the King lives so far away and does not support Australian sporting teams as she does.
Hansford used this anecdote to highlight the Republic Movement’s grievance with the fact that “the peak of Australian life in 2023, above the PM, is English.” He stated that Australia’s distance from the British monarchy has never been so wide and as a country we are denied the ability to be represented by a multicultural or First Nations head of state on the global stage. Mr Hansford concluded his opening remarks with the question “aren’t we better than the status quo?” stating “we need to reconcile, and resign the monarchy to Australia’s history.”
Next the audience heard from Anton Vassallo as a spokesperson for monarchist ANU students. Mr Vassallo, a Liberal-aligned General Representative on ANUSA, thanked the Democracy Society for organising the event and acknowledged the backlash they received from some students.
This was in reference to a student’s complaints in ANU Schmidtposting which argued that the Democracy society should not have invited panellist Eric Abetz onto campus due his opposition to expanding legal rights for Queer people,to abortion and to anti-union sentiments.This included voting against the Sexuality Discrimination Bill and the Same-Sex Marriage plebiscite.
Vassallo centred his argument on the importance of stability, stating that “our monarchy is the one obelisk of stability in our country, rallied around in our darkest times.” He described his personal experience with the monarchy, describing the British colonisation of his Maltese and Armenian ancestors as positive in allowing them to immigrate to Australia.
Mr Vassallo said that the Republic Movement’s persistence despite the failed referendum in 1999 is “inherently undemocratic and inherently un-Australian.” He also accused the movement of “worshipping ashes of the momentum it had leading up to 1999.”
The last panellist to speak was Matt Thistlethwaite, who began with an apology for arriving late. Mr Thistlethwaite serves as a federal MP and the first appointed Assistant Minister for the Republic of Australia. He described the government’s foremost priority as the passage of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which will face a referendum later this year. However, he said that the government has a long-term vision for an Australia which can stand on its own two feet and whose strength comes from the Australian people and not the protection of the Crown.
Thistlethwaite stressed how much Australia has changed since federation, when it had a British anthem, flag and passports, to a nation today where the world’s oldest continuous culture is still not recognised in our constitution. He specified that the notion of First Nations peoples, who have inhabited Australia for over 60,000 years, being excluded from the position of head of state is “completely ridiculous.”
Mr Thistlethwaite continued his argument discussing the idea that Australians should be able to democratically choose a head of state to protect the rights and interests of citizens under the constitution from wayward governments. He cited that 46 of 56 Commonwealth nations are now republics, analogising that “there comes a time when the kids have to leave home and the time has come.”
Thistlethwaite concluded by reaffirming that the push for a republic is supported by Prime Minister Albanese, and that the government is committed to learning from the mistakes of the 1999 referendum, including around the proposed model.
The spirited debate wrapped up at 8:16pm with a round of applause and the presentation of a gift bag to each panellist. Mr Abetz also took the opportunity to thank the ANU Democracy Society for facilitating the event.
The society’s President Brodie Taylor expressed: “we were incredibly fortunate to host Matt, Eric, Nathan and Anton on our first discussion panel. After the feedback from tonight, we feel that this is a format that works and we will continue to utilise it as we address the big issues in Australia; including an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.”
The debate provided many thought-provoking opinions on Australia’s constitutional monarchy, and the reform-hungry republic movement. The republic debate is unlikely to go away anytime soon, especially considering that at the time of the referendum almost 25 years ago around a third of today’s voters were not yet enrolled. Momentum for another referendum will also likely depend on the outcome of the Voice to Parliament referendum as well.
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