Friday, September 21, 2007

The Republic of Australia

Ninme is dumbfounded at the suggestion that Australia could dump the Queen as Head of State and become a republic if, as seems likely according to the polls, Labour win the next election. I'm not keen on the idea, either, but I understand where it's coming from. The past. There's no pressing need, or any need at all, for Australia to become a republic, but there is a bitterness, 32 years old, that Labour has never assuaged.

In 1972, after 23 years of Liberal (conservative) government, Australia elected a Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, a witty, educated and domineering man who had big plans and immediately set about acting on them. He put through Parliament an extraordinary array of legislation with the support of Rupert Murdoch's Australian, which for some time had a permanent banner at the top of the front page that read "What your government has done for you today".

Whitlam didn't have control of the Senate. To gain it, he pulled a few fast ones (destroying an old Labour splinter party in the process) and called another election in 1974. He won it, improved his position in the Senate, but not quite enough. There were scandals, especially over attempts to raise loans on the sly. This was necessary because the economy was in trouble. Not entirely due to Whitlam's government, it should be said (the 1973 oil crisis), but spending was reckless.

Then the Liberals did the unthinkable; they blocked supply (the Budget) in the Senate. Whitlam had no money. He proposed to go on by borrowing money from the banks, though it was unclear if this was legal. He never got the chance. The Governor-General, John Kerr, (the Queen's representative in Australia) withdrew Whitlam's commission. Such a thing had never been done before. An election was called and Labour lost badly.

That has never been forgotten or forgiven. It is an inextricable part of the Party mythology, and even Labour members not born at the time will cherish it like a still-born child in the hope of one day righting the great wrong.

There are other antipathies in the mix. Like all good Leftists, they are anti-imperialist, anti-monarchist and anti-American. Most of this is only gesture politics, but it rouses the faithful. They also go on about Australia being an "Asian" country and want so much to cosy up to the strong shoulders of the Asian tigers even though the tigers eye them with suspicion and temptation (Australia has a lot of raw materials for hungry economies).

Conservatives like me look back in gratitude at what the Poms handed us on a plate and see no reason to change what works so well. Many Labour Party activists look only ahead at the brave new world a Labour government will bring about. Of course, they won't get it (who does?), but a referendum about the Queen will be a sop to their revolutionary hearts. It'll make them feel better.

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