SYDNEY — What a great Australia Day we’ve just celebrated. Pity it reopened that old can of worms — whether to dump Queen Elizabeth II as Australia’s head of state.
Still, this seems to be the season for dumping. The once mighty Labor Party, fed up with life in the political wilderness, has just dumped its sick leader, Mark Latham, and resurrected its old war horse, Kim Beazley.
For a rather self-satisfied country with so much going for it in the way of social and economic progress, Australia seems to be starting 2005 with a yen for change. The conservatism highlighted by the sweeping re-election last year of John Howard and his Liberal-National Coalition masks a deep-seated determination to fix a few old problems.
Australia Day, marking the anniversary of the first white settlement in Sydney, is a time for national navel gazing. Most Australians simply go down to the beach to surf and tan. Some, however, ignore the hoopla and fireworks that accompany the politicians’ speeches to examine where the country is going. This time they found a lot to be proud of.
With the lowest jobless rate in decades, inflation under control and interest rates set to remain low, the self-styled Lucky Country indeed looks to be on the right track. The January start of a free-trade agreement with the United States and talks opening for another one with Japan add to a feeling of national optimism.
Amid the celebrations, a few voices cautioned against self-complacency. Victoria’s Labor Premier Steve Bracks reminded a Melbourne crowd that Australians traditionally have welcomed new immigrants and that the nation was built on “a wave of migration.” He urged citizens to “ensure that we keep an open, tolerant attitude.”
Prime Minister John Howard, welcoming new citizens in a string of swearing-in ceremonies across the country, urged them to embrace democracy. He urged immigrants to “join a political party of your choice or choose not to join if that’s your choice,” adding that “the only ask of all of us is that we give our first commitment to Australia.”
Even the old, bitter controversy over whether the whites arriving in 1788 was a settlement or an invasion failed to dampen the festivities. Aboriginal leaders reminded everyone of past and continuing wrongs. Still, indigenous dancing was more evident this year to open city and country celebrations.
Historian David Day, from Melbourne’s La Trobe University, spoke of the triumph and tragedy of Jan. 26, 1788. “When Captain Arthur Phillip and his officers splashed ashore at Botany Bay, he believed they were bringing civilization,” he opined. “They had come to dispossess the Aborigines of their land. With the act of raising a flag at Sydney Cove, Phillip made one of the greatest land grabs in history without even a token attempt to compensate the owners.”
That row will continue to be thrashed out for decades to come. Another controversy ruffling Australian feathers will, hopefully, be quicker to settle. That’s the one over whether Australia should become a republic.
Behind the Canberra scenes, a cross-party parliamentary forum is being set up to push for an Australian head of state. Republican-minded parliamentarians behind the move hope to attract high-profile stirrers such as Treasurer Peter Costello and newly elected Malcolm Turnbull, who chaired the Australian Republican Movement at the time of the 1999 referendum on the issue.
That divisive poll threw out the republican case but did not kill it. Now, despite polls showing the lowest level of support since then, the republicans see a climate of change coming.
Everyone agrees that the low level of support, just 46 percent in favor in the latest Newspoll, can be traced to a lack of political leadership. Howard never supported the last referendum and he won’t again as long as he remains on top. But shifting loyalties could undermine both his political sway and the whole leave-well-enough-alone argument.
Beazley is back as leader of the parliamentary Labor Party. Like most in his party, Beazley is a republican. But he has toppled the unfortunate Latham only after bitter internecine fighting. He must consolidate his power base in the lead-up to a 2007 election if he is not to repeat two past election defeats that muddied his name. And there’s nothing like a dump-the-queen standup fight to divide the electorate and maybe win him votes.
Lyn Allison, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, thinks the republic would be “easy enough to crank up again.” She conveniently overlooks the fact that the Democrats look like a spent force and that her support for the cause would help doom it.
Still, the decimated force that Labour has become since last year’s election badly needs a cause to champion. The steam-ahead economy is giving Beazley little joy, so even an unwelcome row like dropping the monarchy might just be the right straw to clutch.
And if that cause is not strong enough to help win a Beazley election victory, there’s always the one about changing the Australian flag. The Southern Cross flag — with Britain’s Union Jack in one corner — flew proudly on Australia Day. But if we throw out Britain’s monarchy, can the flag be far behind?
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.