The crown and anchor

IT COUNTS among the more interesting encounters that I've had. But then I would have been disappointed had it not turned out that way. Last year, in the Great Hall of Parliament, I met Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. ''What do you do?'' he asked. When I told him I was a political philosopher, he wanted to know what that actually meant. ''You mean you just sit and think? And you get paid for this?''

Last night, my thoughts turned to Philip. There he was, sitting next to the Queen on the gilded royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, as it floated down the Thames as part of a 1000-boat flotilla. One only wonders what Philip might have been thinking.

Here in Australia, we are holding no equivalent river pageant to that in London to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee. There is no bunting in our city streets, no memorabilia being mass-produced. So far as official commemoration goes, Prime Minister Julia Gillard will light a jubilee beacon on Parliament House today. But that is about it.

Any excitement about the whole occasion seems about as remote as, well, England. For all of the coverage of the jubilee on our television screens, it all seems like an international celebrity event rather than a civic affair involving our head of state.

Whether the jubilee might spark a debate about an Australian republic remains to be seen. The Australian Republican Movement certainly hopes it will. The group, led by new director David Morris, is stepping up its efforts during the celebrations.

Yet there seems little public appetite for a debate. Leading republican politicians such as Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull have deferred the issue of an Australian head of state: it is to be resolved only after the Queen's reign ends.

As a republican, I hope that Australia will one day sever its formal ties with the British monarchy. An Australian polity deserves an Australian head of state, and unambiguously so. It isn't enough to suggest that Australia is a ''crowned republic'', a supposed republic in all but name.

The crowned republic line is one argument that constitutional monarchists consistently make when defending the status quo. The monarch, they say, is a figurehead with no real power. At times, this morphs into the dubious suggestion that the Governor-General is actually the Australian head of state.

In a political system, symbolism counts. But the case for a republic is not just about patriotic symbolism and having an Australian citizen as president (or whatever else we might call our republican head of state).

There is a more fundamental reason for constitutional change. One about democratic citizenship. A democracy is ultimately a community of citizens, a political system based on the equality of all its members. It is hard to reconcile a monarchy with this. A monarchy involves the rule of one over a body of subjects.

The idea of someone inheriting the highest public office in the land offends democratic principles, pure and simple.

This gets to one of the anomalies of Australia remaining a constitutional monarchy. How odd that a country that prides itself on being egalitarian has a constitutional framework that is anything but.

One of the problems is that grandeur and glamour still attach to royalty. There is also the vexed question of which model of republic Australians may want.

Yet any apathy about the republican cause might also reflect our flagging egalitarianism. Perhaps we have been growing increasingly comfortable with inequality, in its various forms.

It was once the case that the principle of Jack being as good as his master had an institutional and economic basis. This is

no longer true. Income and wealth inequality have been rising conspicuously in Australia during the past three decades.

This has been accompanied by a new conservative political correctness. Charges of class warfare are now back in vogue. We are told that we should be generating wealth rather than redistributing it. That it's wrong to rob Peter to pay Paul.

It is as though aspiration has now superseded egalitarianism as our defining value. Many of us demur to criticising the rich and powerful because we want to join them, too.

It was the political genius of John Howard that he married economic aspiration with cultural nationalism. This is one reason

why it is much harder to channel nationalist energies for republican nation-building.

The cultural victory of aspiration presents a new obstacle for republicans. Australian egalitarianism is being stripped of its substance, and being reduced to the tokenism of calling a stranger ''mate''.

It may just be time to reassert our egalitarian spirit. After all, what kind of aspirational society are we talking about when Australians cannot even aspire to be the head of state?

Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University and Per Capita. Twitter: @timsout

-National Times

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