Constant improvement

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Simon McKeon is the Chancellor of Monash University and was also the 2011 Australian of the Year.

He has been with the Macquarie Group in a variety of senior roles for more than 30 years, including as Executive Chairman (Melbourne office). He is presently retained as a consultant.

Simon is also Chairman of Summer Housing which provides housing options for young people with a disability. He is also a member of the Advisory Boards of The Big Issue, Blackmagic Design and GFG Alliance Australia, owner of Liberty OneSteel. He is inaugural President of the banking industry’s Review Panel for the Banking and Finance Oath and is also an Australia Day Ambassador for the Victorian Government.

He is a Director (as well as the Senior Independent Director) of Spotless Group, previously served as Chairman of AMP and CSIRO and was Founding President of the Federal Government’s Australian Takeovers Panel, as well as its Point Nepean Community Trust.

This is a wide ranging discussion. Some of the topics we cover include:

  • Focusing efforts on the apathetic rather than monarchists

  • Answering “why now?” and “why fix something that’s not broken?”

  • Why business needs to have a perspective

  • Where the Elizabethian argument falls down

The discussion

Steve Pell: Simon, I’m excited to have a broad ranging discussion about all things Republic. Where would you like to start the conversation?

Simon McKeon: What I'm interested in is the 10 or 20 percent in the middle that aren't motivated to think of it as a serious issue. I'm not interested in getting a sledgehammer out and berating someone who's going to go to their grave as a strident monarchist. But I'm really interested in identifying with the people that want to work through the issue in their own mind. Goodness knows what that proportion of the population that is, but I reckon it’s substantial.

Steve Pell: I think that figure could be as high as 60%. There is a really big group in the middle who are apathetic at some level. Most of those are in favour at some level, but it’s not an issue they’re spending a lot of time thinking about.

One of the biggest challenges we've got is to speak to these apathetics. How do we speak to and convince people in the population who think it sounds like a good thing, but “why now?”

Simon McKeon: The worst question of the lot. There's always something more important. And at the end of the day, at any point in time, we have dozens of pieces of legislation, some moving at a very pedestrian pace going through Federal Parliament. But I believe in 2018 we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Put it this way, I acknowledge that there are pressing issues. But I think this argument is mainly a distraction and we can consider all of the legislation that we want to.

Steve Pell: As we talk about this it’s worth recalling that it was the same argument that was used against Federation. There were so many other pressing things that people thought the colonies needed to do first. But with 100 years of retrospect, Federation led to so many positive things that you could never have predicted as an incrementalist in the 1890s.

Let’s keep talking about apathy. “Why now” is one of the two main arguments you hear come up frequently. The other one is “why fix something that's not broken?” What do you say to that?

Simon McKeon: Oh, and I love that one too. I'm happy to go on the front foot on that one because I've been privileged and lucky to be involved in all sorts of organisations across the the corporate world, sporting world and non-for-profits. I’ve been lucky because the vast majority of these organisations have just been standouts.

What I'm trying to emphasise is you never achieve much if you wait until an organisation is broken before making change. You’d have a real problem if you only took action as a result of a crisis. Life is mostly not a crisis. Especially in this country, we have it pretty good and it ought to be a matter of constant improvement.

Steve Pell: Simon, I’d like to ask a personal question. Across all of the spheres that you work in, what’s the driving force that connects the dots? What drives you?

Simon McKeon: A really big part of life surely has to be on just focusing on getting better and constantly improving. You know, how can we do things, make things, create opportunities that are just better than was the case previously.

I just find that innately human. I'm absolutely the first to be captivated by other people that have got good ideas to simply make the world a better place. If that isn't a motivating factor for most of us, I don't know what is.

Steve Pell: I find it really interesting how many people’s life outlook connects to their outlook for the country.

What I’ve heard from this series of interviews is most people who are passionate Republicans have a reason that connects back to some deeply held personal values.

Simon McKeon: A part of my life, not all of it, but a part of it is unashamedly competitive. And as I said a moment ago, you're not going to be very competitive if you wait until you're busted before taking action. We have 18 AFL teams and the vast majority of them have genuine expectations of being in the top 8 playing finals next year. They all know that they're simply going to have to keep getting better in all spheres of the game. Collingwood came from 13th to end up 2nd, because they knew they were committed to keep improving.

In a sporting, and in a business context, they know they’ve got to improve, but they’re also not ‘broken’. All I'm saying is life is always or ought always to have a big focus on just getting better.

Steve Pell: So let's dive a little deeper and talk about how you see that becoming a Republic would meaningfully make Australia better?

Simon McKeon: Well I don't want to delude myself or anyone else by exaggerating the benefits. For me, it's a logical thing to do. It doesn't cost much, in the content of running a nation. It doesn't take much effort of any of us individually. It's part of our ongoing maturity and development of this fabulous nation that we find ourselves so fortunate to be part of.

I think we can actually stand just that bit taller as a nation saying that we have now taken on 100 percent responsibility for ensuring that our nation can make its own decisions. And sure, we've got a couple of vexed issues as to how we actually go about choosing such a head of state. But I couldn't ever imagine myself arguing the case for simply staying where we are at this point because it just seems to me to be suboptimal.

Steve Pell: You said the ability to stand a bit taller, I’d call it national pride. I think it’s really interesting and I’d like to dig a little bit deeper. There’s two ways that I see that national pride could have a tangible day-to-day benefit and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

First, I think there’s a meaningful argument from a lot of people that a move to a Republic would give us all an Australia Day that we could all be really proud of. I think whichever side of that debate you’re on, we all want a day that we can celebrate this fantastic country together.

Then secondly, I think many people don’t necessarily appreciate our place in the world today, which impacts the extent of our collective ambition. In my conversations across society it’s not widely known that Australia will be the 10th biggest economy in the world in a few years' time. I think if we better recognise where we are today, we can rightfully have bigger ambitions on a global stage.

Do either of those resonate for you in making the national pride argument more tangible?

Simon McKeon: Again, I don't want to put this issue on a pedestal that it actually doesn't deserve. I think national pride is very important. And when it comes to the issue of a head of state, it's just one of many things that to me, helps me feel comfortable with how we're looking after this wonderful nation of ours.

This issue is just so easy. It's a matter of basically ticking off two questions, getting enough individuals across the entire nation and in a certain number of States just to say, yep, that's what we're going to do. It really doesn't even cost us any money of any significance at a national level. And I am convinced that in the years to come after we'd made that decision we’d never give it a thought about going back. For example, does Germany ever nowadays think about going back to being a pre-republic type of nation? Not that I'm aware of!

Steve Pell: You couldn't imagine from a first principles perspective anyone coming in and deciding a monarchy is the right model for Australia in the 21st century.

Simon McKeon: No, exactly.

Steve Pell: Simon, when did you first start to feel that something that was not right with respect to the governance of this country?

Simon McKeon: That's a really good question. Decades ago I stumbled upon the fact that a significant number, if not a majority, of nations of the Commonwealth were republics. I just couldn't believe that was the case.

And that was a long time ago and I didn't do anything about it, but I remember that conversation occurring. I remember scratching my head thinking “I cannot believe in my own lifetime Australia won't graduate to the position of having its own head of state and becoming a ‘proper’ nation”.

Now there was no public debate at the time. It was not on any public agenda I can recall, but I reckon it was probably in my twenties when I first realised that it wasn't only okay for a small number of Commonwealth nations to be a republic, but indeed the majority were.

Steve Pell: Why don't we jump onto the business angle. Do you see that this is an issue that Australian business should have a perspective on?

Simon McKeon: Yeah, and I probably have a different view on that to many other business people. Business leaders are quite timid in this country for very logical reasons. If you put your head above the parapet on any issue not directly related to profit and loss and corporate tax there will always be a chorus that takes a different view and attempts to shut you down.

Having said all that, I think over the last year or so, we've had a fascinating insight into, the deliberations of Qantas on marriage equality. And that was a very interesting story because at the end of the day Qantas came out quite robustly and said that it was in favour. Everyone knows that the CEO is gay, but it wasn't just him. My understanding is that it was a business decision. The Chairman backed up the CEO very strongly.  It was interesting because there was a Federal Minister who got up at one point and said that Qantas ought to butt out of this social discourse, stick to business as its shareholders were focussed on profit. And the response from Qantas was absolutely fascinating when it said, “that's precisely what we are doing”.

Qantas had already worked out for itself what was good business and assured itself that it was entirely appropriate to wade in to a vexed social issue. There's no doubt there would have been certain Qantas customers who disagreed with the Qantas stance.

My position is not widely shared in business, but I think it's a good thing when business has a voice on tough issues. There's rarely unanimity in business - it's not dissimilar to government!

But if society is to make good progress in broad reform, it ought to be assisted with a view from business, no matter how hard it is to get that view. But this is pretty tough because the default approach from businesses is typically “Let's stay quiet, and if we can't stay quiet, let's absolutely minimise the issues that we'll publicly comment on”.

I wear a few different hats. I'm a little disappointed because I think one of the many reasons why business is often held in a low regard by so many members of the community is that we're just not willing to roll up our sleeves and contribute to some of the tough debates sometimes.

Steve Pell: It is in a different market, but the Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick is perhaps another good example of the commercial logic for business to take a stand on social issues.

Are we starting to see a change in expectations here?

Simon McKeon: There's no doubt I'm seeing a younger generation coming through, who are not satisfied simply being pushed into a business silo and being deprived of their voice.

I'm pleased about that because I think they're showing an older generation of which I'm part that we're only on this earth for a finite time. If one feels strongly about a cause, why does one have to wait until we’re no longer connected with business to enunciate that cause.

Society is always going to have vexed social issues to work through. All I'm saying is that I think it's healthy for our institutions to have a view on issues that affect the whole of society.

Steve Pell: There is an argument here that of all the social issues you could be involved with as a business this is a pretty low risk one.

You've got support on both sides of politics. You've got an association with brand Australia, which is pretty positive if you're a consumer business.

There is an argument that despite the fact that this is a referendum issue, it's a reasonably low risk.

Simon McKeon: The main stumbling block so often with business is it works so hard to get every extra customer, it will be very cautious about doing anything to disenfranchise or to turn that customer away. So you can understand the sensitivity.

But I think you are right about the Republican issue being a low risk position. We're seeing it more in climate change. 15 or 20 years ago, there weren't too many corporations that came out strongly advocating change, even though the science was relatively settled. But as time has gone on, I can't think of a large corporation that is overtly supportive of climate scepticism. I can’t think of one.

And perhaps that's the analogy. As the Republic movement continues to gain more strength, corporations will just realise that the final timing of a decision to change is unknown but the trend is obvious.

Steve Pell: Yes. It's an interesting point that in a broader context, inevitability can be poisoned chalice for the Republic because it robs initiative to do anything today.

Simon McKeon: That's true, quite right.

Steve Pell: But in a business context that is not necessarily the case - You’re saying that inevitability helps?

Simon McKeon: In a business context it does help, I believe. The public company is probably the most difficult one to get across the line as an early adopter. But not every company is owned by thousands of shareholders - there are large ones owned by families. It would seem to me a wonderful legacy for a business to have the courage to say this is the right thing and the wind is blowing in the right direction. The only thing we don't know at the moment is the actual timetable to get there.

It would be a wonderful legacy for a business owner to be able to look back in a few years time and say our business was behind this.

Steve Pell: Do you think we have to achieve a level of agitation in the broader population around the status quo?

Simon McKeon: In a way I'm disappointed if we do, because it is actually the wrong way to approach this issue.

Think about a potentially very substantial portion of people who absolutely and understandably say “I've got a family who is doing it tough. I'm literally surviving day in, day out and I just don't want any more issues in my life.”

You know I get that. I really do get that and I guess we could beat the republican drum and agitate more and that might provoke them. I think it’s more important, however, for us to say we understand where you are coming from. For some of us, life is horribly tough even in this wonderful place we call Australia. And my emphasis would be, we don't want to overload any of us with more problems but this is a relatively straightforward issue.

And any concerns that we might have, I really think have been overblown. Because the reality is that based on the experience of other nations, the moment we do it, there will never be any movement to rethink it.

Steve Pell: It's amazing that in that context, some of the people who are doing it toughest...

Simon McKeon: Are our best champions.

Steve Pell: Immigrants and refugees are consistent strong supporters of a Republic. They have a really strong level of national pride in what this country has given them.

Simon McKeon: Yes I agree.

Steve Pell: It comes back to a point we've discussed a lot here, regardless of how hard you're doing it, my feeling is that everyone wants to be proud of their country.

Simon McKeon: No, you're absolutely right. At the moment none of our kids can be head of state here. And if we make this decision, then all of a sudden it opens up the possibility for everyone.

I was lucky I had dinner the other night in the company of the Governor of South Australia. He was a refugee, he was a boat person from Vietnam and arrived, I understand, towards the end of the Vietnam War. And he’s risen to that important position in South Australia. Wonderful Story. Amazing story. Great appointment.

But we can't acknowledge the person who resides at Yarralumla in Canberra as our Head of State – they’re just the ‘representative’.

Steve Pell: What's your view on the Elizabethan argument that we shouldn't make this move until she passes?

Simon McKeon: It's not an argument that appeals to me. I've heard that argument expressed out of respect for an ageing monarch who's been very loyal, a good monarch, a strong monarch.

But has anyone ever asked her the question or more importantly has she ever had the opportunity to say what she thinks? I honestly think that we can make this change at the same time as we make the strongest possible commitment to remain supportive of the Commonwealth. And when it comes to the Royal Family we should acknowledge it for what it is. They're stronger today than they've been for a long time. But having said that, it’s not Australia’s story anymore.

Steve Pell: There is the perspective that this could be a celebration of all the things that she'd helped Australia achieve over her lifetime. Because her life is the story of maturity of Australia in a lot of ways.

Simon McKeon: Quite right. Look, I think we dance around this issue when honestly I don't see any need to. For me the antidote is always the same, namely expressing the strongest possible commitment to the mother country itself as well as paying appropriate regard to the Royal Family.

There will always be some strident monarchists who disagree here. But for me, and I suspect for most Australians, we can respect the Queen and admire the work of the Royals. But we can do that at the same time as we set a path forward for our country.

Steve Pell: To your point that opened up this conversation, we don't have to win over the 15 percent of people who are strident monarchists.

Simon McKeon: That's exactly right. And in fact it’s a waste of time. In fact I think sometimes it's helpful that they come out with stuff that is somewhat fatuous because it’s very easy to expose.

But this is the great war of the apathetic or those distracted by tough circumstances. And my antidote to that is largely assurance. It’s assurance that this is the right thing to do and that there is no credible reason not to graduate to a Republic.

Steve Pell: Who would the assurance come from?

Simon McKeon: That's a really important question. Ideally we need assurance from all of the major political parties. Then we also need a very large group of supporting Australians just saying that it's time. People across sport, entertainment, business, public life etc.

And then if the opposing forces try and do the same thing, it's going to end up being a relatively paltry list. I know this is a lot of work, but we need hundreds of people who are trusted and respected by the community to front this campaign.

Steve Pell: I think most people would agree that 1999 showed quite clearly the risks of a celebrity led campaign where you get the test captain or whomever to come out and endorse the issue. The challenge is that trade-off between trust and visibility.

Simon McKeon: I actually don't think about 1999 an awful lot. It was just one step of the journey, just like Federation was more than a century ago, just like the numerous champions of Republicanism that we've had over the decades.

My view is that losing in 1999 was actually good because we look back now 20 years ago and it’s clear we were naive. Most of us thought it was just going to get up and we got ahead of ourselves.

There was an expectation that it was going to happen and some of us indulged ourselves. We weren't sufficiently humble to understand that there was actually a real contest to get it up in the first place or to get the majority of Australians saying it is time for change.

So I think 1999 is a really good thing to have happened because we’re never again going to take the opportunity of another vote lightly.

Steve Pell: That's a fantastic note for us to wrap up on. Thanks again for your time Simon.

This interview is part of a series featuring prominent Australians talking about a Republic. You can find more interviews and subscribe at