What kind of country do we want to be?

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Jane Hemstritch is one of Australia’s leading non-executive directors. Today, she is an independent non-executive director of Telstra, Lendlease and The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. She is also Deputy Chair of the Council of The National Library of Australia, a member of the Global Council of Herbert Smith Freehills, and a member of the Council of Governing Members of The Smith Family.

Until her retirement in 2007 Jane was Managing Director Asia Pacific for Accenture Limited and a member of Accenture’s global executive leadership team.

Jane is a passionate republican. This discussion covers a lot of ground, including:

  • Answering the Donald Trump challenge

  • The lessons from Brexit

  • Can the Republic catalyse Australians to think about the big questions?

  • The challenges of business involvement

The discussion

Steve Pell: Jane, at a personal level what are your major reasons for supporting a Republic?

Jane Hemstritch: For me this is emotional rather than logical. We are an independent nation with our own place in the world and I just don't get having a head of state who is the head of state of another country. It just isn't right. It just doesn't make any sense at all. I don't get it.

Maybe if we were a newly independent. Maybe if we were a little nation that had been a British colony up until very, very recently, you might go through this stage as you take off your training wheels and become an independent country. But for goodness sake, we're a member of the G20. Do we need a head of state that is somebody else's head of state? No.

Steve Pell: When did it first start agitating you?

Jane Hemstritch: Well, I was pretty exercised about it in 1999 and I'm deeply proud to have been in the electorate that voted most in favour of the Republic.

The current situation smacks of needing adult supervision. I've always felt that it's not like we're teenagers anymore. With everything we’ve achieved and our place in the world, the idea that we are a teenage country is complete nonsense.

I feel very strongly about this. But jumping to the biggest challenge in making the case for the Republic today, I also think it’s going to be difficult to make the transition whilst the Queen is still alive.

Steve Pell: In that context, what did you take from the perspective that Robert Hardman published recently, stating that the Queen's view is that if Australia wants to be a Republic we should "get on with it"?

Jane Hemstritch: I think everyone thought, “oh, that's so lovely of her, but of course we wouldn't be so disrespectful”. There is still some of that great affection for the royal family and it's reignited somewhat with the younger royals. I think it would be hard to prosecute while the Queen is still alive, despite her guidance otherwise.

Steve Pell: One of the arguments that has come up in these interviews is the idea that it's actually quite disrespectful to the Queen to wait until she dies given her role in the formation of Australia as a country.

Given the story of her lifetime is also the story of the maturity of Australia, our graduation to a Republic could be an incredible celebration of everything she’s done for us. Do you think that perspective is reasonable?

Jane Hemstritch: I do think that that's a reasonable position, but you're pitting that which I think is a reasonable argument against an emotional position that a lot of people have. And you know, in these arguments, emotion plays a very big role.

I think one thing ironically that helped the Republic was Tony Abbott knighting the Duke of Edinburgh. I think that jolted an awful lot of people. Turning the clock back and reintroducing knights and dames, I think that helped the republican movement no end.

Steve Pell: I think it goes to this point that many Australians are kind of okay with the status quo as long as it stays in the background. They’re ok the status quo right up until the point where they have their noses rubbed in the idea that it’s contradictory to core Australian values. But what Abbott did with the knighthoods was rub people’s nose in that inequality.

My sense is that most Australians today are really quite uncomfortable with the ideas that sit underneath monarchy. But they tolerate it as long as it stays in the background. I’m 100% confident that if you were to ever see kind of political intervention from King Charles or anyone else in that role, we'd have riots on the streets.

Jane Hemstritch: Oh absolutely. And I think you make a good point here about “if it's not broke why fix it?”. And as we sit here today most people cannot envisage a situation in which it would break, because there’s no precedent in our recent history.

Just the anachronism of even having a monarch is bizarre. I just can't get my head round it.

The other problem that we have at the moment is Donald Trump because people would say I'd much rather have the Queen who's a logical, sensible, decent individual than the possibility of somebody like Donald Trump. And you know, they do have a point.

I think the counter-argument is that's not the only model for Presidents. There are other models in other countries where they don't throw up idiots. And the United States is not Australia -  it's a very different country with a very different culture in all sorts of ways. To say that Australians would behave in the same way as Americans I think is a bit demeaning to us.

Steve Pell: It’s a great point, and one worth spending some time on. Because for a lot of people there’s some very legitimate unease around the Trump question.

The point that I think is worth making is the history of the Royal Family would show that that institution has also had its problems with some unbalanced individuals over the years. From a historical standpoint, you’re only ever a few generations from a genuine crazy. It’s almost certain that at some point in the future, there will be another King or Queen who faces mental health issues.

So the question is, would we prefer to be in a situation where we have democratic control over our head of state? Would we prefer to have control, so that if someone is no longer representing us the way we want to be represented, then we have the control to vote them out? Ultimately, I think that’s a much safer and much more resilient position to be in as a nation - regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of any individual head of state.

This links back to the question of how we prosecute this agenda over the next few years. Do we have a staging vote, do we go down a path where we take a fully formed model to the Australian public. Do you have a view around that?

Jane Hemstritch: I was reading something about Brexit the other day, which I think ought to inform the thinking here because there the British people were asked to vote between two things they didn't understand.

There was a thought after 1999 that we should just have said, ‘Do you want to be a Republic, yes or no?”. And I think a lot of people even then would have said yes. And then you would need to engage the electorate in a discussion about what sort of Republic do we implement.

But I'm just worried a bit about that because of Brexit. “Do you want in or out?” was a fairly simple question, but people really didn’t understand the implications.

Steve Pell: It worries me as well. There's a lot of advocates for the approach you've just described including Bill Shorten. It worries me quite a lot in the current political climate for two reasons.

Firstly, I think it’s just too easy to argue the no case. You can argue “if you don’t know, vote no”, or you can argue that politicians will just create a ‘politician's republic’ which I think will be quite detrimental in mainstream Australia.

And secondly I think it just patronises the Australian public in saying “we'll determine the model that's best for you”. That is problematic as well.

Jane Hemstritch: And I think that's hugely problematic because, one of the things I think about Brexit is they shouldn't have gone with, “do you want in or out?”. They should have gone with “do you want this sort of out?”. So I do think it's a staged process. Nick Gruen has this very nice notion around citizens juries where you get together a very carefully selected representative group of Australians and really take them in depth through all the issues and have them nut out something rather than let the politicians do it. And that then would be put forward for a vote.

Steve Pell: That’s very interesting. Let’s dive a little deeper into this idea of politicisation. This is an issue that ultimately has big political implications. It's going to be very hard to keep it from being seen as an issue driven by politicians.

How do we make this an issue that resonates with mainstream Australia rather than being a politician led issue?

Jane Hemstritch: I think that's where things like the ARM are important in prosecuting the debate outside of the political arena. I think part of the problem is there is no burning platform for a change.

The Queen is still alive, nothing seems to be going terribly wrong. “Why now?” is a very difficult question to answer. There are all sorts of reasons not to do it. My only line of defence is, well, when is going to be a good time. When are we going to grow up?

Steve Pell: You can find plenty of examples of people using the same argument against Federation back in the late 1800s.

And I’d argue that even the greatest supporters of Federation could never have envisaged what a united Australia would go on to achieve over the next hundred years.

What do you think would be the biggest benefits in the short term of a move to a republic, Jane?

Jane Hemstritch: To be honest, for me the biggest benefit would be engaging Australians in a deep discussion about what sort of country do we want to be? What does it mean to be Australian? What are the values that we hold true?

Because we are shifting and changing all the time as all nations do. But how do we think about ourselves. Are we open and inclusive like it says on the tin? Or do we need to work on that?

There are, I think, some very profound questions. I'm sure you know this, but Australia per head of population takes more immigrants than any other western country and we do it in a very orderly way and get absolutely no credit for it. All anyone focuses on is Manus Island and things like that at the refugee end of the immigrant spectrum. I think I’m right in saying that Uganda is the only country in the world that takes more refugees than we do. We are almost by stealth becoming a different kind of country and I don't know that we've sat back and really thought about who are we and do we like what we've become?

And that's rather profound for the whole populace to engage in the discussion. But I do think it's something that as a nation we could reflect on.

Steve Pell: It's a fascinating line of thought and much broader than this specific discussion.  If you were to go back to Australians in 1950 and paint a picture of what we might become in 1990, would they have bought into that vision? I'm not sure.

Jane Hemstritch: Yes, exactly. And I'm not at all sure. It's about what do we hold dear? What do we think is important? What are the national values? Are we structured the right way for our future? I think there are a lot of really profound questions we need to think about.

It might be that a Republic opens us up to think about a lot of questions more broadly.

Steve Pell: You’ve touched on this idea that maybe it could be a keystone. Whereby putting the Republic in place actually facilitates a whole bunch of these discussions that never would have been possible otherwise.

Jane Hemstritch: Yes. Maybe the comparison to Federation is a great example, because I'm sure there was a lot written in the press at that time about what kind of country are we and want to be.

Steve Pell: Do you think this is an issue that Australian businesses should have a position on?

Jane Hemstritch: Interesting question. At the profound level yes, they should. Because it is a pretty profound discussion. But I can't think of a single business setting I've been in where anybody has mentioned the Republic one way or another.

Steve Pell: Why do you think at that fundamental level, this is an issue that businesses should have an opinion on?

Jane Hemstritch: Well, they operate within a national context. They ought to be interested. I mean they're always very interested in the legislation. So if you back up one step, if the way we create and pass legislation in the future is going to be subtly different, they ought to care about that. But I think they're so caught up with matters of the day that they're really not able to lift their heads enough to ask that question.

Steve Pell: Yes. I mean if you talk to other business leaders around this issue, if you get into the discussions, what are some of the common perspectives that you hear.

Jane Hemstritch: I think if you scratch most of them, they would be of a Republican persuasion. There's not one person I meet that thinks remaining part of a monarchy makes any sense, but I don't think they have any passionate need to do anything about it right now. We need a burning platform.

Steve Pell: Yes. Do you think though, that if we get to a campaign footing that that could all change quite quickly?

Jane Hemstritch: It might, but ultimately it would depend on what else is going on at the time. I know that’s a weak answer, but it’s absolutely the case in the way business think.

Steve Pell: No, that's a great answer in context.

Jane, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you think would be interesting for us to discuss in the few minutes we have left.

Jane Hemstritch: I think when we finally hit a campaign footing, we need a good broad section of people involved in the messaging. it's got to be measured and calm and thoughtful. I would try to get some prominent indigenous people involved in this. Because they have a very powerful right to say “she's not our Queen”. I think would be a really enriching part of the debate.

And also Australians who are from non-UK backgrounds. Italians, Greeks, and other people who are such a big part of our country today and their voices need to be heard.

Steve Pell: In talking to some of these people from a non-UK background it’s amazing how strong their views are. If I’m honest I didn’t see or expect the underlying agitation until I asked the question. It has been really enlightening for me.

Jane, this has been a fascinating discussion. Thanks so much for your time.