The economic case for a Republic

Cameron Clyne is currently the Chairman of Camel Partners, a private advisory firm, and Camel Foundation, which supports education and child health. He is also the Chairman of Rugby Australia and the Chairman of Whitecoat. He is a Director of the Western Sydney University (WSU) Foundation, the Whitlam Institute, Camp Quality, SANZAAR, a Council member of World Rugby and an Adjunct Professor in the Business School of WSU.

From 2009 to 2014 Cameron was Group Chief Executive of the National Australia Bank (NAB) and the Chairman of Clydesdale Bank. Prior to that role he was Chief Executive of the Bank of New Zealand. Prior to joining the NAB Group was a Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers specializing in Financial Services and worked in their Sydney, Melbourne, New York and San Francisco offices.

In this discussion about the Republic some of the areas we cover include:

  • The economic case for a Republic

  • The importance of symbols

  • Why it makes sense for business to take a position

  • Dealing with “why fix something that isn’t broken?”, and “why now?”

The discussion

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

Cameron Clyne: Well, I think obviously it’s always the desire that the head of state should be a native of our country. But I guess the more important reason to me is an economic one. I think for something really to resonate it's got to actually improve the state of the nation. And I do have a view that in fact becoming a Republic actually is quite important economically for Australia.

Steve Pell: Let's jump into that. Talk me through the mechanics of how you see the economic impact?

Cameron Clyne: Well I look at it from this perspective. Australia is a middle power. We need alliances to succeed in the world. And I guess for the last seventy years we have looked to the US for our national security. That's been our primary security alliance. But for the last 20 years we have increasingly year-by-year looked to Asia for our economic security, given the proximity and its growth.

I think both of those things have been beneficial to us. We've had the strength of a security alliance with a superpower, and we've had the security of an economic alliance with one of the fastest growing regions in the world.

And then you think well, but we've got this historical alliance and link to Britain in relation to how the country was settled. I think you can understand people who say “well that's just symbolic and it doesn't really matter”.

But you do wonder the degree to which our trading partners look at that symbol and question our real commitment to economic integration with Asia. So as we seek to deepen our relationships into Asia, we're sending mixed messages with this historical alliance. I think our trading partners can rightfully question “are you really committed to this region for the long term, or are you acting opportunistically?”. It’s very easy for them to take away the message that we’re hedging our bets.

I think symbols are important, they either matter or they don't. I think symbols do matter, and they should matter otherwise what's the point of a symbol? And I think it would send quite a strong signal that we are really charting our own destiny and we’re committed to playing a strong role in this region. There’s no doubt in my mind that when we make that commitment, there’s additional economic opportunities available to us as a country. That's the perspective I look at it from.

Steve Pell: To be clear, the argument from your perspective is not that this is a front of mind issue for our trading partners at the moment. But by going through the process, we will be sending a very clear signal that Australia is Asia focused and open for business?

Cameron Clyne: I think you can use the Republican debate to send some really powerful messages. Which is we see ourselves as a strong nation, we do see increasing our economic alliances and security with Asia, and we want to send a clear signal that we're free to chart that course.

I think this is about laying down an important marker to push our positioning as a country, and then capitalise off that. Working on that basis we may have more of an opportunity to get involved with trading alliances or other forums. We could use it to lever into a whole bunch of discussions.

Steve Pell: Cameron, as a result of that do you think this is an issue that business should have an opinion on? Should business take a stand?

Cameron Clyne: That's why the economic angle is the right approach. I think there's always a question on the degree to which business should delve into political issues. But the reality is that so much our of social and economic policy has a profound impact on business.

In the marriage equality debate business may well have had a moral sense that was it right, but they also had a strong economic sense that was it was right. They wanted to project an image of tolerance and diversity, not just to their customers but to their staff.

So it is perfectly logical and economic to say we want to promote things that are good for business and good for Australia. If they see their future in Asia and want to deepen their relationships then the case is pretty easy to make. A republic will be a real positive in terms of sending a signal that we're actually charting a course with Asia as our key economic alliance. I think business absolutely should have a right to have a view on that.

Steve Pell: It's really interesting in the context of your discussion about the importance of symbols. For the Australian public it almost seems like the Republic becomes more of an issue when the symbols are prominent.

Having the royals in the country at the moment is only a positive for the Republic movement, because it forces people to remember what the symbols are. Whether it’s having the royals in country, or seeing the monarchists make a song and dance about knighthoods - anything that breaks people out of blissful ignorance is a great thing for the Republic.

Cameron Clyne: I come back to the idea that symbols ought to mean something. And so for those that support a constitutional monarchy, obviously that symbol is really important to them. I don't know what their argument is. But obviously by supporting a constitutional monarchy they feel that symbol has a level of importance. If they say “oh it’s no big deal” or “it doesn't matter” then I think they’ve entered into a self defeating argument.

You can't have it both ways, the symbol either matters or it doesn't. If it matters to people who believe in a constitutional monarchy, then I’d like to understand why does it matter and what signal are you trying to send? If it does matter then tell us why it matters, and why it matters in supporting our economic future.

Steve Pell: This may build directly on that answer, but what do you say to people who say “why change something that's not broken?”

Cameron Clyne: Well, if the alternative is better then that's absolutely the time for change. People change things all the time even if they’re not broken if they can find an alternative that’s better, and the transition to the new is achievable at a reasonable price. I hesitate to draw analogies because they're always kind of clunky, but if you have a 20 year old car, most people would agree that waiting until it breaks to conduct any maintenance or replace parts is not the best strategy. So in this case you can absolutely see a better outcome which is actually quite achievable.

I think it’s also worth considering what the price would be if it breaks. If it was ever to break then the cost would be quite high, and it would obviously expose the issues associated with having a constitutional monarchy.

Steve Pell: Cameron the other response that comes up a lot is, “why do this now, given everything else that's going on”. What’s your perspective on why should we focus on the Republic now?

Cameron Clyne: Because in a sophisticated economy and democracy should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining.

Because that's the time when you can have a rational and sensible debate,  what are the alternatives and how would we operate. You do not want to be engaging in this debate at a point when the system is broken. Because then you get the danger of a hasty solution or a solution that's reached without consideration.

So is this a pressing issue at the moment in the sense that something’s going wrong? No. But that's exactly the right time to do it.

And if people say it’s inevitable, but they’ve been saying that for a long time. It hasn't happened yet so we need to prompt things along and give it a kick start. And because it’s not necessarily a pressing issue means it’s actually a great time to be actually having a rational debate, a debate around what an Australian Republic model would look like.

Steve Pell: In the context of giving things a kick start, I’m interested in what you see as the next step. We already have a majority of support across the Federal Parliament. The only barrier would really seem to be getting the sufficient amount of public agitation to put this on the agenda for politicians to deal with as a first order issue.

How do you think we get that level of agitation, or otherwise put this on the agenda?

Cameron Clyne: I think that's a difficult thing and it’s why I'm attracted to pursuing it from an economic angle. I think it’s much more compelling to say this is an important issue for positioning us economically into the future. I think it’s a much stronger argument for both sides of politics. Focusing on this is about economics and about positioning us for success is not a bad way to be agitating. And we’re in an environment where there’s a lot of discussion around trade and trade alignment. You've got Brexit, NAFTA disputes, a Chinese trade war, the TPP reconstituting, so there’s all sorts of big shifts happening in trading relationships right now.

I think that's actually a really good time to be saying it’s time to send a strong signal about where our trading alliance and our economic security is coming from. And that creates the right priority because then the focus is linked to something that's everyone agrees is important which is Australia's economic security.

Steve Pell: It's a powerful argument. Cameron on that note, thank you so much for your time.