If a republic is established, what will happen to the Queen’s Birthday long weekend? Even though ancillary to republicanism, it is important that republicans have an answer.
At the Third Republican Gathering in Brisbane on 5th November 2006, leading the session on “National Day of Celebration”, David Latimer provided background and various approaches. The following is based upon his notes and preparation for that session.
For most republicans, the Queen’s Birthday holiday is an ancillary issue. The main objective is establishing a republic and altering the name of a particular public holiday would be a mundane and uncontentious consequence of this important event.
In contrast, for a large number of Australians, the Queen’s Birthday is one aspect of republicanism that could directly affect their lives. The logical consequence of severing links with crown would be also to remove the necessity of celebrating that crown. Some pub talk would go so far to say that republicanism is a plot by the big end of town to deprive workers of a long weekend.
Republicans may rightly reply, “that’s ridiculous”, yet what percentage of citizens are savvy to the political impossibility of dropping a public holiday? This is an issue for the vast numbers of citizens who are not interested in the machinations of politics and although straightforward, the broader republican movement has not provided uniform assurance that there is no risk.
An example of the difference of thinking between the politically experienced and those who are not, I make reference to a Year 6 group who, prior to the 1999 referendum, contributed to Ink – a newspaper’s website for kids. When discussing the advantages and disadvantages, these children focused on tangible issues. The pro-republican students responded to the certain loss of the Queen’s Birthday holiday by offering President’s Day, and perhaps a separate President’s Birthday and Independence Day to sweeten the deal. There were canny politicians in the making in that class!
In presenting this example, I do not imply that some voters are like children, because there was nothing childish in how these students responded to republicanism. In fact, it is those republicans who have skipped over the practical issues who can be accused of naivety.
Having established, the necessity of dealing with this question, let’s us look at how republicans can approach it. I present four basic options:
- Do nothing. This is a state issue and at the 1998 constitutional convention it was decided that states should independently respond to such issues.
- Provide basic assurance that this public holiday and long weekend is safe.
- Facilitate interest and discussion on a replacement public holiday. Republicans should be true to their commitment to popular sovereignty, so we should encourage a decision that comes from the people. This may generate converts to the republican cause from otherwise disinterested groups of voters.
- Provide a complete solution or a number of solutions. Republicans would propose a new name, date and perhaps purpose for a new public holiday.
Expanding on the last point, it is important to decide if this new public holiday is to be implemented before or only after the establishment of a republic. If government is convinced to alter the holiday prior to a referendum, this would nullify the issue in the minds of all voters.
That said, the Queen’s Birthday Holiday is effectively a day of protest for republicans. It is a day where republican advocates are likely to get some media coverage. We should be aware that if changes are implemented too early, republicans would loose the advantage of being able to highlight the absurdity of an independent Australia formally led by a British Monarch.
It follows that the prudent and most democratic option is to alter his holiday only after Australians have voted in favour of a republic. Nevertheless, republicans should only enter into the referendum debate with a clear commitment from government that this long weekend will be retained in every state, and with a firm concept of the new form of public holiday.
Going beyond a do nothing or basic assurance approach, what are some considerations for a new public holiday for a new republic?
Except for Western Australia, the Queen’s Birthday is held on the second Monday of June. To consider moving the day at all would generate some disquiet. For example, some Victorians associate the day with the start of the ski season. Some cities and rural areas have Show Days which may conflict with the new date. Considerably more opposition would be generated moving it to a completely different time of the year, as this would create a long period without a long weekend in some states. For the same reason, the new holiday wouldn’t be on a fixed date.
A public holiday usually has some meaning. Certain events are associated with the existing Queen’s Birthday holiday, such as the presentation of citizenship, national honours and bravery awards. It follows that the meaning of the new holiday should at least have some association with the events that take place at that time. It would be unfortunate if a future referendum were defeated because of resistance to the new holiday.
The most obvious replacement for a Queen’s birthday would be a President’s Day. This is exactly what the above mentioned students expected, and presumably such logic is apparent to many adults. A President’s Day would automatically be consistent with events currently held on the Queen’s Birthday.
A conservative approach could see a celebration of Commonwealth Day. Under most conceptions of a republic, Australia would retain its ties to the Commonwealth and the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. The great prudence in advocating such a concept is to nullify another myth associated with republicanism, namely that Australia would loose its Commonwealth membership and could not participate in the Commonwealth Games. The disadvantage is that this day already exists during the month of April, although this obstacle is no greater than celebrating the Queen’s Birthday when it’s not actually her birthday.
Other replacements include Citizenship Day, currently held on September 17, and Democracy Day from the investigations of University law lecturer John Pyke. Looking at United Nations’ calendar, there is nothing outstanding during June or July.
Perhaps the most commonly heard replacement for the Queen’s Birthday is Wattle Day. This would involve moving the long weekend to the start of September. Such a day has some historical background in Australia and it would be appropriate to confer honours on this day as the design of the Order of Australia medallion, medal and ribbon is based upon the yellow Wattle flower. In celebrating a part of Australian flora, we would expect some people organising events in reflection of the natural environment.
Rather than advocate a particular form of celebration, I hope that your interested has been whetted. It is a welcome change from the dry discussions of republicanism and constitutional change.
There should be no difficulty for republicans to provide assurance that public holidays will not be lost in the transition to a republic. That is an action to be undertaken today. Having made the decision, be sure it is included in your policy documents and on your website, if you have one. From this starting point, why not invite your fellow republicans to share their views on this topic. Better yet, find a way to invite Australians in general for their input.
At the appropriate time, the republic contribution should be handed over to state governments to establish a decision-making process prior to a referendum. We should advocate that the process involve the public as far as possible, perhaps to the extent a plebiscite question is asked. Regardless of the process, the decision must be seen as coming from citizens rather than politicians or bureaucrats.
Although strictly ancillary to republicanism, the issue of the Queen’s Birthday holiday allows republicans, in concert with the public, to contribute to Australian culture beyond the desired constitutional changes. By doing our homework, considering all issues thoroughly and putting the public’s mind at ease, we show Australia is ready to tackle the fundamental questions that will shape our nation’s future.