The William and Kate Effect
For the Australian Republican Movement this has become something of an annus horribilis. Julia Gillard, a lifelong republican, has ruled out a referendum on the question while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne, thus taking the timetable out of Australian hands. Tony Abbott, its long-time bête noire, has fortified his leadership of the Liberals. The King's Speech, where the survival of the monarchy was portrayed as a joint Anglo-Australian enterprise, has played to packed houses and even standing ovations. Now comes the public relations juggernaut of the royal wedding, threatening to leave the republican movement flattened, like road kill, in its thundering path. The injuries come with an insult: that of seeing Ms Gillard attend the nuptials in London, the latest in a long line of prime ministers to inflict coronary damage.
This week a new poll suggested that support for a republic has dwindled to its lowest for 17 years. The poll of 1,200 voters conducted for The Australian newspaper found that 41% favoured a republic, the lowest level since 1994. Thirty-nine per cent of those quizzed were opposed to a republic, while the remainder, 20%, had no opinion.
In the face of these setbacks, the republican movement claims with good reason that it is very much alive; but alive, one increasingly senses, in the sense of a hibernating animal for which a full awakening is still a long way off.
Republicans continue to believe that they are on the right side of history, which may very well be true. But the problem right now is that they are on the wrong side of rolling news. Everyday, it seems, the Buckingham Palace press machine serves up yet another William and Kate-related puff piece to a global press corps ravenous for uplifting headlines. A dry constitutional counter-narrative is up against a love story. Neither can the republicans hope to compete with the instant iconography of the wedding in a country where two out of three of the most watched television events in history have involved the Windsors, Diana's wedding and funeral.
If there has been one public relations misstep from London it has been the controversy surrounding the cancellation of The Chaser's take on the wedding on ABC2. The BBC, which is providing the live feed of the service for foreign broadcasters, says that there was always a contractual stipulation making it clear that the real-time footage could not be used for satirical or comedic programming. But here the lingering and occasional sense of deference towards Britain, which lies at the root of much of public and media interest in the wedding, has collided with Australian larrikinism and an instinctive mistrust of people or institutions that take themselves too seriously. "For a monarchy to be issuing decrees about how the media should cover them seems quite out of keeping with modern democratic times," says Julian Morrow, the executive producer of The Chaser, "but I suppose that's exactly what the monarchy is."
One of the reasons why the monarchy has survived so long in Australia, aside from the long-standing constitutional inertia, lack of political consensus and divisions within the republican movement, is because this remains a surprisingly Anglo-centric country where the British-made or British-influenced takes up a huge amount of cultural space. It means that a British head of state is not so incongruous as perhaps it should be in a country so fiercely patriotic, egalitarian and suspicious of elites.
What is particularly striking about the William and Kate Effect is the amount of tabloid space it is taking up - of how it dominating popular culture. It has been particularly noticeable of late, partly because the couple face relatively little competition from home-grown stars of equivalent age. Nicole and Keith, the last Australian objects of a tabloid wedding frenzy, are getting a little long in the tooth. Cate Blanchett increasingly suits the requirements of the broadsheets, while Russell Crowe is more commonly found on the sports pages. Kate and William have helped fill something of a tabloid void, thus performing the dual role of royals and hot celebrities. In this sense, they have not only become an adornment to Australian national life, but a much-needed addition to a tabloid talent pool that has been looking rather shallow. This is not necessarily something that young Australians will automatically want to give up.
Here, Sir Robert Menzies made an often overlooked point in his swooning "I did but see her passing by" speech during the 1963 royal visit, during which he sounded like an adolescent with a crush on the curvy prom queen. In the presence of the young Queen, he called the monarchy: "An addition to our freedom, not a subtraction from it." To this day, it remains a powerful idea, as evidenced by the blanket Australian coverage of the wedding.
Of course, Australia will not get a King William or Queen Kate without Charles and Camilla coming first, at which point the republican movement will make its move. But for now it is stymied. Like Prince Albert in The King's Speech - played with such aplomb by a British republican, Colin Firth - it appears temporarily to have lost its voice. Why, even The Chaser has been taken off air.