The Business End Of The Republic Debate

28/10/2015 6:28 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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View of Sydney Business District at dusk, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Australia's ability to continue our quarter century of economic growth relies on plugging into the Asian transformation. To bolster our standing in the Asia Pacific century, Australia should become a republic. The business community needs to lead this debate.

Business should participate because there is an economic basis for the republic and there is a wealth of leadership capacity within the business community.

Australia's prosperity being inextricably linked to Asia is widely noted by leaders in Australia's largest industries such as resources, property and financial services.

The opportunity is simply that there will be three billion people in the Asian middle class by 2030.

This transformation is happening on our doorstep and Australia is physically located in the right place at the right time in history. Given this new perspective, Australia is no longer "Down Under", just "southern".

Unfortunately we often adopt a transactional, narrow focus on how we can export resources, agriculture, education and other services to Asia. We rarely discuss the symbolic and identity implications of living in the Asia Pacific century. This is a missed opportunity. Identity, belonging and symbolism are important in Asia.

The recent rebooting of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) creates an opportunity for the business community to engage in the important debate on Australia's identity. Australian republicanism is a good proxy for Australian identity, which retains visible links to Britain through our head of state, money and flag.

The ARM's timing was ideal as it predated the Turnbull Prime Ministership, which has delivered a republican to the leadership of every major political party in Canberra.

A further fillip came from the Lowy Institute's Executive Director, Michael Fullilove in his recent Boyer lectures. Fullilove outlined a strong case that a republic would bolster our standing, as he says a republic "would help make Australia a great nation".

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating made this cutting point last week:

"The Chinese have this word, the chi, the blood energy. An Australian republic would revolutionise Australia's chi, the blood energy, and not just by telling us better who we are and affirming our sovereignty over the place, but it being a powerful economic event into the bargain."

And so the latest iteration of the republic debate offers a chance for business to think about our image and identity in the Asian Century. It is true that our constitutional monarchy status has not been a barrier to building strong economic and cultural ties between Australia and most of Asia. In 2014, our government negotiated free trade agreements with three of our four top trading partners -- China, Japan and South Korea.

The vestiges of colonialism have not held Australia back. Yet.

Legally, Australia is sovereign and independent. We do not suffer from any meddling from Buckingham Palace or Westminster. Technically, the latter cannot do so following the passage of the Australia Acts in 1986.

The real question is how much better could we be?

As a nation that always looks ahead, we should question of the durability of the symbols of "Australianness" we have retained in this Asia Pacific century. Maintaining a constitutional monarchy and the British symbols that come with it are being dispensed with by our neighbours. Both New Zealand and Fiji are now likely to remove the Union Jack from their flag in upcoming plebiscites.

If Australia is to be the last former British Empire country to maintain colonial era symbols, it will become noticeable in global summits.

The forthcoming Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) provides a good example. RCEP is the new trade deal which captures nearly the whole Indo-Pacific. It will be akin to the Trans Pacific Partnership on steroids. The central idea behind RCEP is that the Asia region should strengthen itself through a bloc where we trade with one another.

We borrowed this idea from Europe with the European Union (EU) and North America with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Having an Asian trading bloc means this region will benefit from its own swelling middle classes. Making it easier to trade within our region means we will reduce exporting our tax revenue, growth and jobs to the EU or the Americas.

If we are asking our neighbours to build Asian regional architecture, do we want to remind them that we imagine ourselves as part of Europe or Britain?

Clearly we do not.

The same business logic is used by Colonial First State, the wealth division of the Commonwealth Bank. In its Asian business, the "Colonial" disappears and the "First State" stays.

It makes sense.

Accordingly, a stronger sense of Australian identity in Asia will only increase the durability of our economic standing. The republic debate should therefore be led by the business community.

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