This essay is one in a five part series addressing the issue of republicanism in Australia today
“The Australian Republic. It is only a dream of today, a pretty dream, but who knows that in some 20 years – perhaps less – it will not be a reality?” – Courrier Australien, 1893.
Republicanism is a matter of instinct, not reason. Yet if one needs reason, simply follow this nation’s foundational beliefs to their end point. The present system is antithetical to egalitarianism, and relying on a foreign monarch should make even modest patriots blush. Such is the paradox of Australian identity: we may be the land of the fair go, but we still have a monarchy. One can be forgiven for thinking the republic is inevitable.
Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the republic. Inevitability has bred generations of complacent republicans. We are told most Australians don’t like radical change, and republicans have been happy to oblige, perpetually postponing “the inevitable”. Perhaps first after we reach a population of one million, then secondly after Federation (or a hundred years hence at its centenary). Perhaps once the Queen passes, but even then, reconciliation must come first. In truth, the time for a republic came long ago. The doctrine of inevitability stands discredited, only republicans seem to have missed the memo.
Republicans have advanced with a self-defeating combination of historical determinism (which makes us seem smug) and short-term complacency (which makes us uninspiring). We claim the republic will fix our national identity, but that it is also a small, benign, technocratic constitutional revision, nothing to be fearful of, but certainly nothing to be inspired by. Monarchists shrewdly exploit this trepidation. If becoming a republic wouldn’t really change that much, why believe in one at all? The only thing inevitable about a republic is the phrase: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The time for a republic is now – it is time to concede that it is no small matter; it would change this country greatly, and for the better. Undoubtedly, this approach invites vociferous criticism. But it also inspires Australians to become nation builders, rather than debaters of constitutional semantics. So long as the debate remains the latter, monarchists will win. I say nation building because the greatest aspirations of our movement will be realised in the process of becoming a republic, rather than the change itself. It demands a national conversation. This conversation would empower us to develop the cultural nuance to embrace history’s achievements, and reject its failures. Australian republicanism wears neither a black armband nor a white blind-fold. We could deal a deathblow to the cultural cringe, by removing the last symbolic vestiges of sycophantic longing to be more like the ‘mother country’. We can reframe our identity, not in opposition to, but as part of Asia. Who could not love our country so, to deny us all this?
To seize this moment, we must learn from mistakes of the past. Defeat was preordained in ’99 when the most crucial decision – a model – was taken by an elite constitutional convention. Half of all delegates were appointed, and voting for the rest was optional. This was faux-republicanism, for it rejected its key virtue: civic participation. It is the driving moral force of republicanism to improve democracy via greater participation. Unless we remember this, monarchists will (to our great shame) continue to succeed in claiming to be anti-elitists.
With this in mind, the current proposal of a two-part process (endorsed by the ARM and ALP) is a welcome development. First, Australians will agree in principle that Australia should have an Australian head of state. Second, people will vote on the model. By the time we become a republic, we will have already imbibed its virtues of participation and public deliberation.
For the vote to succeed we need to ditch the banal and uninspiring slogans that one would expect if Abbott ran the ARM. “Give an Aussie kid the top job” and “A mate for head of state” are hardly slogans that will change history. Once Keating hoped the republic would cure the cultural cringe, now it is its purest expression. Republicans should run a progressive yet patriotic campaign. For too long those who seek to undermine our greatest national achievements – such as the world’s most successful multicultural society – have coopted the mantle of patriotism. The republic can find its relevance in contemporary debates by presenting itself as a broad defence of the values that made Modern Australia. Sadly, our cultural iconography lends undue legitimisation to those who view Australian identity as white identity. The apex of our political system remains open only to members of the British Royal family, who must be Anglican. Our flag pays unique homage to one cultural ancestry – Great Britain. Until we update our national symbols to reflect the values we claim to hold, white identitarianism will always be a legitimised strand of Australian patriotism. Becoming a republic is the first step towards a broader, healthier patriotism.
Allow me to make a slightly more conservative case. Conservatism’s essential insight is that societies develop organically, over long periods of time; they are precarious in nature. Social cohesion is the fabric that weaves complex nation-states together, and it can be destroyed faster than it is built. In so far as it preserves this cohesion, patriotism is a moral good. Surely then, national identity that invites patriotism on the basis of shared values (not racial or cultural heritage) is a cherished conservative ideal. This is what the republic offers.
A close friend once confided in me that she had always felt immensely proud to be an Australian, but did not feel such sentiments were publically expressible. Embracing Australian identity currently defined would be rejecting one’s cultural heritage. After all, how could a Chinese-Australian drape themselves in a flag that displays the ensign flown during the opium wars? More importantly, how does an Indigenous Australian buy into a system that still honours the institution in whose name their land and culture was denied then destroyed? At best, Monarchists have no answer to these questions. At worst, they deny their importance at all. Defenders of the British Monarchy in Australia are many things – patriots they are not.
There will always be those who argue the time for a republic has not yet arrived. This is nothing but a delay tactic; there is nothing inevitable about our history. To me, the republic is unfinished business; a promise vetoed by a generation still wedded to an Australia I have never known. There truly has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, and the time for a republic is now.
Louis Devine is the Youth Convener for the Australian Republic Movement.