The balance of the world is shifting. Europe is on the brink of collapse, with austerity in countries across Western Europe failing to arrest the downgrading of their credit ratings and southern Europe on the brink of default. The United States is trying to put its own economic house in order, while we face a rapid rise of Asian economies and cultures, the region that will define the opportunities of this century.
Australia is part of this global flux. We have the chance to position ourselves for decades ahead; the kind of positioning that is just as important as any immediate, material concern. With the world changing, we have the opportunity to define our direction.
And yet, it seems as though the prominence of the republican movement is at an ebb, with opponents seeking to characterise the challenges of destiny arising from global change as a reason for us to relegate discussions around Australia’s Head of State, or our political system, to the second order.
The fact is, no matter what the time, opposition to the republican movement has always been thus. The arguments against republicanism are retrospective, and they are tired, at exactly the time when we need to be looking ahead.
Critics of republicanism stake their case on the household logic that: “if it ain’t broke, you oughtn’t fix it.” Such a simplistic notion is anathema to me and many from the progressive side of politics, where our goal has never been just to stand still but always to make things better. The implication of the ain’t-broke mentality is that republicanism is the purview of those with a radical reform agenda.
But it is difficult to maintain that Australian republicanism should be the purview of radicals and revolutionaries. Republicanism in contemporary Australia would be better described as a recognition than any sort of regicide; an acknowledgment that we have created our own society with more to do with our neighbours than with some of our ancestors, and with the most to do with our own selves.
Nothing of this kind of republicanism needs to devalue the traditions of our democratic culture that continue to be relevant today. There is no contradiction in my belief and participation in the Westminster system of government, of the rights and liberties promoted and promulgated by the British Empire of old, and my belief that Australian desperately needs its own Head of State.
When our new democratic nation was born out of the federation movement, through the initiative of Australian democrats like Andrew Inglis Clark and Sir Henry Parkes; on 1 January 1901, what was so significant was the fact that it happened through the granting of a yes or no vote – participatory democracy -although not all were eligible or entitled to participate of course.
No other nation at that moment in history had been created through the vote. More common were nations born out of war, rebellions or great heroism. From that time on, the constitution has only been successfully amended, through referenda, eight times.
Peter Hartcher in his book The Sweet Spot writes of Australia being modelled on the American Union, yet no one asked the American people to vote on the Declaration of Independence. (Hartcher 2011) Despite the linkages both politically, economically and socially between Australia and the United States of America today, there is a fundamental difference that occurred at the time of the formation of our two great nations. Our nation was born from democracy, theirs from war, our delegates were elected, their delegates were self appointed or formed by loose assembly. Yet at that moment of nation creation, Australia held onto the British monarchy, whilst American tore away from it. A difference these two modern countries continue on with today.
Our respective Constitutions were inspired by different passions, but both nations shared a similar cultural heritage.
America ended its association with Britain by rejecting a monarch they saw as a tyrant, dissolving their link with the Crown altogether and installing a Head of State with as little resemblance to the king of Great Britain, in the great words of Alexander Hamilton, as to the khan of Tartary. (Hamilton 1788)
But America held onto the rights of Englishmen, continuing to exalt the British tradition of liberty found in John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. More than that, America turned British values into American values, inspired by the Glorious Revolution rather than eternally limited by it.
American culture, shaped by the self-belief of a country that was willing to confidently assert its place in world, has now become a global phenomenon and a guiding light for progressives and conservatives alike.
Whilst we created a nation built on the vote, our vote was not perfect, and the horror of colonial stain on indigenous Australia remains, and remains another reason to amend our constitution.
Yet that historical vote for federation is significant to reflect upon because today Australia is in the throes of the need of another great historical vote. Not a general election or a favourite band. But a vote to define our nation, just as our forefathers did in 1901.
While some of our legal institutions changed quickly after 1901 – including a rejection of some of the more arcane aspects of British democracy, such as replacement of the unelected House of Lords in favour of the Senate – others, including our sovereignty balancing on the pivot of Royal Assent, remained. Without a confident institutional catalyst for our new nation, our culture did not change or experience the progress of other republics, like the United States or India. Instead, inertia ensured that we were still more loyal subjects than free citizens of a newly independent state. We continued to defer to Britain, and our policies continued to more reflect British priorities and realities than our own.
Australian citizenship became a reality in 1949, but according to former Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen, held, “none of the aura which surrounds the concept of being a citizen of the United States nor [with] being a citizen of France.” (Stephen 2000)
Why an Australian Head of State? Because it is only the republics of the world which have the political institutions on which to etch out national values and a national identity. It is exactly the President and the republican ethic on which American values could evolve British liberties; and it is only a republic which will enable Australian values to fully come into their own.
Slowly, some of the particularly British cultural artefacts in Australia did fade away. The despicable White Australia Policy finally ended in 1973, ending the overt racial discrimination in our migration system that had been based on a belief that our English heritage should continue to defy every part of our society. God Save the Queen gave way to consideration of our own national anthem in 1974. And in 1994, less than two decades ago, reference to the Crown was removed from the Pledge of Commitment, replaced by a solemn respect for democracy, rights and liberties and the rule of law.
What it means is that more than 80 percent of new Australian citizens who do not hail from the United Kingdom no longer have to swear allegiance to a monarch who has never had an impact on their lives. They have come from all over the world, to a society that is tolerant and multicultural; that is based on Western liberal democracy but inclusive of all points of the compass rose. They have come especially from Asia, the continent we know will be definitive through the twenty-first century.
And they have come not for an empire upon which the sun never sets, but for a sunburnt country whose soldiers are surf-life savers. They swear loyalty to their new community, Australia and its people, their new way of the life and the land which they have chosen to call home. Their bond is to Australia.
The heritage our new citizens honour when they took that Pledge on Australia Day last week is the heritage of Australia, not the tradition of a colonial power. And it is time that all of us recognised what our new citizens do: that we don’t need to pretend that British history is our history. Our country has its own history.
That history began 50,000 years ago, when Aboriginal Australians formed communities and founded nations across some of the most difficult landscapes in the world, and in doing so forged a connection to Country that is as certain as it is profound. I believe that contemporary Australia is a place in which that connection to Country can coexist with the deep spiritual beliefs of other parts of our community; that we can share our spaces and respect each other’s cultures.
Why an Australian Head of State? Because an Australia that defines itself with reference to another nation cannot be an enabler of Australian rights, interests or endeavour. It will always find those elements outside its definition to be other: and it makes foreigners of patriots; aliens of Australians, even those here for the longest time.
Just last week, the Government received advice from the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Recognition of our original Australians in our most fundamental governing document is well overdue. But just as we changed in 1967 with a successful referendum on racially discriminatory aspects of the Constitution – we can move forward on this issue. And we can move forward on an Australian republic. But make no mistake, this is a debate that will only be won with leadership.
Just as Sir Henry Parkes lit the federation movement in his Tenterfield speech in 1889, we need to find leadership in the Australian community to light the republican movement in 2012. And it is exactly leadership that will drive this movement forward as it has tried to do in the past.
Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister, inherited a Constitution and government system entrenched deeply in the British monarchy. And like many things in government, he moved into other matters of importance at the time, protectionism and regulating working conditions which has continued to provide the living wage still in place today. Of course Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher then later enshrined the minimum wage out of the Harvester judgement.
But the leadership of Deakin and Fisher and Parkes helped begin the definition of Australia as a nation, leaving behind the British class system, instead creating a nation based on egalitarianism, or the notion of the ‘fair go’ to which we still refer today. Yet there was nothing egalitarian about an Australia that was tied to the British monarchy.
It took another 78 years for a brave Prime Minister to try to change it. Following from handwritten notes after his meeting in 1993 with Her Majesty the Queen at Balmoral Castle, he wrote a “note for file” in 2001 which has been recently released. It said in part:
I had come from Australia on the unpleasant errand to tell her, in all conscientiousness, that we did not need her any more. (Keating 2011)
He went on to write:
I wanted her to understand how and why Australia had changed, how it was different now than the way she might have found it in 1954 when she first visited.
I reminded her of our former policy of white Australia, how it had come close to marginalising us in a way that South Africa had been marginalised. That we live in the East Asian hemisphere and that for 50 years we had had an ambitious migration program which had changed our character; I told her the monoculture was a thing of the past. (Keating 2011)
This Australian leader wrote that:
I reminded her that on our doorstep stood 200 million Indonesians- the largest Islamic country in the world. Australia had to be relevant in these places. I told the Queen that task was made more difficult when we appeared uncertain as to who we are; when our Head of State was not one of us, when we go to the region as the
Australian nation with all of our hopes and aspirations yet go with the monarch of another country. With a monarch whom a great number of Australians – especially of non-Anglo descent – feel no association with, nor any affection for.
I told the Queen as politely and gently as I could that I believed the majority of Australians felt the monarchy was now an anachronism; that it had gently drifted into obsolescence. Not for any reason associated with the Queen personally but for the simple reason she was not in a position to represent their aspirations. They were Australian, she was British. (Keating 2011)
That brave man was of course Paul Keating: the only Australian leader to tell the Queen her service to Australia was no longer relevant and that Australia should become a republic. A leader ahead of his time, some may say. Yet a leader with a vision for Australia to define itself not on the British monarchy that remained part of our constitution of 1901, but on its values and makeup of its people in the twenty-first century. For me I connected with his sentiment and it was from his leadership that I became a republican. I identify, as an Australian with a non-Anglo decent father and an Anglo-Australian mother, with the aspirations of Australians being represented by one of their own and the relevant Asian geography in which we find Australia.
In 2011, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced the creation of a white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. If the 19th century was the European century, and the 20th the American century, this century is most assuredly to be the Asian century.
And if it ever made sense in the early stages of settlement, or in the midst of the White Australia policy, to anchor ourselves in the capacity of England, it does not make sense now. Australia is well and truly capable of forging our own destiny. A destiny which recognises we are in the midst of the fastest growing region in the world.
And as the only Western country in the Asian region, we have an extraordinary opportunity to be involved in the region which will shape our world for the next hundred years. We should recognise our place in this region, and invest the time necessary to be a nation that lives, works and plays as much abroad as we do at home. Only 20 percent of Australians currently working in China, for example, can speak the language. (Orton 2008) There is a mentality that we punch out at the end of our time in China, we come safely home to the West. But we can no longer afford to think of ourselves as simply visitors to this region, we are part of it.
Learning a second language is crucial to our engagement. Not just to enable people to communicate when they might not otherwise have been able, but to provide the ability to far better understand differences in culture; to understand not just what is said, but why, and to reflect on the diversity of experiences and perspectives. We can no longer fall back on the safety of the mother tongue.
The strength of the Tiger economies of South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan speak for themselves. The Association of South-East Asian Nations, comprising countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, is now one third larger than Australia in market exchange rate terms. China and India have coupled amazing economic growth to triple their share of the global economy in the last twenty years. In the next twenty years, their share of the global economy will grow from a fifth to a third. We can no longer rely on the bounty of the Empire.
Why an Australian Head of State? Because Australia is far from the antipodes; it is from this region that the agenda for the future will be set, and it is from this country that we must shape the attitudes and mould how we are perceived by our neighbours – as a country with control of its own agenda, and able to be involved in the region’s affairs.
It is our own leadership on which we ought to be relying; our own strengths and people; our own institutions. We need to look to the future in reference to who we are: a multicultural society comprised of new arrivals from all over the world; an economy with the advantage of adjacency; and a polity with robust, distinctly Australia institutions and attitudes.
We have distinguished ourselves in so many ways and we are fortunate in this country to have the kind of leadership it would take to begin the transition to a republic. Unlike other conservative nations of the Commonwealth, like Canada, the forces that would actively resist a republic do not have the authority of Government. We have a Prime Minister who believes in Australian republicanism. We have the energy and enthusiasm for the campaign that comes from progressive community organisers and activists who are proud of the Australia in which they live, not the colony about which monarchists reminisce.
As Keating said,
Governments can wait for opinion to force their hand, or they can lead. They can wait for the world to change and respond as necessity demands, or they can see the way the world is going and point the way. (Keating 1995)
Yet despite our support, despite the opportunities before us, the republican movement too often hesitates. Perhaps chastened by the referendum in 1999 which was set up to fail, we equivocate, deferring to the macabre idea that we should wait until Queen Elizabeth passes on. Even when the influence of the Royal Family is waning, even when the influence of the United Kingdom and Europe is being fundamentally challenged by our Asian neighbours, our opponents baulk at progress.
Let us ensure the idea of an Australian republic with an Australian Head of State occupies a central place in our national political debate once again. Let us take the idea of our own Australia to our workplaces, our schools, our kitchen tables and our leaders. Let us seize the opportunities presented by the leadership in this country. Let us build up the republican movement, mark out our own path in this region by taking pride in our country and our belief in our unique place in the world and build the momentum that can shape our future.
Just as Sir Henry Parkes had to fight the ‘no’ campaign of federation, we will rise to fight the ‘no’ campaign of an Australian republic with vigour and fortitude and belief in the nation we want to define for the future. A nation with our own Head of State that is truly Australian.
Lisa Singh is a Labor Senator for Tasmania. She is the former convenor of the Australian Republican Movement Tasmanian Branch, and was a Tasmanian Government Minister from 2008 – 2010.
Alexander Hamilton, 1788, No 69. The Real Character of the Executive in The Federalist Papers, Project Gutenberg.
Peter Hartcher, 2011, The Sweet Spot, Black Inc., Collingwood.
Paul Keating 1995, Speech to the House of Representatives 7 June 1995.
Paul Keating 2011, After Words: Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Jane Orton 2008, Chinese Language Education in Australian Schools, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Sir Ninian Stephen, ‘Australian citizenship: past, present and future’, Monash University Law Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001.