Politics

Federal politics

This Time
Australia’s republican past and future: a Benjamin T. Jones book extract

“Australia was born in chains and is not yet fully free.” With these words, the eminent historian John Hirst began his 1994 book, A Republican Manifesto. Some may cringe at the implications. Australia’s human history did not begin when shackled white feet took their first steps around Sydney Harbour in the late eighteenth century, but over fifty thousand years earlier, at the conclusion of an epic journey over land bridges and open seas from Africa. But what of freedom? Even if Australian history is measured only from British colonisation to the present day, surely the nation’s evolution from penal settlement to democratic society is complete? Not exactly.

Here’s a riddle: if a slave is offered freedom but rejects it, is that rejection an act of freedom? From a constitutional perspective, Australia is far from free. That great edifice of democracy, the federal parliament, operates (technically, at least) only at Her Majesty’s pleasure. This is the paradox of Australian freedom. It has already been won but sits rejected. In the heated republican debates of the 1990s, few noted the irony that the proposed constitutional changes would require royal assent. The point was largely moot, however, as the Queen agreed to sign off on the republican project if the referendum carried.

Accurate or not, Hirst’s words were powerful. They still are. They speak of a nation still looking for its “republican moment”, and still seeking new symbols, songs and laws, to replace an old identity that has, as Carlyle might phrase it, “altogether vanished like a dream”.

To propose that an Australian should be Australia’s head of state does not appear revolutionary or incendiary. If anything, it seems rather banal and obvious. “Isn’t that already the case?” some may even ask. Flip an Australian coin and you’ll have your answer. Under Australia’s Westminster parliamentary democracy, the head of state is distinct from the head of government (the prime minister). The head of state is a symbolic but important role. She or he represents the country, embodies its national ideals, celebrates its triumphs and mourns its tragedies. In the twenty-first century, few would argue that a crowned head in a British palace really epitomises modern Australia. It would be downright peculiar to claim that members of the House of Windsor possess some magical element in their DNA that makes them superior to any Australian who might aspire to high office. If the country were founded today, to suggest that the head of state should be an Australian would be no more than common sense.

In the revolutionary northern winter of 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the famous pamphlet that did much to spark the American Revolution. In it Paine insisted that the distinction between royal and common was bunk, and that all men were equal. It would take over a century for the sentiment to be expanded to include women and people of colour, but his concept of the essential equality of all humanity was nevertheless etched into the American national psyche. It is simply common sense. In modern Australia, it is common sense also. And yet, unlike in the United States, here the heredity birthright of monarchy is still constitutionally valid. A nation that prides itself on democracy, meritocracy and community relies on undemocratic means to appoint a non-citizen to the highest civic office. A former prime minister, Paul Keating, once claimed that a European monarch presiding over an Australian democracy was an “accident of history”. Indeed, it is to history we must turn to understand how Australia’s national identity and symbols evolved, and why it is still waiting for its republican moment.

To be or not to be an independent Australian republic. From the dispossession of the traditional owners to the centenary of Federation, the question has not been whether but when Australia might become a full and free member of the family of nations. The arrival of Europeans in Australia was preceded by the United States’ Declaration of Independence in 1776 and succeeded by the French Revolution in 1789. These world-changing events augured well for an Australian Republic. It was seen by many colonial Australians, and many Australians today – incorrectly – as inevitable. In 1807 the Scottish jurist and politician Sir James Mackintosh visited Botany Bay and warned that this “unmixed community of ruffians” would throw off the English yoke within fifty years and form a “republic of pirates, the most formidable that ever roamed the seas”. Had he lived long enough to see it, the gunfire of Eureka may have (even temporarily) appeared to fulfil this prophecy. But the hard lesson of the United States had been learned by the bureaucrats of empire. Australian independence was still seen as inevitable, but with democratic concessions granted there was no need to press the issue.

The designation of inevitability can be a poisoned chalice. It at once legitimises the cause while robbing it of impetus. When colonial republicans made the case for an Australian republic in the mid-nineteenth century, the response was: “Let’s first secure responsible government.” As the century came to a close, the republican voice rose again. “Not now,” came the answer; “we should federate first.” A century later – with the British Empire a distant memory, with a federal policy of multiculturalism having replaced White Australia, with all legal connection to the British parliament severed, with the chance to host the world at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and at the dawn of the “Asian century” – an opportunity finally arose for the nation to become fully independent, with a constitution that would not require the assistance of a foreign monarch. Surely this was to be Australia’s republican moment. As fate would have it, the Australian men’s rugby team contested the final of the World Cup in the United Kingdom on the same day as the 1999 referendum. The Wallabies were victorious; the republicans were not. Australia stumbled at this final hurdle and was left to repent at its leisure.


Australia is in a kind of nationalist purgatory. No longer British, it is with a whimper rather than a roar that Australianness is declared. Perhaps this should be unsurprising. The fruits of ultranationalism were revealed as sour during the two world wars and the many other bloody episodes of the twentieth century. By the time Australia finally surrendered its imperial identity and dismantled its race-based immigration system in the 1960s and 1970s, there was little appetite to replace it with a xenophobic Australian nationalism. But surely Australians do not have to choose between an angry, exclusive nationalism and eternal prostration before a distant European monarch? Can Australia aspire to be a reconciled republic, with a constitutional preamble that honours rather than excludes First Nations people? Can Australia be a republic founded on the principles of democracy, diversity and equality? Is it impossible for us to have positive patriotism – to be a country that prides itself on its tolerance and inclusion? Historical timing has not been kind to Australian republicanism, but a republic is the only form of government worthy of a free and democratic society. As Indigenous academic Anthony Dillon stresses, let’s not become “just a republic” but “a just republic”. A republic rooted in the good soil of egalitarianism and social justice is not easy and not inevitable. It requires hard work and hard thought.

Australia is Hamlet. Like the Danish prince whose tragic flaw was hesitation, Australia has hobbled into the twenty-first century still unsure of its place in the world. Shakespeare’s most celebrated creation knows from Act I what he must do. Having seen his murdered father’s ghost, he is determined to seek revenge on Claudius. Plagued by indecision, however he misses his opportunities. The circumstances are never quite exactly right. There is always more planning to be done, a more perfect time to strike. Australia too has given in to fear. Lacking leadership, national pride and a strong sense of self, it has clung to imperial relics and symbols long after they lost their meaning and relevance. In 1852 the Reverend Doctor John Dunmore Lang published Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia. Like the United States, he argued, surely it is Australia’s destiny to gain independence from Britain and blossom into a great and mighty nation. Yes, but not yet, reasoned the public at the time. Yes, but not yet, they said again at Federation. Yes, but not yet, the people decided in 1999. Yes, but not yet, we say still. But if not now, when?

Political debate can be technical and tiresome. With many Australians ignorant of what the Constitution actually says, let alone the nuances of legal argument, the case for change is necessarily difficult. Those who advocate for change have the dual task of explaining both what the Constitution says and why it should be updated. To this end, monarchists certainly hold the upper hand. Anyone involved with competitive debating will tell you that the Negative team always has an intrinsic advantage. The Affirmative team must stand for something, and must present a positive argument to support their stance. The Negative team does not have to take up the opposite view – they merely have to cast doubt. If the Affirmative fail to prove their thesis, the Negative win by default. So it is with the republic debate. The most striking feature of Australian monarchists is their ironic reluctance to defend monarchy as a system. Just as was done during the 1990s campaign, they are not presenting an argument for hereditary monarchy but rather casting fear and doubt over a potential republic. Let us indulge for a minute in a hypothetical exercise and imagine what the republic debate might look like if the roles were reversed.

Australia is one of the only nations in the world with a constitution that actively discriminates against its own citizens. In most countries it is a constitutional requirement that all public offices – especially the highest one of all, that of head of state – be occupied by a citizen, by someone belonging to and devoted to that nation. The Australian Constitution explicitly forbids any Australian from holding this position of honour, no matter how worthy the potential candidate. The head of state can never be an Aboriginal Australian, for instance. The face on the back of every coin will always be an unelected British monarch, no matter how unworthy.

Under the protocols of our Westminster system, Elizabeth II holds a symbolic and ceremonial position in Australia. So does it really matter, then, that she is not Australian, and merely an occasional visitor? Yes. If Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology to Indigenous Australians taught us anything, it is that symbols do matter. Symbols are powerful. And the message these symbols convey shapes our nation. The not-so-subtle message in the current constitutional quagmire is that Australia is still an infant, needing help from the older and wiser mother country in this dangerous world. The message sent to Australian kids is that talent and hard work will only take you so far: some positions are reserved for your betters. The message sent to the world in this dynamic Asian Century is that Australia still identifies as a small, white, colonial outpost, rather than as an independent, multicultural nation, an active member of the region, and the home of the oldest continuing cultures on Earth.

Australia has become republic-like without having a republican moment. There was no war against Britain or declaration of independence; rather, the two nations drifted apart, peacefully and amicably. The racist ideology of White Australia was not discarded in one dramatic gesture but was gradually rejected and replaced over decades. Australia’s treatment of and attitudes towards Indigenous people also evolved slowly. Those who imagined in the early twentieth century that their role was to “smooth the dying pillow” of an ancient culture would have marvelled to hear the Yanyuwa language spoken in the Senate when Malarndirri McCarthy gave her maiden speech in 2016. Australia today is unrecognisably different to the place it was a century ago. Perhaps our republican moment will come on the day when these vast changes are not only recognised but celebrated.

It is time for some national soul searching. Is Australia proud to be multicultural and diverse, a nation that vehemently rejects racism? Do Australians really cherish the principles of egalitarianism and the fair go? Is Jack really as good as his master? How about Jill? Do Australians really believe that all people are equal and should be judged on their character and actions, not their lineage and birthright? If Australia truly is the democratic society it claims to be, then the system is broken. Let’s fix it.

This is an edited extract from Benjamin T. Jones’ This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future, published by Black Inc, available now.

Benjamin T. Jones

Benjamin T. Jones is a Research Fellow in the School of History, ANU. His other books include Republicanism and Responsible Government and Project Republic (as co-editor).

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