Australian history

Australian Republic

Why is Australia not a republic?

With all the changes wrought by World War II, Australia was in the 1950s still a British society. I can testify to that. In school I learnt British history, geography and poetry. At recess we played a rough game known as British bulldog. On Monday morning we sang ‘God save the King’ and after 1952 ‘God Save the Queen’. When the Queen visited in 1954, and drew the largest crowds in Australian history, the boys at my school had the honour of performing what were known as physical jerks in front of her. At the Monday morning ceremony when the Union Jack was raised we intoned these words:

         I am an Australian
         I love my country the British Empire
         I honour her King, King George the Sixth
         I salute her flag, the Union Jack
         I promise cheerfully to obey her laws

In the 1960s British Australia came to an end. It was announced by Britain itself when it sought membership of the European Community. Of all the ways in which it was envisaged that Australia would depart from Britain, none had Britain abdicating its position as head of the British world. It was the Brits who finally pushed Australians into being only Australians.                          

A ‘new nationalism’ emerged to replace the gap left by the British abdication. Australia equipped itself with all the panoply of independent nationhood: a national anthem, an oath of allegiance, more support for Australian artistic works, a system of honours, Australian-born governors and governors general, an end to appeals to the Privy Council. From the 1960s a few prominent writers and intellectuals called for a republic, a subject no longer taboo but still highly controversial.

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The Australian Republican Movement, formed in 1991, was notable for the narrowness of its aims. It focussed solely on the republic to which no other causes were to be hitched and the republican changes it sought were minor. The governor-general should be replaced by a president with similar powers (chiefly ceremonial) selected by a two-thirds vote of a joint sitting of parliament. The movement never had a large membership, but was far more influential than its predecessors. The Sydney republicans of the 1880s forged invitations and disrupted meetings. The Australian Republican Movement of 1991 was launched at a five-star Sydney hotel and since its leaders were so well connected two policemen of the special branch guarded the door. The movement came from within the new establishment of Sydney, comprising people from business, the professions, media and the arts who were, variously, wealthy, successful and famous. It encouraged branches in other states but only in Sydney was there this galaxy of talent.

The leaders of the movement were moved chiefly by status concerns. They felt themselves and their nation demeaned by the remaining connection to Britain. It was absurd that a successful multicultural nation close to Asia should still be shackled to the British monarchy. The nation needed its own identity. They spoke of a nation that was not yet mature; a nation that had not fully left its colonial past; a nation not fully realised. It must signal a new beginning by a break from Britain.  Not all Australians shared these views, not even all who were willing to support a republic, but they do point to the reasons why a move to a republic had emerged much stronger in Australia than it was to do later in Canada and New Zealand.

The gap that the republicans sensed in their national history was true enough: Australians had no story of the origin of their polity. The landmark of 1901, the creation of a democratic nation, was eclipsed by the enthusiasm for empire and the symbolic strength of soldiers who fought for it.  The landmark of 1931, the establishment of dominion independence, had been spurned (as it was by New Zealand). The result is that even the High Court cannot say when Australia became an independent nation.

The absence of civic memory in Australia is highlighted by its national day being no more than the anniversary of the arrival of the British at Sydney Cove in 1788.  The federation fathers thought that 1 January would become Commonwealth Day, a true national day, to honour the inauguration of the federation, but after one year it was forgotten and 1 January reverted to being solely New Year’s Day. By contrast, Canada’s national day celebrates the creation of the Canadian federation in 1867. New Zealand’s national day celebrates not the first British settlement, but the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between the Governor and Maori chiefs, now regarded as the nation’s founding document. 

Of the three dominions, the composition of Australia’s population had changed the most in modern times. It used to be 98% British and proudly white (which Canada could not approach because of the French and New Zealand because of the Maori). Since the purity of Australia’s population was under threat from Japan, it had to look to Britain for protection. The fall of Singapore and the advance of the Japanese did not lead to a lessening of the British allegiance, but after the war it did propel the nation to its massive migration programme. In the planning only 10 per cent of the intake was to be non-British, but immediately it was much higher than that. The source countries widened and in the 1960s the strategic danger of Australia in Asia led to a reversal of previous policy: the abandonment of White Australia and the encouragement of migration from Asia. From the most British dominion, Australia had become the most multicultural.

Australia had more to live down in its past than the other dominions. Unlike Canada and New Zealand it did not make treaties with its indigenous people. Those two dominions excluded Asian immigration but without making it central to national identity with a racial banner. Australia was closest to Asia and had been the most offensive to Asians.

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At the republican referendum held in 1999 the monarchists did not support the Queen. They joined with those wanting a directly-elected president to oppose a president approved by the parliament. This was denounced as a politicians’ republic – even by politicians. The people should hold out for something better – a president elected by themselves. The monarchists hoped that by killing this proposal there would be no other. The proposal was comfortably defeated – a 45% Yes vote nationally with no state recording a majority. Half those who voted No were supporters of a republic. A proposal for a directly-elected president (which the politicians would not have put) would almost certainly have been carried.

The Australian Republican Movement had opted for a president elected by the parliament because it was determined on success. Given the long history of failed constitutional referendums, change should be kept to a minimum.  They knew the politicians would not want to create a head of state with a popular mandate who might challenge the authority of a prime minister and so disturb the Westminster system of government.  They knew the Australian people did not want a politician for a head of state. The best way to avoid that was to force both the major parties to agree on a candidate: hence the provision for a two-thirds vote in the parliament. If there were an open election the parties would run candidates and a politician or someone supported by a political party would be elected.

Their scheme failed because of the seeming perversity of the people: by preferring the direct election of the president, they would likely get a president who was the opposite of the type they wanted. In old British Australia an appeal to the principles of the Westminster system of parliamentary government would have carried more weight, but a republic was only being proposed because British Australia was long gone. The common understanding was that Australia was a democracy and if so the people should themselves elect the president.  A directly-elected president was preferred in part because some people wanted to disturb the existing system of government. They wanted a president who would ‘kick ass’ and make politicians keep their promises. Instead of giving Australia a new identity, the Australian Republican Movement had provided the opportunity for a populist revolt.

This is an edited extract from Australian History in 7 Questions by John Hirst, published by Black Inc. Books and out now.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

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