March 2008


A nation's state

By Mark McKenna
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin, along the promenade directly in front of the National Library, a series of stone plaques, erected in 2006, commemorates every Australian of the Year since the award's inception in 1960. Manning Clark and Alan Bond are there, as are Patrick White, John Farnham and Paul Hogan. Taken together, this odd procession of sporting champions, writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, military heroes and adventurers offers some kind of insight into the sort of people we have become and the forms of human achievement we admire.

The plaques stretch from the southern side of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, almost to the front of the National Portrait Gallery. Standing in front of the first, dedicated to Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet, and looking east along the lakefront, the remaining plaques take on a stark funereal quality, appearing like the tombstones of fallen soldiers. They are also a stunning example of the art of memorialisation. While each plaque memorialises an individual, en masse these individual identities are subsumed by a much greater presence: national pride. In some ways they remind me of Italian cemeteries, where the names of the Catholic dead are accompanied by photographs of the deceased - passport-style headshots blanched pale and almost indistinguishable by the sun - forming a sea of fading faces staring back from times past, somehow making our attempt to mark the significance of each human life all the more futile and all the more poignant.

When I first saw the plaques, last December, I counted at least another 40 standing beyond the one that bears the name and photograph of the 2007 Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery. These blank plaques - memorials to the future - stand as if waiting for the years to pass before they can be filled in and become whole. Yet strangely, they seem more intriguing than the plaques that precede them. It is possible to imagine the line of blank plaques stretching on endlessly, and their emptiness begs the question: What sort of nation will Australia become over the next few decades?

Now that the interminable election is long over, can we cast our gaze beyond the vision of Australia's conservatives - individual liberty, home ownership and material prosperity - and strike a genuinely new and more inclusive national settlement? Not a vision founded on political ideology or empty feel-good rhetoric, but one grounded in the difficult marriage of symbolism and substantive political, legal and social change, a vision that recognises the power of symbolic politics to act as a unifying force in the struggle to bring about practical change.

If I were asked to choose one word which reflected the feeling of Australians following the election of the Rudd Labor government, the word I would choose is ‘hope'. It is a cautious hope, but it is hope nonetheless. One reason for this hope is that Australia might finally build a national consensus on the two great nation-defining issues of the past two decades, the declaration of an Australian republic and the achievement of reconciliation with Aboriginal people. These two issues have refused to die because they remain central to what Kevin Rudd recently referred to as the "national soul". If it is possible for any nation to possess a soul or spirit, then it surely must be one with moral legitimacy, democratic values, inclusiveness, and a coherent and believable combination of constitutional language and national symbols, one that resounds with the spirit of place, of the very country in which we live.

This was brought home to me in a quite unexpected way when flying home to Australia from Copenhagen in August 2006. One of the documentaries screened on the in-flight entertainment system was the 1998 ABC documentary The Edge of the Possible, which told the story of the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the building of the Sydney Opera House. Speaking from his home in Denmark, Utzon was asked to comment on the nomination of the opera house for world-heritage status. His answer opened my eyes to a completely different vision of an Australian republic. Delivered in halting English, each word of his reply seemed to carry extra weight.

[smiling and laughing] Please listen to me, Canberra. They should accept that an Australian building will be cared for, representing a time which is at the end of colony Australia and the beginning of republic Australia. The spirit of the building is independent of anything from anywhere. It could be the best example of what you're going to do, because you're going to do that, to be a republic - with all respect for the royals! So I think these ideas [the world-heritage nomination and the republic] fit beautifully together. Then you can hear beautiful music all the time in the future from a clean, beautifully kept building.

Utzon's masterwork, one of the greatest buildings of the twentieth century, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973, was, in the eyes of its creator, the very essence of republican Australia. There was something quite remarkable and moving about hearing this vision articulated by a Dane. I was particularly struck by Utzon's elaboration on the nature of Australia's future republican spirit: "independent of anything from anywhere". In other words, not independence from Britain, or against British heritage (the need for this argument has long since past), but an independence of outlook that is at once both national and universal, a republic that seeks to realise its potential through its dealings with other nations as much as the way in which it treats its own citizens. What better symbol of that spirit than the Sydney Opera House, a building that transcends national difference and touches all human beings? Utzon's belief that his design carries an inherent spiritual resonance reminds us that in architecture, as in politics, form and function alone are not enough. The expression of ideals - through aesthetics, design, language and symbolism - is paramount if the spirit of the thing is to be realised. Yet when we look at the republic debate over the past decade or more, there is little indication of any attempt to recognise the importance of expression - it is all form and function. Here, for example, is a quick summary of conventional thinking on the question of an Australian republic in 2008.

The republic is a single and largely symbolic issue. It is primarily about the instalment of an Australian head of state. Much like buying a car, it is a choice between different models: a president appointed by the prime minister, by parliament, by electoral college or by direct election. It is a second-order issue, even a non-issue, for many Australians. It is a debate conducted in legalese, a form of jousting for constitutional lawyers, a delicate piece of constitutional tinkering. It is not a grass-roots or people's movement. It is not seen as an issue that will have a marked effect on people's lives. When we wake up the morning after the republic has been declared, nothing will have changed and nothing will change. It will be business as usual.

Kevin Rudd reflected some of these attitudes before he came to power. In April 2007, in the lead-up to the ALP national conference, Rudd acknowledged that becoming a republic was an important part of the nation's future but said it would not be a priority in his first term in government. He outlined his top-five priorities on coming to power: ensuring prosperity beyond the mining boom, fixing the nation's infrastructure, restoring workplace flexibility and fairness, dealing with climate change and water, and improving state-commonwealth relations. "This is a future agenda, and at best I think Mr Howard only gets a bit of it," he said. "The republic doesn't fit in with any of those five priorities. We'll deal with that in due season." Rudd's thinking may well be different now that he is in government, but his understanding of the republic still underestimates the potential power of new national symbols to create a political environment more receptive to change, particularly in policy areas dependent on commonwealth co-operation with the states. The very idea that the republic is an issue that can be cordoned off from the key political issues of our time demonstrates how restricted our thinking has been to date.

Once the Australian constitution begins with the words, ‘We the people of Australia declare ourselves to be an independent and democratic republic' (or words to that effect), the republic is immediately connected with our identity, our values and our national symbols. The president, especially if elected by popular vote, will become more closely linked to the people than the office of the governor-general is today. Regardless of her method of appointment and constitutional powers, she will more clearly stand as the representative of the people's values and aspirations. She will automatically act as a healthy counterweight to the recent increase in prime-ministerial power. A republican constitution that is inclusive of Indigenous Australians will also carry an unknown symbolic power as a source of national unity. It is unknown because it is entirely uncharted water. The words we employ to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution, as well as the more contemporary and democratic language of the new constitution, will become a common point of reference in schools, citizenship ceremonies and days of national celebration. By removing the monarchy as the sovereign power in our constitution we will immediately claim the constitution as our own. All references to a distant British monarchy underwriting the authority of the executive, the parliament and the courts will be removed. The people will stand alone as the sovereign power. And for the first time since Federation, Australians will see the language of their contemporary democracy and nationhood reflected in their founding document. What kind of single, second order or non-issue is this? And why is it not pressing? Why should we remain so fearful of taking the constitution into our own hands and employing it as an instrument of reconciliation and national renewal?

Although Australians have debated the merits of a republic since the 1960s (as well as in the mid and late nineteenth century) it is worth reminding ourselves why a republic is the natural form of government for Australia as we enter the twenty-first century.

On what basis should Australia remain a constitutional monarchy? There is no credible argument left. Even the standard line of anti-republicans in Australia for more than a century - if it ain't broke, don't fix it - no longer applies. Australia's constitutional monarchy is broke because the monarch no longer embodies the loyalties and aspirations of the Australian people as Queen Elizabeth II did in 1954. The constitutional monarchy is broke because its language, symbols and rituals no longer reflect the values and daily practice of Australian democracy. Australians do not believe that their head of state should only be a member of one particular faith, the Church of England. Australians do not believe that the family into which they are born should afford them automatic privilege - that birth should take precedence over merit, that men should take precedence over women in taking public office. If not, why put up with it any longer? Why should we continue to endorse discrimination on the basis of birth, gender and religion by failing to install a republican head of state? The amusement park of monarchical goings-on and celebrity gossip - the stock-in-trade of the tabloid press - will always survive, but why should the members of one dysfunctional aristocratic British family continue to be the only human beings who can aspire to be Australia's head of state? Given that the life of a monarch is a life lived in chains, a life lived as public and media property, perhaps we should consider the human rights of all those born into monarchical families and do our best to set them free.

If the Queen died tomorrow, the streets of our cities and towns would not be lined with thousands of mourners as they were in January 1936 after the death of George V, when the empire "stood still and silent in grief". There would be flashbacks, tributes, and deep and profound appreciation, for sure, but there would also be a realisation that with the death of Elizabeth the living link with the old Australia - Australia as a mere offshoot of British civilisation and empire, or as Menzies once referred to it, "the British race" - was now gone. Rather than waiting for the Queen to die, as if observing a strange form of antipodean politeness, it would be far better that Australia becomes a republic while she is alive. It seems only right and fitting that the Queen gracefully accept the final point of Australia's constitutional separation. This is simply the last step in the long-established logic of British rule in Australia: gradual and unobstructed evolution towards full and complete independence.

Even those who oppose the republic appear to have given up defending constitutional monarchy, preferring now to pedal the furphy that the governor-general is Australia's head of state. When the governor-general's entourage of waiters appears with customary military precision to serve lunch at Government House, the insignia EIIR is emblazoned in bold lettering on the breast of each waiter's jacket. The waiters, like the majority of Australia's constitutional lawyers, know full well what those letters signify: the sovereignty of the Crown. They know that the man at the head of the table is not Australia's head of state, but the Queen's representative in Australia, the very words that are used to describe the governor-general in Section 61 of the constitution. When we finally come to framing the referendum question on the republic, we would do well to avoid playing into the hands of the republic's opponents by leaving out any reference to an Australian head of state. If we do not do so, scaremongers will confuse voters by arguing that the governor-general is already Australia's head of state. Instead, we should simply ask voters whether Australia should become a republic with a republican head of state or remain a constitutional monarchy. It will be impossible for monarchists to argue that the governor-general is a republican head of state, and the choice will then be clear. But installing a head of state is not the beginning and end of the republic.

The monarchy had a powerful resonance in Australia until the '60s because it aroused deep feelings of affection. It also provided a living symbol through which Australians could feel they belonged to a larger British world. It was argued that the monarchy was beyond politics because it stood above the fray of political machinations and existed in an untainted realm. To date, the movement for an Australian republic has found no depth of feeling, no language of equal power and resonance, with which to replace the monarchy. In fact, it has sought to do the opposite, to arouse as little passion as possible. This was the essence of the republican strategy best summed up by that truly awful word, minimalism. The idea being that Australians should vote for a republic because it would not change anything except for providing us with an Australian head of state. A bit of liquid paper here and there and presto, the republic would be won. But what kind of rationale was this?

One of the great failings of the republican movement of the '90s was that it projected no sense of feeling for place or country. Instead, it pinned all emotional connections to Australia on one idea: the idea of an Australian president. This was a republic embodied, literally, in one person. But in the coming republic, it is not our president who will be the sovereign, but the Australian people. If this is the case, it follows that installing an Australian head of state is only one consequence of becoming a republic. It cannot be its rationale. If a republic is to connect with people at the most fundamental level - our feeling for country and for one another - then the republic needs a narrative of purpose which explains its reason for coming into being. The 1901 constitution had such a narrative, the Australian people's desire to unite in "one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown". If republicans want to convince Australians that a republic matters, then they must turn to their own history, their own people and to their own country.

In May 2004, Gatjil Djerrkura, a former chair of ATSIC, died from a heart attack at the age of 52. I had the privilege of knowing him for a brief time only two weeks before his death. In his last public address, delivered in Canberra, he tried to explain the importance of a republic to the Aboriginal people. For me, Djerrkura's words remain the most convincing and eloquent expression of the importance of republican symbolism as a potential agent of national change:

Symbolism matters because it is a reference point for all Australians. The symbols of our nation embody our ideals. They speak to us and to other nations of our identity and beliefs. Symbols can also be a sign of change, a beacon of hope and a declaration of intent. When they reflect our aspirations, they are empowering. And there is no more fundamental symbolism, no more fundamental reference point, than the Australian constitution.

And that is especially the case for Indigenous people. If we want to break away from the colonial past, and begin anew, then we have to walk together - hand in hand and side by side - as a truly reconciled nation. A republic that does not make the first concrete gesture towards reconciliation is a republic that walks in the footsteps of the Crown. Is this the impoverished vision of a republic we want? My answer is no. Our vision must be more substantial. My dream is of Australia as a reconciled republic.

Djerrkurra was not suggesting that the political fates of the republic and reconciliation should be linked; rather, he was insisting that the issue of reconciliation be addressed first, and that the republic be grounded in the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people. Since the Howard government was elected in March 1996, Australians have been told repeatedly that symbolism does not change the conditions in which people live, and that two forms of politics - the symbolic and the practical - stand as mutually exclusive options. But witness the extraordinary events in federal parliament on 13 February, when Prime Minister Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations. Rudd's speech, and the rituals that surrounded it, were nothing less than a watershed in the nation's history. Not only because of the apology, which was like the walls of a dam bursting suddenly, but because the symbolism of the occasion moved the hearts and minds of all who witnessed it. The sense of national communion was palpable. The moral weight of this symbolism now lives on, carrying the potential to create an environment more receptive to practical change. In politics, the symbolic and the practical are not adversaries. They are allies. And the republic is no different.

A republic is the most powerful promise of constitutional renewal we have before us today; and that process of constitutional renewal takes us back to our origins. If the Crown is no longer to be our sovereign, it is inconceivable to imagine that Australians could lay claim to sovereignty without acknowledging Aboriginal people in our constitution. By removing the sovereignty of the Crown we lay bare one glaring historical fact: Aboriginal people were dispossessed in the name of the Crown. In 1901 Australia federated under the Crown without consulting or including Aboriginal people. An Australian republic cannot afford to make that same mistake. Any new expression of popular sovereignty must include Aboriginal people. Before he came to power, Kevin Rudd spoke of the challenge of "inclusion" and the need for an "enlarging vision", "one that takes the values of decency, fairness and compassion that are still etched deep in our national soul ... and breathes them afresh into the great debates now faced by our country and the international community." Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people, the first founding principle of an Australian republic, is one starting point for realising Rudd's vision. It is of profound importance because without it, the republic has no moral legitimacy. If Australia could achieve a yes vote of over 90% in the 1967 referendum, then it can do the same for Aboriginal people as it moves toward a republic.

The next part of the republican story involves the task of defining the core values of Australian democracy in a new constitutional preamble. A preamble is necessary, not because of some outdated Jeffersonian obsession with grand rhetoric, but because the time has passed when Australia can assume its values are understood. The ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of our society demands a common reference point to which all Australians can turn when they require clarity concerning the human and democratic values they share. Developments over the past decade or more have pointed to the need for a clearly defined articulation of the principles that bind Australians as a sovereign and free people. Remember the Hanson debacle in 1996, when there was much condemnation of Australia in Asia and Europe following Hanson's inflammatory comments on Asian immigration. Federal parliament, eager to affirm Australia as a non-discriminatory society, but devoid of any national charter to turn to, was forced to pass an extraordinary bipartisan motion. In constitutional language, parliament reaffirmed "the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and be treated with equal respect regardless of race, colour, creed or origin". It also confirmed Australia's commitment to "the process of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people". There are similar examples of this vacuum being sorely felt in the years that followed: the beautifully crafted words, again delivered in constitutional language, of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's ‘Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation' in May 2000, at the time of the nation-wide walks for reconciliation; and the more recent debates over the detention of asylum-seekers, anti-terror legislation and the definition of Australian values. Throughout many of these debates it is possible to see the same grasping, the same searching for definition, and the clear need for guidance. If Australia possessed a statutory charter of rights and civil liberties, and a constitutional preamble which set out in no uncertain terms the principles which underpin Australia's democracy - the rule of law, respect for the dignity of the human person, the equality of men and women, and the equality of all persons under the law, regardless of colour, race, gender or creed - then the people would have somewhere to turn. They would be empowered, because these words would not belong to the political class but to all Australia's citizens. The politics of negotiating the words we would finally choose would be an educative and unifying experience.

The process the Rudd government will ultimately set in train to achieve a meaningful republic is crucial. The Senate's Legal and Constitutional References Committee 2004 report The Road to a Republic is an invaluable source of guidance. If there is one overlying message in the report it is that "the Australian people should be fully consulted and involved in any process leading towards a future Australian republic." If the republic is to be achieved, there must be a sense of popular ownership. Anything else will all too easily be cast as a concoction of the Canberra elite. Australia needs a government that is confident enough to allow the people to choose the kind of republic they desire. It needs national leadership that is not afraid of the outcomes of a fully open and democratic process, be it convention, plebiscite or referendum.

For much of Australia's history, home - the ideal land - lay elsewhere. Australia was thought to be a land with little or no history. We seemed to live as exiles, yearning for some other place, and many of the most memorable comments concerning Australia remark upon the strangeness of the land. Manning Clark, for example, spoke of "the silence in Australia", the silence, he said, "which does not reassure, possibly because it is an intimation of emptiness, of nothingness". "We are intruders," he wrote, "exotics, grafters of an artificial life on to this ancient continent." One of Clark's idols, DH Lawrence, described Australia as "weird, empty and untrodden, as if the life there had never entered in, as if it were just sprinkled over, and the land lay untouched". Like so many other Europeans in Australia, Lawrence and Clark could not see the Aboriginal footprint on the land. Their eyes did not know how to see it. They knew intuitively that the sense of place in Australia was different from the sense of place found in Europe, but they could not find a way to render it comprehensible, other than to describe their impressions through a kind of poetry of exile. Before the coming of Europeans, they could see no history.

If there is a new sensibility emerging in Australia, it is a sensibility that will see what Lawrence and Clark could not see, one that will, by understanding the profound attachment of all Australians - both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal - to their land and country, allow us to see once and for all that the mother country is here. For me, this is the spirit of an Australian republic, a republic that embraces this land as home and has the courage to face up to its history.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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