Many Australians will remember Jason Yat-sen Li from the 1999 referendum campaign, when he was a twenty-something lawyer and a leading advocate for the ‘yes’ camp.
A Sydney-born Australian of Chinese heritage, the charismatic Li seemed to embody the cultural promise of the coming republic. As Li put it at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, “I believe that all Australians should be given equal opportunity to attain the honour of being Australia’s head of state – all Australians regardless of their ethnic descent.” Establishing a republic, he continued, was about “the forging of a national identity within which all Australians can feel a sense of belonging, a sense of fitting in and a sense that this land is their home”.
This remains an appealing statement of what abolishing a constitutional monarchy would mean for the Australian identity. Yet, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the 1999 referendum defeat this month, it is clear that more is needed. Discussions about symbolic renewal may resonate with ardent republicans who object to the foreignness of the British crown and find the hereditary principle offensive. But such notions are unlikely to persuade those who don’t already feel an urgent need to transform our national identity. If there is to be a renewed surge for a republic, we must go beyond arguing for ‘one of us’ as head of state. Republicans must find a new language, one that is less about breaking with the past and creating our nation anew, and more about the political or civic necessity of a republic. This is the arguably unheeded lesson of 1999; identity alone is not enough.
The task for republicans is a difficult one. Popular support for a republic has never exceeded 60% and there is currently little momentum for constitutional change. While in 2008 Kevin Rudd declared that there would be “an accelerating public debate” about the issue, and although enthusiastic support for a republic was also expressed at the 2020 summit, there is still no discernible timetable for a second referendum. Malcolm Turnbull has said the prospects for a republic will be limited for the duration of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Perhaps most troubling, one Morgan opinion poll last year placed support for an Australian republic at just 45% (with only 23% support among those in the 14–17 age bracket).
It doesn’t help that many of the tensions from 1999 remain unresolved. Republicans are still divided between those who favour a minimalist republic, in which a head of state would be appointed (if not by parliament, then by some other body), and those calling for the direct election of a head of state. Most republicans will agree that any process needs to involve two essential steps before culminating in a referendum: first, a plebiscite on whether Australians desire a republic; then, assuming an answer in the affirmative, a plebiscite on which model of republic they would like to adopt.
For the moment, though, it is important that questions of process and model don’t monopolise the energy of republicans. There is a more difficult question to address: other than identity, what would be the rationale for a republic? After all, hasn’t Australia long been a ‘crowned republic’ – a republic in all but name? Republicans must be able to answer questions about how a constitutional shift will improve Australian democracy. The case for a republic can no longer rest – as it did in 1999 – on the supposedly reassuring paradox that getting rid of the Queen would actually change very little.
Australian republicans need to be more, well, republican in their thinking. It is often forgotten that republicanism represents a distinct tradition in political philosophy, with roots in humanist Renaissance political thought and the revolutions in England, France and the US. To its key theorists, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Tom Paine, Baron de Montesquieu and James Madison, a republic, although an alternative to monarchical rule, wasn’t merely a negative model of government; it was a positive vision of political community in which government was conducted for the common good and supported by representative institutions, if not also by virtuous citizens.
During the 1990s, republican sentiment was a proxy for nationalism; many adherents believed that authentic ‘Australianness’ could only be expressed through opposition to all things British. We find, for instance, in Paul Keating’s calls for Australia no longer to be “a political and cultural appendage to another country’s past” echoes of Henry Lawson’s challenge to Australians to choose between “the Old Dead Tree” of the British monarchy and “the Young Tree Green” of an independent republic. If a republic is an opportunity for a re-founding moment, however, it must be understood as a civic, and not simply a cultural, one.
Certainly, constitutional change will mean Australian national identity is reborn. But only by making the change a political imperative beyond symbols will republicans counter the catchcry of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The appeal of this slogan to the pragmatic and temperamentally conservative Australian public should not be underestimated.
And yet it is baffling that monarchists can claim that the system “ain’t broke” when our public life has all but rendered our head of state invisible. The time when Australians would drink a toast and pledge allegiance to the Queen is long past. Government in this country is no longer carried out in Her name. Conservative Australians would appreciate that such a civic vacuum – reflecting the demise of British race patriotism – can undermine the stability of our democracy. Now, more than ever, social cohesion and civic solidarity can’t be taken for granted.
A republic must be about much more than simply removing a foreign citizen from the position of head of state. It must be a vehicle for invigorating our democracy and strengthening the bonds of citizenship. Pushing for a republic shouldn’t be a separate activity from adopting a charter of rights and responsibilities, or from achieving fuller reconciliation with Indigenous Australians. Republican democracy would rectify both the structural weakness of citizenship within our public life and the absence of constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples. Such civic ambition may hold the key to capturing the imaginations of young Australians.
If the case for the republic is to be successfully made, there must be a new generation of Australian republicans. For, when the next referendum campaign arrives, the likes of Jason Yat-sen Li will no longer offer the captivating voice of youth but the sobering voice of maturity. It will require youth to remind us that Australians deserve a civic culture that projects confidence rather than complacency, and that inspires pride rather than apathy.
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