April 2018


Rethinking the republic

By Don Watson
A change in our head of state won’t change everything, and other lessons for the next push

One day in the early 1990s a package was delivered to the prime minister’s office where I was then working. It must have looked like an arts or cultural sort of package, because arts and cultural sorts of things fell into my unofficial portfolio. Inside it I found a tape recording of the song “I Am Australian” (aka “I Am, You Are, We Are, etc.”), together with the lyrics and a letter urging Prime Minister Keating to promote the song somehow, perhaps even to “launch” it as the national song. Shameful as it may now seem, upon listening to the tape I decided not to bother the prime minister with it. His musical taste was broad enough to encompass Mahler and limbo dancing, but, it being part of an adviser’s job to protect his employer from frivolous or distasteful requests, I composed a respectful note of thanks, and put the package and its contents in the filing cabinet. I also seem to recall saying to someone that we all should hope the thing never escaped like The Blob into the public arena.

How could I get it so wrong? How could a republican working for a republican prime minister, patriotic and in love with the land, an advocate of an open, inclusive, multicultural Australia, conscious of history and believing in reconciliation with the Indigenous people, recoil from the musical expression of these sentiments? And how could someone in a job requiring cultural awareness fail to see that the song would swell millions of Australian hearts, and that, 25 years after he dumped it in his filing cabinet, he would be singing it with several hundred fellow republicans at a dinner for the cause in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building?

Well, to begin with there was the word “Australian”. The song’s refrain seemed to demand abandoning the diphthong before the “n” and pronouncing two syllables, or at least one and a half, as “I am Austrayl-ee-an” (or for those who think the “l” an affectation, “Austray-ya-an”). This prospect, though gruesome, was yet not enough to wish the whole project to oblivion.

The second thing was the solipsism: remember it was being proposed as a national song, not as an anthem. But unlike this new song, Australia’s national (and in my view, irreplaceable) song is not about the singer, not directly. It’s about someone else, a manic depressive or Camusian outsider under a coolibah tree, a near mythical other in a near mythical place. So too are “Jerusalem”, “Scots Wha Hae”, “Oh Shenandoah” and “Londonderry Air” about other people and other events. These songs come down to the listener on a mnemonic thread. They touch emotions latent in ancestral memory, rendering them timeless. Such patriotism as they inspire is subjective and random, expressed at a melancholy, often poetic remove.

By contrast the lyrics of the new song were instructional: impeccably multicultural, historically conscious and generous to all, but evocative mainly of a civics lesson or a business card. We are haunted by certain words and melodies, no matter how often we hear them. This song could dehaunt an entire nation. Even had all the rest been lovely, it would still be cursed by the dumb self-regard in that refrain, “I am Australian”. Imagine, an Australian lost in the jungles of Burma or a prison in Istanbul singing “I am, you are” and so on. It almost invites retribution.

The narrative was reasonable: we are many (well, a fair few) and we are one (well, several really, taking the states and territories into consideration), and with a little poetic licence we can allow that – one or many – Australians are descended from Bennelong and Ned Kelly and Uluru and the drover’s wife and red dust and umpteen distant lands, and we may as well be proud of it. The song assures us that the whole national project, plus the 60,000 years of Indigenous civilisation, perhaps even the several billion years before that, and the climate and soil and the propensity of the land to parch, flood and burn, through hard work, migration and epic phenomena had all come down to “I”, “You” and “We”. In the course of this banality, poetic licence must expire. And that’s before “I”, “You” and “We” become, in our mind’s eye, The Seekers. And they, for all the prettiness of Judith Durham’s soprano, come down to three blokes in suits and ties, or just one, a Liberal MP plucking a double bass.

So when we found ourselves obliged to stand by our chairs and sing that song last year, who knows if it was the patriot or churl who wanted to bellow “Down came a jumbuck”? But this was a night when everyone had to be singing from the same sheet, and the sheet said “I am, You are, We are Australi-an”. It seems this will be the battle hymn of the republic, and all believers must at least mouth the words.

This republican hopes to die or at least go deaf before the song assumes that status, or worse, as some folk such as Jeff Kennett recommend, becomes the national anthem. This republican will never accept that it “actually embodies the soul of Australia”, as Jeff believes. Just the same, the republican moment in Melbourne did demand a reassessment. This republican has been obliged to concede the possibility that he recoiled not only because the song reduced Australia to a suburban parody but also because it was excruciating evidence that we, and the great national project upon which we believed we had embarked, could be diluted into such thin gruel.

Bill Shorten and Peter FitzSimons spoke with eloquent conviction at that dinner. It was not their fault that some of us went home wondering if the cause was worth pursuing after all. But the song made us wonder if we knew what the cause was.

We know patriotism is at the bottom of it: how can we reconcile our proud egalitarian spirit with a hereditary monarch, with any hereditary monarch, much less one who lives in another country on the other side of the world? Yet the very first thing republicans should do is shun the idea that they are more patriotic, more egalitarian or more Australian than the monarchists. The notion is demonstrably false and a quicksand for the republican argument. Nationalism is a protean sentiment: remember the monarchist John Howard, choking on almost infantile pique as he handed out medals to a victorious English rugby team. That’s the other problem with the patriotic component of the cause: as James Boyce pointed out in the February issue of this publication, because it so easily turns into jingoism and narrow-mindedness, patriotism is as much an enemy of the republic as a friend. A sense of humour might be more useful.

But where is the passion to come from? Republican movements have generally been an expression of the desire for freedom and justice. “Taxation without representation is tyranny” is an old take on this human urge. “That the world might finally be the place for all and not the private property of those who have the colour and filth of money” is a more recent one, from Mexico. Sadly, for a movement traditionally requiring romance and enfilading language if not machine guns and martyrs, in our quest Zapatista talk will have no more purchase than the insurgent pamphleteer of the American Revolution, Tom Paine. We have no tyranny to oppose. “Democracy! Liberty! Justice!” – Get a life why don’t you! As for the colour and filth of money, our prime minister, erstwhile republican and Goldman Sachs dealmaker, has the answer ready: it’s just the “politics of envy”. And with that he orders the drawbridge raised.

In truth, in a world filling with tyrants, Queen Elizabeth II and her descendants represent a sort of anti-tyranny. They would never speak of the politics of envy. Of whom are you fonder, the Queen or Peter Cosgrove? Own up – whose passing will touch you more? How to cast off an outfit so benign? When Elizabeth is gone, some republicans say, then we can strike. Bob Hawke was saying it 25 years ago, but still she totters to and fro. And when he finally ascends who is going to kneecap poor old Charles, that gentle democratic socialist and organic farmer? The first run at an Australian republic was made when the British monarchy was in the horrors and the US republic was aglow with the tech boom. Now the old Queen is a living legend, her grandsons are marrying into Hollywood, and their radiant wives, children and fiancées burnish the royal breastplate every day. British democracy might be in a hole and chewing its own tail, but not the British monarchy. Meanwhile the US republic has elected to the quasi-monarchical position of president a man who for decency and gravitas – and possibly for sanity – compares unfavourably with King George III. Is there a country on earth with more anomalies than the United States?

We are unfettered and in no sense tyrannised. Our successes, like our failures, are all our own. Our democracy works imperfectly well, and it is hard to see how any of its practical imperfections would be remedied by going republican. A head of state elected by popular vote might well make it less perfect and, by imbuing him or her with more authority, less of a democracy. First time round, Paul Keating argued that a republic would signal to the world, and especially the postcolonial Asia-Pacific, that Australia was altogether free of its colonial origins and engaged with the region on its own terms. We would be no one’s deputy or vicar. But a deputy was the very thing Howard thought we should be, and a deputy he made us. These days it is not the trappings or condescension of the British Empire that compromise our independence, but the agenda of the American one. And that, we can be certain, an Australian republic will not change.

So it’s the anomaly. “End the anomaly” is our catchcry. Midnight Oil can get to work on it. But the monarchy is not the only anomaly we live with, and having the Union Jack in the corner of our flag is not the only other one. Women are half of the population but occupy very few positions of power, including only 13 of the 76 government seats. That’s an anomaly. The Liberal Party is a conservative party with many powerful members who despise liberals, and those who don’t despise them regularly act as if they do. That’s a bit of an anomaly, isn’t it? The Labor Party is more of a liberal party, but 50 per cent of the power in it is held by trade unions whose members comprise less than 15 per cent of the workforce: the party is equally a vehicle for people of public spirit and bold progressive ideas and people who are meretricious hacks and absolute rotters. It is enough to say of the National Party that a republic will not abolish it.

Every day, in all manner of ways, we profess love for this country and yet continue to wreak destruction upon it. Our leaders speak of innovation and the boundless opportunities of the new, and then, in obedience to the old, march into parliament wielding lumps of coal. We’re democratic, but not sufficiently so to grant an advisory voice to Indigenous people, or independence to the public broadcaster, or to care much when we learn the prime minister gave $1.75 million of his own money to an election campaign his side won by a veritable whisker. (But that would be the politics of envy again.)

Like people and their transitional objects, countries stumble along and bring anomalies with them. Our professed belief in the “fair go for all” could be called anomalous on many counts, and would be all the more so if “meritocracy” became an official Australian value, enshrined in a preamble to the Constitution, as the republican Benjamin T. Jones recently recommended. That the monarchy is not a meritocracy doesn’t make meritocracy a good idea. Give someone a promotion and a million-dollar salary on Monday and by Tuesday she’ll believe in meritocracy – that’s what makes it a good idea. Sixty years ago the philosopher Michael Young came up with the term as a pejorative. Among other things, he pointed out that, for all its egregious flaws, at least feudalism didn’t tell the poor that personal inadequacy was the cause of their miserable condition. Meritocracy is the name our neoliberal lords of condescension go by. It is as much the antithesis of the fair go as a hereditary monarchy. At a time of dismal politicians and stupendous inequalities of wealth in the democracies, the masses might take some persuading that it should be a core national value. To insert it in the Constitution as something we “hold dear” would not only be an anomaly but also a gift for mischievous monarchists. Just imagine, they might say, if 65 years ago Britons had been asked to elect someone as their head of state, on merit. And after a top head-hunting firm had scoured the world and proposed, say, 10 meritorious candidates for consideration, would they have appointed someone better than the woman who inherited the job?

Paul Keating’s idea for an Australian republic was the grander for its modesty and minimalism. No trumpet blasts, no marching, no hands on hearts while the anthem played, no flag waving – unless it was a new flag, without the Union Jack and with the blue washed out a bit, more the colour of our skies. As the continuing link to the British monarchy was an accident of history, an Australian republic would come into existence as nothing more than a rational corrective act. It would be the candle on the top of the democracy, the light of the nation’s conscious identity. Our republic would not come forth as others had, a new nation state born in a necessarily violent act of anti-colonialism, but drift in as an end-of-history sort of republic, a postmodern republic.

But Keating’s republic was much more than the desire to shunt the monarchy up a siding. Can there be anyone who has not heard it by now? It was inseparable from a grand and subtle vision of a country with a creative voice in the world and the region, uncompromised by old attachments or current alliances; of an open and tolerant multiculturalism; a modern, resilient economy alive to the unprecedented opportunities on offer in the region; an extended social democracy, aware of its flaws and with the will to repair them. Thus would Australia at last realise its potential and become the mistress of its destiny. This was a republic with a purpose, one essential to our broader ambitions.

Yet at its core lay something visceral: not causeless or stupid, nor beyond explanation, but out of the reach of intellect or consciousness and just as essential. For those of us close enough to feel it, there was a spark in common with Tom Paine. Minimalist it might have been, but attached to a grand strategic vision Keating’s republic touched off the elusive longing for self-possession which Federation and the monarchy, that otherwise harmless barnacle on the body politic, offended. And for a moment politics took flight.

It crashed, of course. The Keating republic went awry. John Howard, another accident of history, saw to that – though he can’t take all the credit. No doubt the next big republican push can learn from the mistakes of that campaign. But it would be a much greater mistake to untether the movement from other, greater national aspirations. The republic should be rooted in a broader quest, much of it articulated 25 years ago, much more waiting to find expression.

To do otherwise, to put all the effort into manoeuvring the republic through the affections and prejudices of the populace, risks ending up with either a monarchy or a republic that we don’t want, and gaining nothing else on the way through, except perhaps a national song of self-approval, a hymn on the old theme of what we are, not what we could be.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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