December 2021 – January 2022


The stunted country

By Mark McKenna
Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988. © Patrick Riviere / Getty Images

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

Westminster Abbey, 11am. Friday, July 7, 2000. It was billed as “A Service for Australia” – the highlight of a week’s commemorative events to mark the centenary of the passage of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 through British parliament. It was this legislation, largely forgotten today, that approved the Australian Constitution – already sanctioned by the Australian people through referendum – and enabled the federation of the Australian colonies on January 1, 1901.

Looking around the abbey – I had a pew because I was teaching at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, London – it seemed that Australia’s entire political class was present: prime minister John Howard, leader of the Opposition Kim Beazley, state premiers, judges, senior public servants, corporate executives and various characters who could be loosely defined as “professional Australians”. If Shane Warne wasn’t there, he should have been.

The Queen and Prince Philip were certainly in attendance, along with a sprinkling of “lesser known royals”, as they’re politely described in the trade. Australian High Court judges Ian Callinan and Kenneth Hayne sat directly in front of me. As the congregation rose to its feet to sing “God Save the Queen”, I peered through the gap between their wives’ hats to see New South Wales premier Bob Carr and his Victorian counterpart, Steve Bracks, standing together in silence.

Archbishop Peter Hollingworth delivered a worthy homily, John Howard recited a few verses from Philippians 4 in his typical nasal tone, and the choir delivered a stirring performance of Bruce Woodley’s “I Am Australian” – familiar from a well-worn trail of TV commercials, including the “Yes” referendum campaign in 1999. We didn’t need the libretto. Then, almost as an afterthought, the sound of a lonely didgeridoo drifted around the abbey.

The entire week seemed to be an endless procession of “official” openings and drawn-out closings. But one event in particular – a gathering to celebrate the impending centenary of federation and the recent opening of a major Arthur Boyd exhibition – was unforgettable for its sheer abandonment. Hundreds of Australians were crammed into Australia House on the Strand. I’d heard people say that coming to London allowed you to see Australia more clearly, but that was untrue. London was where you came to be more Australian than you were at home.

On the ground floor of Australia House, champagne flowed like water. One famous Australian talked to another famous Australian as they looked over their shoulder to spot the next famous Australian; actors, musicians, journalists, artists and writers were just an hors d’oeuvre away. Past and present PMs – Gorton, Fraser, Hawke, Whitlam and Howard – were there too. Menzies’ ghost hovered over the proceedings. Keating, the prime mover of the recently failed movement for an Australian republic, was conspicuously absent.

Howard, his face beaming with pride, worked the room effortlessly. Like everyone else, he was well oiled. At one point he stopped briefly to talk to me. I introduced myself as a disappointed republican, which elicited a wry chuckle. Just as he remarked implausibly that “the whole event this week was republic neutral”, the artist Margaret Olley, who was stalking celebrities mischievously with her camera, snapped his photo.

Later, as I stumbled along Kingsway towards Holborn tube station, I imagined Olley’s photographs gracing the walls in some future exhibition of bacchanalia at Australia House. Hundreds of Australians had flown from the opposite end of the world for an almighty bash in London. For many, it didn’t seem to matter that the week’s events were a stark reminder that Australia had yet to outgrow its colonial mentality, nor that we’d failed to grasp the true indicator of this mindset. We’d had a good time.

I have often looked back to that morning in Westminster Abbey. Over time, its significance has changed. At first, it seemed only to reinforce the failure of the republic referendum in November 1999. After a decade of campaigning, the republican movement ended defeated and divided. Eight months later, we were in London, commemorating the fact that the Australian Constitution was born within a statute of British parliament, when we could have been celebrating Australia’s first year as an independent commonwealth with its own head of state.

Gough Whitlam couldn’t have been more correct when he remarked that the road of the constitutional reformer in Australia is long and hard. Twenty-two years on, the Australian Constitution remains frozen, while the republic – a national political project struggling for relevance in an era of global political crises – kneels dutifully in the abbey, waiting for the Queen’s casket to be carried down the aisle. We’ve come no further, and if recent polls are any indication, the passion for change seems lukewarm at best.

Where to from here?

From the moment the modern republican movement began in the early 1960s with the writings of Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne, the vision of an Australian republic was grounded in a set of familiar arguments that has shifted surprisingly little since. Dutton, in 1963, with his characteristic patrician flair, claimed that our failure to become a republic was “the most monumental tribute to our national intellectual indolence”. We hadn’t reached “an adult relationship” with Britain. Instead, he argued, we’d traded our independence for a “stucco portal of ancient pomposities” and the “syrup of a Royal visit”.

In The Lucky Country (1964), Horne insisted that the time had come to end the cultural cringe and break free from Australia’s “provincial” image as the home of “backwater colonialism”. Only a republic could put an end to Australia’s psychological dependence on Britain and create a less “derivative”, more confident and mature society. Or, in the words of countless newspaper opinion pieces over the years, it would represent Australia’s “coming of age” – one of the tiredest cliches in the lexicon of Australian nationalism.

The masculine pride of republican intellectuals was affronted – they were embarrassed by Australians’ willingness to cling to the “apron strings” of the mother country and worried about what “overseas visitors” would think of us. As Dutton lamented, “Australians are anonymous, featureless, nothing-men”. Similar feelings of humiliation underwrote the foundation of the Australian Republican Movement in 1991.

On Australia Day, 1988, Malcolm Turnbull watched “from the top of a big building” in Sydney’s CBD, as a large crowd of dignitaries gathered at the Opera House. “The most important [speech],” he recalled, “the longest one, the one accorded the place of honour, was not uttered by an Australian. It was given by an Englishman, Prince Charles … our own national leaders were just warm-up acts for the Prince of Wales.” It was this rooftop epiphany that sparked Turnbull’s resolution to campaign for an Australian republic. The whole “Bicentennial year”, he thundered, “was a year of shame. Every major event was presided over by a member of the British royal family.”

When author Thomas Keneally launched the Australian Republican Movement at the Rocks, Sydney, in July 1991, with Turnbull and Horne sitting beside him, he spoke of the movement’s determination to overturn the “inherent inferiority” complex, which had convinced Australians that they were not worthy to manage their own affairs or “speak with an independent voice”. Until we became a republic, Keneally told the assembled media, Australia would remain a “stunted nation” with a divided “soul”.

It was hardly surprising that the Australian Republican Movement’s raison d’être was grounded in the cultural nationalism of the 1960s, when the first stirrings of modern republicanism emerged. All this talk of undersized blokes who needed to stand on their own two feet in fact harked back to Henry Lawson’s A Song of the Republic (1887), which dramatically called on the “Sons of the South” – “aroused at last” – to make a choice between the “Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green”.

While the Australian Republican Movement rejected the racist bedrock of Lawson’s republicanism and fervently embraced British parliamentary and legal institutions, its platform echoed the poet’s juxtaposition of a youthful, democratic, patriotic Australian republic with the hierarchical, class-ridden society of the old world, which the British monarchy spectacularly embodied. At its core, an Australian republic has always been about severing the remaining constitutional ties to the United Kingdom. It’s the continued existence of these external ties – this lingering British connection, this foreign head of state – that, for republicans, has long represented the persistence of Australia’s colonial mentality.

Since the failure of the republic referendum in November 1999, and indeed well before, there have been two main problems with this way of thinking. As Australia’s economic, cultural and political ties gradually shifted away from Britain and towards the United States and Asia in the latter part of the 20th century, the British connection withered in spite of the fact that Australia had remained a constitutional monarchy. This, combined with the increasingly multicultural fabric of Australian society, undermined the purchase of the old arguments for republican independence, which had continually been framed purely in terms of Australia’s relationship with Britain and its increasingly dysfunctional if somewhat amusing royal family. Hovering above a succession of tabloid scandals, the Queen reigned in lonely dignity, seemingly untouchable, attracting more public affection as she aged. But the greater problem – the real blind spot and failure of imagination, the true marker of Australia’s colonial mentality – had still not been placed in the same field of vision.

The program for the “Service for Australia” at Westminster Abbey in July 2000 proudly proclaimed that “the Australian people [had] created one of the world’s most democratic constitutions”. “The Commonwealth”, it declared, “had been forged with the consent of the people. The people of Australia entered the 20th century as a nation with a united destiny.” Yet how could this be true when the dispossession and disenfranchisement of Australia’s first peoples was the starting point of the new federation? The very basis of the Constitution and the Commonwealth’s creation rested on the exclusion of Indigenous Australians.

When we consider the frontier wars that were ongoing in the early 20th century, particularly in the centre and north of the continent, we can no longer see Federation as “peaceful” but, rather, as deeply implicated in legitimising the taking of Indigenous lands without treaty, consent or compensation. One hundred years later, in the heart of the former British Empire, it seemed impossible to acknowledge these basic historical facts.

Even today, our concept of the Australian polity fails to be genuinely inclusive. We sleepwalk in the footsteps of our colonial forebears, who introduced both responsible government and federation without negotiating with Indigenous Australians. We have imagined our full constitutional independence, our republican future, as simply being a question of deleting the monarchical references from the Constitution. At the same time, despite a raft of government committees over the past decade, we are no closer to a referendum on the position of First Nations peoples in the Constitution. The discriminatory race power (section 51, xxvi) still stands. Indigenous Australians remain invisible in our founding document. Two nation-defining issues – one shelved indefinitely, the other inching forward at glacial pace, both tightly controlled by those in power – have played out in parallel universes.

In the wake of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, the time has come to place our Constitution on what Noel Pearson has called “just foundations”, rethink the rationale for an Australian republic and finally come to grips with what it means to end our colonial mentality once and for all. To do so, Australians must once more ask themselves: does the conception of Australia include Indigenous people or not? Without a proper, constitutional response to this fundamental question, how can Australia hope to become a fully reconciled republic?

The true source of Australia’s shame is not the delivery of a speech by Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles but the continued exclusion of Australia’s First Nations peoples from the Constitution. The persistence of Australia’s colonial mentality – our failure to become a genuinely postcolonial nation – has little to do with the British royal family and everything to do with the Commonwealth government’s hands-off attitude to the Constitution. Particularly, its refusal to countenance a constitutionally enshrined voice for Indigenous Australians (it has been more than 50 years since the last significant change in 1967). It’s this attitude that reeks of paternalism and possession, and has a familiar ring: We will decide who comes into this Constitution and the circumstances in which they come.

Barely a month after he came to power in 2018, Scott Morrison was dismissive of constitutional change when pressed on the matter by the ABC’s Fran Kelly. It was a terse exchange.

Kelly: [W]ill you take a look at the Indigenous statement, the Uluru Statement from the Heart? It’s called for a constitutionally enshrined representative body for our First Nations people?

Morrison: I don’t—

Kelly: That is a priority for a lot of Indigenous people.

Morrison: I don’t support a third chamber—

Kelly: It’s not a third chamber they’re talking about necessarily.

Morrison: No, no—

Kelly: It’s a representative body.

Morrison: No, it really is and—

Kelly: No, it’s not though.

Morrison: People can dress it up any way they like but I think two chambers is enough.

Questioned again in March 2021, Morrison remained adamant that his government would not support a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. “It has never been the government’s policy to have that process enshrined in the Constitution,” he said. “I think that is pretty clear.” Morrison’s refusal to countenance substantive constitutional change was also reflected in the terms of reference his government laid down for the National Co-Design Group chaired by Professor Marcia Langton AO and Professor Tom Calma AO. It was explicitly instructed, as the prime minister made clear, not to make “recommendations as to the legal form of the Voice”.

Circumventing the Constitution entirely, Morrison has backed more “practical” solutions, including the valuable work of the co-design group, which, in its interim report submitted in October 2020, presented “proposals for an Indigenous Voice, comprised of a National Voice, and Local and Regional Voices”. This, it claimed, would “enhance local and regional decision making and regional governance”. As Morrison told Kelly in 2018, he is “passionate … about working together to ensure we can bring Australians together around these issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree on every proposal. But every proposal will be treated with respect and we will find the way forward.”

This sounds eminently reasonable, but it isn’t true. Dismissing a proposal out of hand, and refusing to even countenance a constitutionally enshrined voice, is hardly treating it with respect. Nor does it acknowledge the extensive consultation process with Indigenous communities throughout Australia – the First Nations Regional Dialogues – that led to the release of the Uluru statement in May 2017.

First and foremost, Morrison’s position demonstrates yet another failure of leadership. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, wrote in The Monthly in July 2016, if a “settlement” between the Commonwealth and First Nations people is to be achieved, “a prime minister must lead it and complete it”. “Let us have an honest answer from the Australian people to an honest question,” he implored.

While Morrison and his fellow naysayers in cabinet might be willing to support a legally non-binding recognition of Indigenous Australians in the preamble to the Constitution, similar to John Howard’s proposal in 1999 – precisely the weak, symbolic change that the Uluru statement rejected in favour of a constitutionally enshrined voice – they remain steadfast in their opposition to any revising of the Constitution proper. Whenever he’s been confronted with the proposition, Morrison has either given it short shrift or simply ignored it.

Given the constrictive mechanism for change that is hardwired into the Constitution – section 128, which requires a double majority of states and voters if any referendum is to pass – Morrison and like-minded conservatives frequently argue that any proposition put to a referendum would most likely fail. In the same breath that they admit they’ll do nothing to support the proposition, they play psephologist and predict its demise. “It’s important to get this right,” they say. “Let’s not rush,” and so on. Translation: “We don’t want a constitutionally enshrined voice and we’ll do all we can to ensure that it doesn’t have bipartisan support.”

Along with the “I stopped these” trophy of an asylum-seekers’ boat that presumably still sits in Morrison’s office – his role as the champion of border protection animates him more than any other activity save public displays of faith and prayer – there is a portrait of the Queen that hangs on the wall behind him, proudly rescued from exile after the Turnbull interregnum. “My personal position,” he told Samantha Armytage on Sunrise in March, “is I have always supported the constitutional monarchy.”

For Morrison – the thumbs-up man who “love[s] all of Australia’s history” – the Constitution, like Australia Day, is stitched up. It requires no rethinking and no significant change. His Constitution and his country are already complete. This complacent view, of course, is one conceived from inside the structures of power, and is one that consistently fails to see the perspective of those on the outside, who have long been excluded. Such is the luxury of those who can see their faces in the Constitution, whether they’re constitutional monarchists or republicans. Even Turnbull, who led the charge to make “minimal” changes to the Constitution so that Australia could become a republic, was not willing, as prime minister, to support substantive change that would enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament.

In the midst of Morrison’s intransigence, I spoke with Yuin elder Ossie Cruse, and Djiringanj-Yuin spokesperson Warren Foster. Both men argued that Indigenous sovereignty had never “been extinguished”, and that the Constitution was foisted on them without their consent, like so many other aspects of whitefella law and culture. When I asked Cruse about Morrison’s dismissal of the Uluru statement’s call for a constitutionally enshrined voice, he shrugged his shoulders. “He can only respond like that,” he said, “because he can’t understand the left-outness of Aboriginal people; he can’t see history from our perspective.”

Foster was even more pointed: “We are one of the poorest people. We’ve suffered a lot from the taking of our land and yet we’re still willing to walk forward with other Australians, but only on an equal basis. Back then, we didn’t have a voice. We’re not part of that Constitution. We weren’t party to it. We couldn’t have a say. We’re not there. We’re not written in it. So how come they think they have jurisdiction over us?”

If Australians are to “learn from” their history, as the prime minister and so many other politicians are constantly asking them to do, then “recognition” of Indigenous Australians surely has to be more than ornamental – more than a paragraph of beautiful words that soothe the soul and change nothing. It requires something much harder. It requires the Commonwealth to cede ground – not only to share history but also to share power – and recognise another historical experience, and all of the social, economic and political consequences that flow from it.

In her new book, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, British historian Linda Colley argues that “a constitution … like a novel, invents and tells the story of a place and a people”. But what story of “place and people” is told by Australia’s Constitution?

“Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”, the Constitution’s preamble proclaims that the Australian people “have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”. The Constitution is “enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons”. In other words, the implicit sovereignty of the Australian people is underwritten by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, other bishops of the Church of England, life peers, the Earl Marshal, Lord Great Chamberlain, hereditary peers elected under the Standing Orders, and the House of Commons. And so the “spiritual” sovereignty inscribed in the Australian Constitution emanates from the Church of England and the queen or king who stands as its titular head.

But today, who, aside from a deluded monarchist rump, would seriously argue that our Constitution should continue to be grounded in the spiritual leadership of the Anglican Church? Or the Queen’s ailing majesty for that matter? The story laid down in the preamble to the Australian Constitution – written half a century before the legal category of Australian citizenship existed – is broken. It no longer reflects who we are. It speaks only to constitutional lawyers and of times past, when we were British subjects enmeshed in Empire rather than citizens of a democratic nation.

As for the Constitution itself, while it lives as a legal document, it has little meaning in the body politic. Ignorance is pervasive. From the first sample surveys conducted in the 1960s to the extensive Civics Expert Report conducted in 1994, and more recent Australian Electoral Commission surveys and parliamentary committees, there is widespread consensus that the lack of understanding of the Constitution in the general community remains the most substantial obstacle to future constitutional reform.

Nor have Australians ever looked to the Constitution to express their identity. As the historian John Hirst pointed out in 2002, Australian society is characterised by “that strange gap, that lack of attachment between a democratic society and its democratic institutions of government”. If we do have an attachment to constitutional principles, it exists in ideas like a “fair go” and other ill-defined democratic freedoms – ideas that are given force and meaning through an understood contract of civil society. Ours is a Constitution more imagined than material, more the stuff of abstract faith and belief, however misplaced, than ink, text and parchment.

For all the Constitution’s silence on citizenship and the democratic principles Australians supposedly share, there’s a glaring dissonance at its heart. It’s entirely disconnected from the place and country in which we live; severed from the “spiritual” sovereignty of Indigenous Australians that has reigned in Australia for more than 60,000 years.

This is the missing “story” in the Constitution, the absence of which constitutes the colonial mentality that still needs to be shattered. It’s their spiritual sovereignty – “the ancestral tie between the land or mother nature and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” – as the Uluru statement makes clear, that “has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”.

New historical knowledge has the capacity to change the way Australians think and act on Country. The growing awareness of the inseparable connection between Country and culture – such a defining feature of Indigenous Australia – is slowly permeating Australia’s entire society, shifting the way Australians see the nation’s past, present and future. With the release of the Uluru statement in 2017, Uluru became a sacred text as well as a sacred place. Together with the statement – more poetic, inspiring and reflective of the country in which we live than the Constitution itself – this new historical knowledge has the potential to transform our attitude to constitutional change.

For anyone who has read even a handful of the histories published since the 1980s that completely overturned the myth of Australia being settled peacefully, it’s possible to comprehend why and how the Constitution embodies the big lie that the land was there for the taking, as if Indigenous Australians were rightly dispossessed and merely destined for extinction. The laws of federal and state governments that attempted to govern every aspect of Indigenous people’s lives since the invasion began in the late-18th century were conceived, written and legislated without consultation with those affected by them. This is why the framers of the Uluru statement have demanded that any future reform goes well beyond symbolism.

Story alone is not enough. Nor is an “acknowledgement of country”. The glaring inequalities of power embedded in the Constitution must be addressed. Constitutional enshrinement of a voice to parliament is fundamental to Makarrata (a coming together after a struggle), treaty and truth-telling. Megan Davis, one of the architects of the Uluru statement, has sought to remind us of the underestimated power of a “constitutional moment”:

A First Nations voice in the Constitution, established by referendum, would shift Indigenous affairs out of the realm of ideological party politics, where our issues are ruthlessly measured against utilitarian rule. Such a voice would be imbued with the legitimacy of the First Nations peoples and the Australian people voting in unity at a referendum and conducting a dialogue with each other through the parliament for the century ahead. Symbolic and substantive.

In recent years, Australia’s political leaders have lost the ability to enlarge the vision of the nation: to give it life imaginatively and positively through political speech, and to lay down a path of renewal and change. A complacent, self-satisfied thumbs up seems to be the best we can do. When Paul Keating addressed federal parliament in June 1995 and outlined his government’s rationale for a republic, he loaded his vision with a multitude of possibilities: “The creation of an Australian republic is not an act of rejection. It is one of recognition: in making the change we will recognise that our deepest respect is for our Australian heritage, our deepest affection is for Australia, and our deepest responsibility is to Australia’s future … An Australian head of state can embody our modern aspirations – our cultural diversity, our evolving partnerships with Asia and the Pacific, our quest for reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians, our ambition to create a society in which women have equal opportunity, equal representation and equal rights.”

Almost 30 years later, we can see how Keating asked the impossible: believing that a minimalist republic that prided itself on little change would completely transform the nation’s identity. What Keating believed was implicit in the declaration of an Australian republic must now be made explicit. The act of recognition that he placed first – an Australian head of state – must now come second to the more fundamental act of recognising Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

The republican vision of Australia’s independence – for so long conceived narrowly as the mere severing of an external connection with a withered, anomalous Crown – must finally be grounded on our own soil and on thousands of generations of Indigenous occupation.

In essence, this is an entirely different conception of Australian independence, one that grows out of the country itself, begins with a central act of recognition, enshrines a new relationship with First Nations peoples on an equal basis, and lays the “just foundations” of Australia’s Constitution, and the future of the Commonwealth.

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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