Australian republicans: we can no longer afford to wait for the monarch's passing
180 years after the first call for justice, our dream remains just
that. Why have we been so unsuccessful when we get free kicks like the
Prince Philip debacle?
By knighting Prince Philip, Tony Abbott has given republicans what
Geoff Gallop, chair of the Australian Republican Movement, calls “the
most spectacular free kick we have ever received”.
Yet nearly 16 years after the defeat of the 1999 republican
referendum Paul Keating initiated, but did not prosecute as prime
minister, republicans should be extremely wary of triumphalism. The
monarchist who helped defeat the proposal is currently in the lodge.
Even if Abbott is replaced by Malcolm Turnbull
there is no guarantee that that republic would be placed back on the
agenda. History is not on our side. The truth is the republican cause is
arguably the least successful political movement in Australian history.
in Australia dates back to the 1830s and bubbled beneath the surface of
the 1854 Eureka rebellion. It won the hearts and minds of many
Australians during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Its ethos
was captured by Henry Lawson’s first poem, Song of the Republic, which
graced the pages of the Bulletin newspaper in 1888:
Sons of the South, make choice between
(Sons of the South, choose true),
The Land of Morn and the Land of E’en,
The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green,
The Land that belongs to the lord and the Queen,
And the Land that belongs to you.
failed to heed his clarion call for a democracy of equals. We chose to
exist as a federation under the British crown. 110 years later we chose
the status quo. Since 1999, according to published polls, the republican
cause has gone backwards.
Indeed it is sobering to make comparison with other social and
political movements fighting against injustice and discrimination over
the years. Think, in the 19th century, of the emancipists and
anti-transportationists who helped put an end to convictism. Or the
radicals who won universal male suffrage and representative democracy.
At the turn of the century, the Laborites and unionists who fought
and won for working men and women a fair go in the nation’s workplaces
and a place in our parliaments, made Australia the first country in the
world to elect a Labor government. Then there are the first-wave
feminists and suffragettes who ensured Australian women were some of the
first voters of their sex on this earth to win the right to elect their
own parliamentary representatives.
We could mention the diggers of the Great War who created a powerful
organisation of ex-servicemen so that governments could not ignore their
sacrifices. Or Indigenous Australians, second and third-wave feminists
and environmentalists. Those latter trio of battles are only partially
won but their achievements are already substantial.
These movements achieved many of their aims within the space of a few
short decades. 180 years after the first call for an Australian
republic our dream remains just that. The Commonwealth of Australia is a
constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is the British monarch. This
situation does not look like changing anytime soon.
Now more than ever the republican movement must change. It begins
with what Keating, in reference to Australia’s historical treatment of
its Indigenous peoples, memorably called our “act of recognition”. A
republic is not inevitable: the polls do not lie. Demographics and a
growing non-British and non-European population will not be enough. Nor
will the sheer silliness of Abbott’s knighting Prince Philip suffice.
Republicans should take a leaf out of Keating and Lawson’s book and
say what we mean and mean what we say. Monarchy is an inferior system to
a republican form of government. We cannot wait for the death of Queen
Elizabeth out of a misplaced sense of politeness. Who respects a
movement that waits for the right time to act, or for someone to
pass-on? Did opponents of White Australia wait for the passing of Robert
Menzies or Arthur Calwell before making their case for change? Of
course they didn’t.
Let us not for a minute accept the conservative argument that “if
it’s not broken don’t fix it”. Monarchism is wrong: it is elitist,
hierarchical and discriminatory. Some would even say it is
un-Australian. We and our children can never be the head of state owing
to the fact that we are Australians and not a member of the British
royal family. This rank injustice is the basis upon which republicans
must make their case rather than touchy-feely identity politics.
Republicans must reflect on our own foibles. We propose an Australian
head of state – a deeply egalitarian and democratic act. However too
many republicans recoil at investing in the Australian people the
democratic power to elect their own head of state, instead he or she
will be selected for them. This at a time when Australians are
distrustful of politics. Indeed, part of the process of restoring trust
in our political institutions and elected representatives will be about
participation – such as directly electing our own president.
Republicanism, like most political parties, is largely confined to
the inner-city middle class. Instead, the conversation must be taken
into the pubs of the suburbs and regions, into the workplaces, community
halls, sporting clubs, churches, mosques, synagogues, where the mass
movement for democratic change and against injustice must be built.
Keating was right to advocate for a republic in the 1990s but he (and
Malcolm Turnbull) was wrong to think a republic could be imposed from
top-down. As with all previous movements for democratic change in
Australia it must be won from the bottom-up. Republicans must reach
across the political aisle. The sweetest victory of them all can’t be a
victory for the true believers. Instead, it must be a victory for the
doubters and the cynics and the disengaged. An act of recognition by the
Australian people for the Australian people.
This is an edited version of Nick Dyrenfurth’s address to the
Victorian branch of the Australian Republican Movement in Melbourne, on