A poet’s manifesto: The Republic of Australia (Part 1)

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From a political, strategic and cultural perspective, there's never been a better time for Australia to become a republic, says poet Timoshenko Aslanides.

FOR ME, there can only be one other time like the present, and that was the December 1972 election of the Whitlam Labor Government.

The euphoria that accompanied the installation of the Gough Whitlam and Lance Barnard duumvirate, which exercised power pending finalisation of the ministry, was intense.

History was being made and we were living it and loving it. Finally, we had a prime minister whose intellectual acuity, cultural erudition and vision matched the aspirations and earnest hopes we had, for many years, either half consciously entertained as ideals, or openly despaired of ever being able to achieve. Everything not only seemed possible but also probable.

If the euphoria at the election of the government of Gough Whitlam in December 1972 exceeds the exhilaration that followed the transformation of the government of Tony Abbott into the government of Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015, what we might lack in excitement is more than compensated for in relief.

Gone is a government reluctant or refusing to plan, afraid or unable to legislate and terrified for or in denial of the future. Gone is our reach for the television remote control to mute the voice of the leader of such a government and gone, too, is our embarrassment at the image that such a leader presented of us to ourselves and to the world.

The past has been left where it is: something to look back at and learn from and not somewhere to try desperately to remain. The present is again being embraced for the infinite possibilities it offers in an imaginative here and now.

So it is, indeed, an exciting time to be an Australian in Australia. Despite this, we seem to have little interest in the one action we could take to put an end to the elegant hand wringing about what to do to arrest the political, cultural and economic stagnation threatening Australian living standards.

We need to embrace governance guaranteed to inspire ideals and implement ideas which could restore our national pride and international standing — we need to become a republic as soon as possible. By implementing this one resolution, all the distractions of the moment, every deferment of decision that economic summits, surveys and endless white papers and industry reports entail would come to an end and we would act and wonder why we hadn’t acted sooner.

An Australian Republic would radically transform – and for the better – regional relationships and cultural interaction with China, Indonesia and India, since all three nations would recognise that as a republic, we would be more likely to know and act on our own mind, giving them confidence that we would not be beholden to the self-serving influence of American foreign policy.

Indeed, as a republic we would get much more respect from the Americans than we do now. From their perspective, we are a nation still clinging to colonial connections, unsure of the nature of our sovereignty and not quite comfortable with our location in Oceania.

As a republic, these uncertainties and reservations would be much assuaged. American perception of us would change and we would be more confident about negotiating trade treaties and less inclined to sign away sovereign rights that leave us vulnerable to litigious nations, corporations and individuals or which limit our ability to maximise our return on the sale or licensing of our physical, intellectual and artistic property.

If present trends continue, Australia could experience some interesting reversals of political power, economic influence and artistic relativities in relationships with countries in our region. New Zealand, for example, has found a new confidence in itself and is currently redesigning its flag to match that confidence. It is expected that the final design will not only eliminate the confusion with the current Australian flag but also remove the Union Jack and substitute a distinctly New Zealand image in the flag’s design.

If we are not careful, New Zealand currency could become the benchmark against which a lower-value Australian dollar is measured. We might even see a reversal of the historic trend of New Zealanders migrating to Australia. Like many developed countries but unlike Australia, New Zealand now regularly appoints and handsomely pays their own poet laureate.

And what do we have? Modern Australian poetry is mostly a mannered exercise in political correctness copied from American models. Recent Australian novels lack a centre of gravity or, if they have any weight, rely on the addition of European gravitas or American chutzpah to obtain it.

Our plays remonstrate, demonstrate or document but rarely entertain because of our playwrights’ propensity to rant rather than write. Our most-recent serious music (with a few exceptions such as Peter Sculthorpe and Graeme Koehne) sounds like cuttings from Alban Berg or Anton von Webern grafted onto the tedious vacuity of John Cage’s American minimalism or the relentless pleadings of Phillip Glass’ repetitive emptiness.

And our figurative and plastic arts mimic anything that comes out of New York no matter how bizarre or irrelevant. That our arts bureaucracies at national, state and territory levels of government encourage and reward such amateurishness, is both a cause and a symptom of the malaise in much of the arts in Australia.

The declaration of Australia as a republic would date such dilettantism immediately. The resulting and resurgent Australia would bloom like never before. Our novelists, encouraged to draw from and inspired to write about the well of Australian story, would again treat us to language as masterful and evocative as that which Patrick White wrote into Voss, Peter Carey displayed in True history of the Kelly Gang and David Malouf savoured (though with ancient European subject matter) in An imaginary life.

Our landscape painters and other visual artists, determined to capture and present our places of work and locations of leisure with palettes of local colour, would take their cue from the work of artists like Fred Williams, John Olsen and William Robinson and add hugely to our stock of iconic images.

Our playwrights would be delighted not only to find, renew or confirm, their own distinctive voices but to give us ours as well in plays so compelling that the complexity of the dramas and the personas acting them out would become paradigms for depiction of Australian social and political life. Satirical stage reviews would acquire real bite.

Our poets will confirm that, though a relatively young nation, Australia now has enough depth and complexity to its history combined with a nuanced guilelessness in its character to define Australian mythologies and – with originality and power  imaginatively engage with the ideals of all humanity. Having cut, we could then unravel the ties that still bind, emerge from the shadows of others and write and read by our own light.

Coming soon: Part 2

Timoshenko Aslanides is an Australian poet. You can read more from Timoshenko on his website.

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