SOME PEOPLE claim that Australia should not become a republic for reasons of national stability. The argument goes that having an unchanging constitutional set-up doesn’t “scare the horses". It is a conventional conservative argument that can be used against doing anything constructive.
It's a short-sighted attitude. In the short-term, the country may seem more stable, but in the long-run inaction will almost inevitably lead to greater internal tensions and ructions within the Australian community. The truth is, only after breaking our last colonial links to form a fully independent Australian nation can a truly unifying national story be told—one that binds all Australians by an uplifting national narrative to a compelling common purpose. The Crown simply cannot do this—it is no longer a unifying symbol for Australians.
Some say, why worry that Australia hasn't quite become fully separate from Britain? It is rather a clumsy arrangement but it does seem to work, goes the argument.
They are right, there, to some extent. Australia does seem to work for the most part—at least for now. The problem is, until we “mortar in the last brick of our nationhood”, then our entire national structure is inherently unstable—and when something is unstable, there is always the danger it may topple over.
It cannot be denied that tensions exist within the community. In the 1990s, there was the rise of Pauline Hanson and her popularisation of xenophobia and racism, especially towards Asian immigrants. In the previous decade, we saw the Cronulla riots and the rise of the "you flew here, we grew here" attitude towards recent immigrants. Right now, tensions rumble under the surface, with the enduring moral panic about asylum seekers, especially those arriving on boats—a modern manifestation of an ancient Australian fear (more about that in a moment).
The riots and xenophobia symbolise a nation divided within itself.
This is not a new phenomenon, indeed it dates from the very earliest colonial times. The Irish rebellion and then the Eureka Stockade were earlier manifestations of these same issues. The difference between then and now is simply that British kinship and sentiment has never been weaker.
Despite the odd-flare-up, the colony, dominion and nation stayed together reasonably well when the British population dominated and its interests were hegemonic. It allowed, in the very early days, for British colonisers to easily and mercilessly persecute, exploit and dispossess Aboriginal Australians. A strongly sectarian British establishment saw Irish and Catholic settlers placed into an underclass that saw the rise of such popular Irish rebels as Ned Kelly. And of course, there were the brutal riots and vendettas against Chinese people at the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s.
Britain's importance to Australia was enshrined in our Constitution when Australia became “a self governing colony” of the United Kingdom in 1901, always under the rule of the British monarch, despite the strong republican sentiment that existed in Australia around that time. Interestingly, one of the few areas of agreement amongst attendees of the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s was the White Australia Policy (WAP), whose general aim was to maintain a national bloodline based on British stock to the exclusion of other nationalities, especially non-Europeans. There was, in particular, a strong fear of China and the “Asian hordes” to the north—the so-called “yellow peril”. The policy was massively popular amongst the community at the time and all three of then major Australian political parties.
Australia was founded on the WAP—the very first act of the first Australian Parliament in 1901 was to pass into law the Immigration Restriction Act, with only one MP fully opposed to the policy.
In the 1950s, this policy was relaxed somewhat to allow more immigration from southern Europe. These Europeans became the newest underclass, and were labelled for years as "wogs" or "wops". British immigration was still very actively encouraged during this period, the Australian Government even paying the way for British people to emigrate to Australia—the '£10 poms', as they were known.
A less discriminatory immigration policy towards non-Europeans was not achieved until Prime Minister Harold Hold abolished the WAP in the late 1960s. With the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, Australia for the first time started seeing substantial numbers of Asian faces in its crowds.
Since the 1970s, a massive number of non-British and non-European immigrants have arrived in Australia. After intense early discrimination, distrust of Asian immigrants has been somewhat supplanted by the onset of 'Islamaphobia'. Wars in African and the Middle-East have seen subsequent waves of immigrants to Australia from such places as Lebanon, Iran, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most live in the poorer suburbs of major cities on low incomes and are frequently viewed with distrust and even outright contempt by less recent arrivals, hence the Cronulla riots.
There is no doubt that British immigration will continue to decline and the proportion of people that feel a bond with Britain will correspondingly diminish. Former Prime Minister John Howard saw the problem, and devised a rather folksy citizenship test – which included questions about Don Bradman’s test batting average – along with plans for a preamble to the Constitution that emphasised some amorphous idea of “mateship” in a feeble attempt to define Australian national identity. It failed to have much resonance even within his own WASP clique.
Though an ardent royalist, in his heart Howard probably knows that the only way to create a true national identity is to create a true nation. Only by breaking its last colonial links will Australia be able to assuredly claim that it is a fully and truly independent nation.
In terms of the Australian peoples, it is hard to conceive Indigenous Australians being prepared to stand fully behind a nation still intrinsically linked to the colonisers who took away their land and humiliated them. For many Indigenous Australians, Australia Day is known as Invasion Day. They surely want to be able to turn the page on this unfortunate past and have a nation with a Constitution that recognises their intrinsic importance to this land and regards them as full equals with their usurpers. Similarly, recent arrivals to these shores are unlikely to be inspired towards a deep loyalty to a nation without the will and the pride to become fully independent—a nation that illogically allows its citizens to be the subjects of a foreign monarch.
We can bind all Australians together to a common purpose – a deep love for this nation – that extends beyond shallow pride in our national sporting achievements. We can achieve this by showing we are subservient to no foreign nation, or monarch, but are a truly independent, fully democratic, egalitarian nation. And with an Australian head of state, we can show our children that the top job in our system is something every one of them can aspire to be and so be inspired to become.
The Australian Republican Movement policy expresses this well:
An Australian republic is about Australia’s future. It’s about our shared identity and place in the world. It will have a constitution that reflects the sovereignty of the Australian people, so that any Australian citizen can aspire to the highest office in the land.
An Australian republic will embrace our egalitarianism and the concept of a fair go. It will acknowledge our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and respect its culture, with its timeless connection to the Australian land and sea. It will recognise and build upon our British heritage and acknowledge its gifts, including our political and legal institutions. An Australian republic will celebrate our immigrant heritage of opportunity and endeavour and its contribution to our national identity. It will unite all Australians behind an Australian Head of State.
With all recent polls showing that less than 30 per cent of the Australians identify themselves as monarchists, and with republicanism supported by about 60 per cent, the Crown does more to divide us than bind us as a nation. It would be awful to think of Australia breaking down into chaos and disunity – and perhaps fracturing – by us not making the effort to find another meaningful idea to bind all our disparate peoples together. Only an Australian republic, with its compelling national vision for our nation – a fully independent egalitarian Australian nation united under an Australian head of state – seems able to create this true sense of national unity. It would be unwise to let this important national project drift on for too long, allowing the fault lines to widen too far.
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