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An Australian republic must inspire and include all

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A republic must, among other things, prioritise justice for Indigenous people (image by picsbyclive via Flickr)

As social movements build in opposition to authoritarian populism around the world, we have to ask: why is republicanism dead in Australia?

It must be said that we should not equate a social movement with the republic, but the latter could do with a dose of the former. After all, it is "the people" that are living here who should get a say in their future governance.

The main barrier to a thriving debate on a republic is political leadership with neither side offering a real plan on the issue. Former Labor Leader Bill Shorten flirted with the idea in a speech in November 2018, but that seems an age ago given what has happened since.

There are other issues with republicanism too, not least the reality that it is led by uninspiring, older white men who seem angry at the British Crown rather than utopian in their vision.

There is also the question of a laconic self-satisfaction, which would cling to the idea that nothing is really wrong here.

Yet, the republic could be an issue that truly mattered to all Australians.

It must be said that the question of the republic is not divorced from other political issues, but nor is it the only one. It dovetails nicely with constitutional recognition and a treaty for Indigenous people as well as a desire for a bill of rights, as it has been expressed by refugee advocates.

In each of these cases, people are calling for a change to the highest law in the nation, including modifications to the constitution from calls for wholesale change including an entirely new founding document.

The republic is a question of process. It is meta – being a law about laws – and that helps explain why it might lack support.

People do not really know what they get when they get a republic. It is not a right, like the vote, nor is it something that happens in daily life through ritual, like marriage. It must then appeal to the feeling we have about our body politic. 

In a move towards a republic, we must not overlook the foundation on which the initial debate is built. This is the debate before the debate itself, which is to say the debate about how we should consider it. The starting point for speaking about republicanism in Australia must be about who gets to sit at the table.

There is a place then for people from all walks of life, not only the major political parties peopled as they are by insiders of privilege. This must include constituents that are currently overlooked, in a bipartisan way.

Here we could think of wards of the State, most of all from prisoners to the homeless to the mentally unwell to children in custody to detained refugees. We need to hear from groups that are silenced if we are to avoid the historical tragedies that beset other places.

Quite simply, a system designed by mediocre white men will reward them most of all, and, if the appalling rates of Indigenous incarceration and life expectancy are any guide, we know that our current nation was designed to oppress these people as a new commonwealth continued the colonial project as well.

The republican movement then needs truly diverse people at the table and not as part of a mandate about liberal inclusion, but as a genuine way to get new ideas about how to make a country great.

The debate must include different political actors. It must also expand our idea of what law can do and be expressed in. This is about changing our language. Poet Les Murray often spoke of the "vernacular republic". It is not only the concept of being a place of the people and for the people, but a question of the way this comes through in language.

Here we might pause to think of the Yolgnu gift of "makaratta" to accompany Murray’s turn of phrase. From the halcyon days of Australian republicanism in the 1970s, we are in a dormant phase. But we cannot simply return to what once was and hope for a different result. It was too white and we cannot simply graft an Indigenous presence onto it.

The concept for the republic must come from both sides being able to translate between one another and build on foundations of justice, healing, solidarity, and tarruru. Where it matters for renewing the debate is also found when we turn to poets, artists, writers, painters, dancers, singers and those in the cultural sphere who are not versed in professional political discourse.

We must consider what the republic looks like from new flags to crests of parliament to passports. These change with the times anyway, and to re-imagine the state is to re-imagine how we represent government to ourselves in the every day.

Finally, we need to think about the level and role of government itself, of how Australia matters at local, state, national levels.

This means a reorganisation of services and bureaucracy. This means our lives as citizens on a daily basis will go through change. The question of a republic is not only a question of our place in the world, but about the quotidian reality of a more expansive idea of who we are.

That means Australia has to grow as an idea, has to become better, has to let go of the systemic violence that oppresses many different individuals.

There is work to do when it comes to the republic.

The movement must include new voices, especially from Indigenous activists and refugee advocates. The movement must open out to the most oppressed, especially the incarcerated and the homeless. The movement must think about the aesthetics and arts that express who we are in the highest sense of citizenship and it must radically rethink the role of government in our daily lives.

This mountain to climb should not be overwhelming. It should excite us that we can make this place better when we work together.

Dr Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. A Malayali with East Indian Ocean connections, he lives on Noongar Country in Western Australia. The author of four books, Robert has held fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

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