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An Australian Republic — or Fourth in Line as Australia’s Head of State?

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Earlier this month, a baby was born, instantly becoming fourth in line to be Australian head of state; Professor Damien Kingsbury says this democratic anathema reflects Australia's political origins.

ON 2 MAY, a girl was bornShe was one of around 180,000 or so girls born that day. Her life is special, as is the life of every new child, and one hopes that she – and all other babies – go on to lead happy, fulfilling and productive lives. But that one particular baby is not – or should not be – any more special than that of any other.

That this particular baby is now fourth in line to be Australia’s head of state, yet destined never to be an Australian citizen nor be elected to that role, is a democratic anathema. This democratic anathema reflects Australia’s political origins.

It is said that the core political values of a nation are constructed when it is born and retain their stamp upon it thereafter. England’s constitutional monarchy is a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the United States is ruled under its revolutionary Constitution and amendments, France has continued to return to the republican model and so on.

For Australia, however, there has been no single cathartic political experience and its move towards federation and democracy bear the mark of an incomplete political process. Australia avoided the worst excesses of war and revolution, but its political gradualism has favoured conservativism and tradition as much as progress and change. 

Australia identifies its claimed cultural values of social and political notions of fairness and a generalised sense of egalitarianism, yet these, too, have remained compromised.

From the outset, British rule maintained its colonial authority in Australia, through answering to a parliament swearing allegiance to a monarch. From the outset, many rejected the distinction between the aristocracy and the oppressed but, despite growing differences, Australia remained a colonial appendage.  

The imprisoned Irish nationalists transported to Australia opposed colonial authority and they and their descendants became part of local political identity that owed much to independence and nothing to monarchy. That colonial political menage was supplemented by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were arrested and transported for swearing an oath to an early agricultural union.

They were followed, in chains, by the Chartists, comprising a working class movement for universal male suffrage, no property qualifications for voting, a secret ballot, payment of members to allow access for all, and equal constituencies. They, too, were arrested and transported, each contributing to new ideas for political organisation in this new land.

The Revolutions of 1848 that affected more than 50 countries were intended to remove the feudalism of the old world. They did end serfdom in Austria and Hungary, and absolute monarchy in Denmark and the monarchy in France. While in France this led to the Second Republic and official adoption of the motto liberte, egalite, fraternite (freedom, equality and (more or less) solidarity), the revolutions were disparate and disorganised and, ultimately, failed.

Many of the political refugees of this period fled to Australia. All contributed to an aspiration for a fairer, more decent society in this new land. All wished to escape the dead hand of inherited power and political privilege.

Chartists, the political activists of 1848 and what we would now classify as economic refugees found themselves working the gold fields, and contributed to the claims of the Ballarat Reform League and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854. That rebellion had momentum, but faced an enemy that knew its ebbs as well as its flows. The enemy attacked at a moment of vulnerability.  

But recognising the wider sensibility, rather than face real revolution, Victoria’s British authorities relented, leading to the Electoral Act of 1856, thus creating the third secret universal male democracy in the world (France was first, in 1795, but not sustained, and colonial authorities in Tasmania had watched Victoria and acted just weeks before).

In the circumstances, it was as little as the colonial authorities could do but, protecting prior privilege, it was as much as they would allow. The colonies would be allowed parliaments, but would remain subservient to the British crown. It was this model that was granted to the Australian Federation in 1901.

As a result, Australia is left with the contradiction whereby its embraces fairness and a broad egalitarianism, yet retains an obsequiousness of deference to inherited title, status and authority. It is free, yet restrictive; egalitarian in popular perception, but much less so in practice. This means that the political and social values to which we broadly ascribe remain contradicted by the residue of our pre-national origins.

As a result, Australia’s head of state is still not an Australian citizen, nor can a person in that position be. That position is reserved for inherited status without regard for citizenship, merit, representation or accountability. The reserve powers that otherwise comply with that position have been – and may again be – exercised by a person who is not democratically chosen.

(Image via Australian Republic Movement)

Yet Australia retains, in an almost bizarre and illogical manner, a continued commitment to a form of aristocracy that, at its origins, was imposed through violence and subsequently maintained by pomp, mythologising and a substantial public relations machine.

The re-introduction of royal honors, the first of those being given to the husband of the monarch, is and remains a poor political joke, but more importantly as an insult to Australia as a sovereign nation.

It has been suggested that Australia will not truly come of age as a nation until it disposes of this political anachronism and becomes fully accountable for its own political affairs. To do this does and should not require a significant alteration of the Australian political system – and no alteration of our claimed political values – but the simple expediency of removing the existing head of state, with the option of replacing it with an Australian citizen.

There has been debate about the process by which an Australian head of state should be selected, with the models being either indirect or direct democracy. This is a subsidiary issue to whether Australia’s head of state should be Australian.

If Australia was to consider a minimalist model, which rejected monarchy, in one sense it may not need a president at all. The functional role of presiding over changes of government could be allocated, as it mostly is, to an electoral returning officer, who may or may not be elected. The model, then, is not the question.

That Australia may choose to change or retain related political symbols is also a subsidiary issue. Having said that, the retention of the flag of another country in Australia’s own makes little sense for a country which otherwise claims to be independent.

Discussion about the idea of an Australian republic touches upon the classical notion of the republic as "devotion to the state". Yet the state is but the geo-institutional manifestation of the will of its people; its "nation". A ‘nation’, in this sense, is a people with a common bonded political identity. While much divides us, as it should in a plural, tolerant and diverse society, we all ascribe to our democratic process; to fairness and to rule of law.

Yet while we have as our head of state a foreigner, our sense of bonded identity will always be compromised. It is unimportant from where we or our predecessors came; what is important is where we are and how we understand ourselves together, united to a larger purpose.

To be fully Australian is to embody a sense of egalitarianism in our political system. It is to bring back into play the idea of a social contract as the defining quality of fairness. It is to lift ‘mateship’ from being exclusive to inclusive. It is to embrace others for their in principle equal potential as we wish to be embraced for ours.

These are the better qualities of being Australian. These are also the qualities implied in becoming a republic.

The simple question that Australia has before it, as a nation, is do Australians want a citizen of another country as its head of state? To say that this matter is unimportant is to continue and entrench the political passivity that has increasingly afflicted and diminished Australia’s democracy. To say that it is important, to take ownership of the decision and to act on it is a mark of enhancing citizenship, and of strengthening Australia’s democracy.

The question is, perhaps, less whether Australia will become a republic, but when? But eventually – hopefully sooner rather than later – Australians will choose to become a republic and, by doing so, to take responsibility for their political decisions, to participate in political life, and become active citizens. This will be their "republican virtue".

To be fully Australian, to be the best iteration of the idea of Australia, Australia must become a republic. It is from this that Australia can be a better, fairer country, that more honestly represents the cultural claims of its citizens, and which completes the political project which gave rise to the aspirations for an Australian democracy.

Professor Damien Kingsbury holds a Personal Chair in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University. This story was originally published at Deakin Speaking and has been republished with the author's permission. Find out more about the Australian Republican Movement here.

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An Australian Republic — or Fourth in Line as Australia’s Head of State?

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