Republic Opinion

Australian Republic Movement on track for reform

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The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 was a strong Australian republican motivator (Image via Flickr)

With Queen Elizabeth's reign nearing its end, the Australian Republic Movement is working on a new model to unite Australia in becoming a republic, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

BUCKINGHAM PALACE is now making preparations for the end of the Queen’s reign. Prince Charles is reportedly taking on a number of responsibilities for The Queen, as heir to the British throne. It’s time Australia began preparing too, including working towards the reforms needed for Australia to become a republic.

In January 2020, the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) adopted a new strategic approach to building public consensus about the reforms that should be taken to a referendum. This involved extensive public consultation, public opinion research and consultation with academics and parliamentarians about the way forward. That work has continued in 2021 and ARM is on track to announce its position on the key features of a model by the end of this year.

Recently, ARM National Director Sandy Biar stated that the reforms would begin a new chapter in Australia’s campaign for its independence from the British monarchy.

Said Biar:

We have been listening closely to the views shared with us by thousands of Australians across the country and building on common ground we can all get behind. It’s crucial we begin this conversation now so that all Australians have the opportunity to be heard, be informed and to take part in the conversation about our future. When we have a head of state who champions the interests of Australians, who stands with us in times of crisis, who can speak for us as a proud, fellow Australian chosen by Australians, then we will have truly come of age.

The Australian Republican Movement began over lunch at the residence of former Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran. In 1987, Wran had publicly stated his support for Australia becoming a republic and nominated 2001, the centenary of Australia’s Federation, as an ideal date. He said that he expected moves towards a republic would gain ground during the 1990s. Wran was supported at the time by Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

On 7 July 1991, a group of prominent citizens held a meeting in Sydney to launch a republican movement under the chairmanship of author Thomas Keneally and included many eminent persons from the political Left and cultural centre of Australian society.

The 1991 foundation members of ARM were Tom Keneally, the late Geoffrey Dutton, the late Professor Donald Horne, Jenny Kee, the late Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, Franca Arena, the late Faith Bandler, Mark Day, Geraldine Doogue, the late Colin Lanceley, the late Harry Seidler, Malcolm Turnbull, David Williamson and the late Honourable Neville Wran.

Tom Keneally was the first national chairman and was succeeded by Malcolm Turnbull in November 1993.

The question of whether or not Australia should be a republic has been debated for longer than most people imagine. Australians have long discussed the idea of replacing the constitutional monarchy with a republican constitution even during the 19th century, before Federation in 1901.

In early colonial NSW, the American rejection of British rule and the violence of the French Revolution were well known. Republicanism was often used as a political language to challenge government authority and only hardened the resolve of those in power to savagely repress any supporters.

In 1795, the “Scottish Martyrs” arrived. The many Irish convicts brought with them antipathy towards the British. Convict uprisings such as the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion were labelled republican. However, in most cases, the convicts were not looking for political change, they just wanted to return home.

The period from 1840 to 1856 was one in which colonial grievances reached their height. In Sydney in 1850, the outspoken firebrand Reverend John Dunmore Lang, The People’s Advocate editor E.J. Hawksley and the young Henry Parkes campaigned through the Australian League for a republican form of government when the British Government wanted to reintroduce transportation of convicts. 

In the early 1850s, during the gold rushes, there was an influx of large numbers of migrants from Europe and the United States to Victoria, many of whom were sympathetic to republicanism. This caused British officials to fear the possibility of revolution. In 1854, the Eureka Stockade rebellion at the Ballarat goldfield was ultimately a republican desire for government by the people. However, the urgency vanished when responsible government was granted in 1856.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, republicanism became strongly anti-monarchical and nationalist in sentiment. The “inevitability” of an Australian republic became a common theme. In the late 1870s, the traditional Irish enmity towards British authority can be seen in the republican sentiments expressed in Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter and, later, in Kelly gang member Joe Byrne’s Declaration of the Republic of North East Victoria.

During the 1880s, there were 15 republican organisations and 20 newspapers or journals in cities and major country towns. This republicanism was often focused on struggles between capital and labour.

From 1884, The Bulletin expounded a strong anti-monarchical attitude. In 1887, republicans twice defeated attempts at Sydney Town Hall to pass a loyal resolution congratulating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, resulting in an open clash between thousands of demonstrators. Soon after, Sydney had a Republican Union and a republican journal led by Louisa and Henry Lawson, and George Black. It was in The Republican that Henry Lawson first published 'A Song of the Republic'.

In 1890 and 1891, the Australasian Republican Association on the north Queensland goldfield of Charters Towers had over 700 members, published a regular journal and established republican branches. Australian Republican Editor F.C.B. Vosper published an inflammatory editorial at the height of the 1891 Shearers’ Strike calling for revolution and the declaration of the republic. He was arrested and tried for seditious libel but eventually acquitted.

The Commonwealth of Australia was the title chosen for the new nation at the 1891 National Constitutional Convention. Although there was controversy over the republican ancestry of the term, it was the title accepted in 1901. Prior to the mid-1890s, republicans had insisted that national independence could only be achieved by Australia’s secession from the British Empire. However, by 1901, federation was seen as the first step on the road towards political independence.

In the 1960s, republican activity was restarted by authors Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne. At the same time, the student magazine, Oz, lampooned the monarchy. A decade on, the Dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the appointed governor-general on 11 November 1975 outraged many Australians.

The 1975 constitutional crisis drew attention to Australia's constitutional arrangements and, since those turbulent days, several notable Australians declared a commitment to an Australian republic. There were many town hall meetings and calls to "maintain the rage". During these years, the Australian Labor Party edged towards declaring itself for the republic. This it eventually did in 1982.

Republicans proposed 1988 for the establishment of an Australian republic. This was not to be.

In the 1990s, the popular definition of “republic” was simply the removal of the hereditary monarch. This was seen as the last step in Australia’s political development. In 1991, the Australian Republican Movement was established. In 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating formed the Republic Advisory Committee, led by Malcolm Turnbull, to prepare options on how to achieve a republic with minimal constitutional change. In June 1995, Keating announced his goal of a republic with an Australian head of state.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention helped to strengthen the debate for a republic. While the republic was a major issue in the late 1990s, the debate caught up in an argument about the best selection method for a head of state. It was on this crucial issue republicans divided.

In the absence of a proper process to resolve those differences, Australians rejected the 6 November 1999 referendum. Overall, 55 per cent voted "no" to the republic. No political leader has subsequently emerged who wants to find common ground among Australians and break the logjam. This is where it became frozen for more than a decade.

In 2015, distinguished author, journalist and Australian rugby union international, Peter FitzSimons, was appointed head of Australia's Republic Movement. A passionate republican, FitzSimons is well known through his regular Sydney Morning Herald column, as well as his many books. As one of our foremost writers of Australian history, FitzSimons has captured some of the pivotal moments that have shaped our national identity.

The political landscape in Australia is definitely changing. The push for a republic has gone from strength to strength in recent years with support from a resurgent membership.

Over the last few years, Australian media has become a cheer squad for “celebrity” monarchy, framing the republic debate as all about a family in Britain, when actually our great national cause is about the sovereignty of the Australian people. The monarchy is clearly no longer an institution that can unite Australians.

It’s broken.

In contrast, since it was first established over a decade ago by former ARM media director and vice-chair David Donovan, Independent Australia has become the premier republican voice in Australia, the modern-day version of The Bulletin in its heyday of the 1880s and 1890s.

It has been a long time since Australia has had such a strong republican voice. Independent Australia has become that space — a republican space, a republican civic space where republicans and others can debate the issues that are important to our political and civic future.

Only one-third of Australians know the British Queen is our head of state and the monarchy is becoming more unrepresentative of Australians as time goes on.

The monarchy sits above our system of democratic government, but cannot represent us, our identity or our values as a nation.

Surely, it must be time for us to stand on our own two feet.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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