There has been quite some discussion recently about whether Australia would remain within the Commonwealth of Nations if it became a republic. The irony is that the term ‘Commonwealth’ has a strong republican ancestry. Essentially, the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ would suit an Australian republic, writes Glenn Davies.
THE PERIOD from the late 1880s to 1891 was a strong republican moment with fifteen republican organisations and twenty radical republican newspapers or journals widely spread through the Australian colonies. At a national level, republican dimensions emerged when Henry Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales advocated the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ at the 1891 National Australasian Convention. The ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ was the title chosen for the new nation by the delegates to the 1891 National Australasian Convention and, despite some controversy in the intervening years, it was the title agreed to, with little fuss, at the People’s Convention in 1897 and 1898. Australians today are used to the term ‘Commonwealth’ which runs parallel to republican traditions without bearing the explicit connotations or implying the essential institution of republicanism.
Late 1889 was a time of renewed discussion on the prospects of an Australian federation. Henry Parkes’ ‘Tenterfield Speech’ had given impetus for national discussion. With New South Wales now supporting the federation movement there was the opportunity for serious and fruitful discussion among all the colonies. The 1891 National Australasian Convention began on 2 March 1891. The 45 delegates who had been appointed by the colonial parliaments to develop a draft constitution for a federal Australia were all eminent politicians in their respective colonies who earnestly wanted to maintain the British connection.
Henry Parkes’ proposal of the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ for the new Australian federation was stated to be because of its old English meaning – government ‘for the common good’ and yet the popular republican meaning of ‘Commonwealth’ and its associations to Cromwell’s republic in Britain were equally known to the convention delegates when they adopted it. However, for some convention delegates, ‘Commonwealth’ smacked too much of republicanism, and its associations to Cromwell’s republic established in Britain in 1649. This Commonwealth was associated with regicide.
In 1971, the political historian John La Nauze definitively argued that Henry Parkes’ intention in proposing the term ‘Commonwealth’ was not to raise the spectre of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. La Nauze stated the specific linkage of the new Australian nation with Cromwell’s Protectorate of 1649 “still worried the more naïve loyalists of 1891”.  It may well be that they had just grounds for their concern.
Parkes had indicated that his admiration was for the English parliamentary leaders of the first half of the seventeenth century who resisted the absolutism of King Charles I before the time of the Protectorate. Parkes asked Edmund Barton’s journalist-brother G.B. Barton to write an annotated version of the 1891 National Convention’s Draft Bill. In G.B. Barton’s The Draft Bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (1891) there was a discussion of the term ‘Commonwealth’. It was argued the term ‘Commonwealth’ emerged from the English writers before the Civil War and that when political writers such as Hobbes used ‘Commonwealth’ in 1651 in Leviathan, they “used the word in a general sense of a State or established community, no matter what the form of government might be.”
According to the young leader of the Australian Natives’ Association and future Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin in the Constitutional Committee did not enthusiastically accept the term due to its flavour of republicanism. In The Federal Story, Deakin’s account of the 1891 Federal Convention he referred to a number of the delegates as having “a streak of republicanism in their politics”. Al Gabay described Deakin as a master of persuasion who in each case knew his man.
“[Deakin] appealed first to the streak of republicanism in the elderly Adye Douglas. Inglis Clark, Griffith and Barton supported [the name Commonwealth] out of friendship to Parkes, and Sir George Grey because it was the ‘most radical’ name proposed.” Gabay continued “apart from its inner significance, the name Commonwealth sat well with Deakin’s political Liberalism”.
This became evident on 21 July 1891 when Deakin spoke in the Victorian Parliament about,
“the days of Hampden and Pym, when important issues were decided like the, assertion of Constitutional liberty … the supremacy of Parliament … the right of the nation to concede no taxation excepting through … Parliament … to be tried by their own courts … and [for their] representatives to speak in Parliament without danger of arrest by the Myrmidons of a despotic king.”
Many of the delegates who were initially opposed to the term ‘Commonwealth’ after reflection agreed the term had more merit than any other suggestions. In The Federal Story Deakin related while he at first was not a supporter of the title ‘Commonwealth’, he changed his mind, seeing the “rival epithets as barbarous, clumsy and uneuphonious.” Deakin recorded how he seconded Parkes’ proposal to call the new Australian nation “The Commonwealth of Australia” after a night’s reflection and then lobbied other delegates on the merits of the term. The result was the motion was carried by one vote in the Constitutional Committee. The votes went:
“In favour: Parkes, Deakin, Douglas, Inglis Clark, Barton, Russell and Grey. Against – Gilles, Downer, Forrest, Lee Streere, Payford and Thynne.” 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1891supported the ancient linkage implicit in the term ‘Commonwealth’ when it stated: “The Commonwealth of Australia, the word is the exact equivalent of the Roman Respublica – otherwise our modern republic.” On the issue that commonwealth meant republicanism, the GoulburnHerald, 3 April 1891argued the presence of a revolutionary echo:
“Having looked into the dictionary, we are unable to assert that the word ‘commonwealth’ is absolutely incorrect as applied to a federation of states under a sovereign; but we do not recollect a single instance of its being used except in relation to a republic. Certainly the commonwealths we most read of - that of Rome and that of England - were republics; and the English people have for generations been accustomed to regard the Commonwealth as synonymous with the abolition of royalty. Assuredly the first impression of strangers who read that there is to be an Australian commonwealth must be that we are about to throw off our allegiance to Queen Victoria.”
It is in the English Civil War writings of James Harrington that the republic and the Commonwealth was the same thing. Harrington maintained that a natural aristocracy of men should retain the initiative in any governmental system. Perhaps if the origin of ‘Commonwealth’ had been better known, the name would have met with more opposition. The essence of Australia’s republican spirit is captured in the notion of the ‘Commonwealth’.
 J.A. La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, Historical Studies, Vol.15, No.59, 1971, p.63.
 See H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, Vol.1 (London, 1892), p.639.
 G.B. Barton (ed.), The Draft Bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (Sydney, 1891), p.9.
 The Convention Committee meetings were held in camera and as such there were no minutes recorded. However, La Nauze demonstrates this was no doubt the case. (La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, pp.59-71)
 A. Deakin, The Federal Story. The Inner History of the Federal Cause 1880-1900 (Parkville, 1963), p.51.