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November is time for Australian republican remembering

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

November is Australia’s season for remembering efforts to bring about an Australian republic, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

NOVEMBER IS ALWAYS a time of remembering. It is when you reflect upon the year, do annual reviews, weigh up what’s been achieved and what hasn’t, and set targets and goals for the coming year.

Each year on 11 November since 1919, Remembrance Day has been held to remember the Armistice of the Great War. This has set the tone for November as a time to reflect and remember. However, there were annual events before the establishment of Remembrance Day that tapped into this reflective time of the year.

The Feast of Saints is held at the beginning of November and is now widely observed across the world to remember those recognised as today’s saints — known or unknown, mighty or lowly. This is followed on 2 November by All Souls’ Day, an official holiday in the Catholic ecclesiastical calendar. Also known as the Commemoration of the Dearly Departed and the Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day is generally a day of remembrance, when prayers are said for the souls of those who have passed on.

Around the world, All Souls’ Day often involves visiting cemeteries where loved ones are buried and tending to their graves. Attending a mass or church service, praying and eating particular foods are all part of these observations.

This is followed on 5 November with Guy Fawkes Night, which remembers the survival of James I from Guy Fawkes’ assassination plot when he attempted to blow up the House of Lords in 1605:

‘Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.’

It was Bonfire Night, or cracker night, which marked the anniversary of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

In Australia, the republican season includes the anniversary of the 6 November 1999 republic referendum, the 3 November 1997 anniversary of the voluntary postal election for the 1998 Constitutional Convention, as well as the anniversary of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Dismissal on 11 November 1975 by then Governor-General John Kerr. The latter event remains the most dramatic event in Australia’s political history and began the modern republican movement.

Recently there have been claims the British monarch was involved in Australia’s 1975 Constitutional Crisis.

The Palace Letters – The Queen, the Governor-General and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam – are the groundbreaking result of historian Professor Jenny Hocking’s fight to expose secret letters between the Queen and the Australian Governor-General during the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975.

In this gripping and true court drama, Professor Jenny Hocking describes her years-long legal battle to uncover letters between Queen Elizabeth II and Sir John Kerr in which the two discussed the 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam Government. Hocking also provides a piercing analysis of both the extreme efforts made to stop her and what the letters themselves revealed.

The Palace Letters show it is absurd how an Australian governor-general reports to Buckingham Palace in a manner not much different from that of a 19th-Century colonial governor. Australia’s head of state should be one of us.

But as Australian Republic Movement National Chair Peter FitzSimons wrote:

‘Nothing has changed since 1975 to stop this happening again. And next time, it might not be an adviser to Queen Elizabeth having these kinds of secret meetings on Australia’s internal affairs, but a courtier of none other than King Charles.’

Early November also sees the anniversaries of the 2014 memorial for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1971-1975), as well as the 12 November eulogy delivered for Professor George Winterton.

George Winterton was a first-rank constitutional scholar and pioneer of the modern republican debate. He spent most of his career at the University of New South Wales, was a prominent republican scholar and writer, a member of the Republic Advisory Committee in the mid-1990s and a key delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention that crafted the minimalist republic model rejected in the 1999 referendum. More than anyone else, he produced the model that went to the people in the 1999 republic referendum.

In early November 2015, the first significant policy change for the new Turnbull Government was to call it a “knight” on titles. The formal removal by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of one of the previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s most unpopular “captain’s picks” resolved a national embarrassment. Turnbull confirmed there would be no more anachronistic Australian knights and dames. Australia’s “knightmare” was finally over. In abolishing the titles of knight and dame from the Order of Australia awards, Turnbull helped the growth of the movement for an Australian republic.

Republicanism emerged as an issue of major public debate during the 1990s. 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 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 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 have 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.

On 6 November 1999, the then national chairperson of the Australian Republic Movement, Malcolm Turnbull pinned the 1999 referendum’s defeat squarely on the Prime Minister, John Howard, when he said:

“History will remember him for one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s heart.”

With Queen Elizabeth II’s recent health queries, there has been reflection on what Australia might look like without her as Australia’s Head of State. Of course, the next step is to imagine what Australia would look like without a monarchy.

Australians need a head of state of our own, someone who can lead the dignified part of our national life away from the day-to-day screaming match of Federal Parliament and Question Time.

Last weekend’s conference of the New Zealand Labour Party debated a proposal to start the discussion on a republic, with a New Zealand citizen as head of state, with Te Tiriti o Waitangi “as its foundation.”

Lewis Holden, campaign chair of New Zealand Republic, Kia Mana Motuhake a Aotearoa, stated:

“This korero could not be more timely.”

It may be that New Zealand becomes a republic before us.

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

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