Peter FitzSimons and Australia's search for independence

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Chair of the Australian Republic Movement Peter FitzSimons (Image by Gronk Oz via Wikimedia Commons)

The ghosts of Eureka still haunt us. Terra Australis has come a long way since the rebellion of 1854, but that last crucial step to becoming a fully independent nation again, remains elusive.

Journalist, author and chair of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM), Peter FitzSimons, recounts how he once discussed the Eureka Rebellion with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and how Abbott expressed his misgivings about that seminal moment in Australia’s history:

"Let’s not forget those guys raised arms against the Crown!"

I am unclear if this exchange was what prompted the author of Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution to get involved with the Australian Republic Movement, but it illustrates what the movement is up against in the current climate of political upheaval and polarised debate.

Not even the footy finals last weekend seem to have calmed things down as it would normally this time of year. We are a country in apparent disagreement about many political issues, headed for what may well be the most aggressive federal election fight since 1975. There is the possibility of a landslide swing — not unlike what the Coalition enjoyed then, except towards Labor this time around.

Very careful to remain non-partisan, FitzSimons and ARM CEO Michael Cooney are currently doing a series of town hall meetings – in pubs, of course – around the country. I caught up with them in Perth last week. They are keen to make their cause a lot less divisive than what it was in the 1999 referendum, when the monarchists won by almost 10%. They recognise that the challenge is to keep it simple, suggesting a two-stage process.

The first is a plebiscite to decide on the basic principle: Do you believe Australia should have an Australian as head of state?

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has committed his Party to a plebiscite on this question during their first term in office.

The ARM’s focus is equally straightforward. “We are a one-trick pony”, FitzSimons says. Their own polling shows that 50% of Australians support their cause, 25% don’t. Their focus is on the undecided 25%.

"We want people to accept the obvious", FitzSimons asserts, his signature red bandana proving to be less of a distraction than I expected. (Funnily enough, some say he was born with it.) His style is direct and casual, but he is careful to focus on the ridiculous notion of our head of state being a foreigner. He does not ridicule the Queen herself.

FitzSimons tells the story of his niece Esmeralda, for whom he has extremely high hopes. He makes the point that this little girl can become whatever she likes – an Oscar-winning actress, a Wimbledon champion or the doctor that finds the cure for cancer – except she can never be the head of state of Australia. Why? Because she is not a member of the Royal Family of the United Kingdom!

Simple and effective messaging that befits a best-selling storyteller.

Michael Cooney adds that it is not important what we end up calling our head of state – it might as well still be known as the governor general – to underline how this change makes absolutely no difference to the way our country is governed.

Yet this may remain the biggest challenge that the ARM faces — maybe even more so than it was back in 1999. Tony Abbott and some of his acolytes may still see us as a colony, but the major obstacle for many remains the very notion of Australia becoming a republic.

For some, a republic implies a president and a president implies a Trump. Or some such "strongman" endowed with a surfeit of powers.

Nobody wants that and nobody is suggesting that — certainly not the ARM.

In my own writings about democracy, I barely mention the notion of an Australian head of state. Instead, I focus on many other changes to make our democracy work better. Having an Australian as head of state will not change democracy. But it will change how we conceive of ourselves as a nation.

It will finally break the last shackles that symbolically bind us to our colonial past. But it won’t change how we live, how we defend the country, who we choose as our friends and what sports we engage in. The Ashes will still be as hotly contested. We will still win lots of gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.

In practical terms it means little, but symbolically it means a lot.

The practicalities will, however, come into it for stage two of the ARM proposal: how to select a head of state. FitzSimons is clear in his view it should be a person nominated by the prime minister, just as it happens now for the governor general. Except he or she doesn’t ask the queen or the king for their consent — which, incidentally, has always been given.

The official ARM view, however, is that it doesn’t matter if the head of state is elected or appointed. It is not a position of government, but a figurehead for the nation, with representative tasks and, essentially, ceremonial powers. It requires a change to the Constitution and therefore a referendum is required. If the principal question of us having an Australian head of state has already been voted on in a plebiscite, the ARM hopes that stage two involving the referendum will be much less divisive.

And it may also help us finally lay to rest the enduring and most intractable issue of our modern history — Indigenous reconciliation.

As FitzSimons puts it:

"Let’s not forget that this country has been populated not just since 1788, but for over 60,000 years."

It is important that the last vestiges of British colonialism are removed from our Constitution. For Indigenous people, this would mean that any formal documents of reconciliation are not granted by Australia’s invaders, the Crown. Rather, they would be a treaty between equals.

The Eureka Rebellion of 1854 was the beginning of Australians claiming independence from the British Empire, culminating in Federation in 1901.

It is time for our Indigenous country-women and men to have their own Eureka moment.

Only then can Australia again be the independent nation it once was.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer and commentator. You can follow him @kwingerei.

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