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Speculating on the republic

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There have certainly been many republican writers in Australia’s past but very few examples where republican settings or arguments have been explored in Australian fiction. It seems strange there is no tradition of republican speculative fiction in Australia, writes Glenn A. Davies.

Dr Glenn A. Davies

IN AN EFFORT to help foster the recently emerging Australian republic speculative fiction genre the National Republican Short Story Competition was established in 2009. The competition continues again this year. The Second National Republican Short Story Competition opened on 1 May 2010 and will close on 31 August 2010. The theme this year is 'Life and Death in an Australian Republic'.

2009 Republican Short Story Prize Winner, Kel Robertson

2009 was a milestone as it was 10 years on 6 November 2009 since the republican referendum was lost. To commemorate this event and to remind Australians what they still didn’t have the Australian Republican Movement ran the First National Republican Short Story Competition as a challenge to Australia’s fiction writers to speculate on the possible futures of the Australian republic. The winner of the First National Republican Short Story Competition was the Canberra-based writer, Kel Robertson. On learning of his win, he commented: “I am truly delighted to win this competition. I enjoyed myself immensely writing this story; the whole experience was entertaining. As a young man I was very much of my time and had great sympathy for the royal family whereas now find myself bemused by their activities. It was great fun being able to have some gentle pleasure at their expense”.

In Rook Feast, Robertson tells the story of the final meeting between the King of England who is under house arrest and a Minister of the British government. The Minister (who is also a relative) has come to inform the last King of England “on a perfect English spring day” what is to be his fate. Set in the future where a post-tourism-age appears to have killed the monarchy, Robertson’s story explores concepts of the hidden costs of monarchy through a ‘security expenditure issue’, and the theme of the inevitability of the popular will of the people. The plot is written around a discussion of what would be the individual future of the last King of England. There is a strong sense of pathos and resignation from the King: “More than 1500 years of history all the way from bloody Edgar. Over. Ended.” But for the last King there is no exile to “California or New York, gracing the boards of big corporations, skiing Aspin in winter and sailing Rhode Island in summer.” He is not welcome in the great democracy. Nor have the governments of Canada, Northern Ireland, New Zealand or countries in the Caribbean, and Africa accepted him. Instead, nearly 50 years after they removed their titular monarch, the government of Australia agrees he and his family can settle their as private citizens. In this Australian republican future the robust egalitarian society of the south remains strong with sufficient generosity of spirit to embrace the remnants of Northern Hemisphere royalty – the last King of England and the newest citizen of Australia.
The Royal Guest by Tohby Riddle

There are some parallels to Robertson’s short story with Tohby Riddle's (1993) children’s illustrated book The Royal Guest in which the Queen is planning a trip to Australia, but there is talk about the cost. Luckily, a Mrs Jones from Padstow offers to put her up. She has plenty of room, not to mention a very comfortable inflatable mattress. All the Queen needs to bring is her own sleeping bag. Over the next few days the Queen experiences everyday suburban life, playing cards with Mrs Jones and her friends and helping Mrs Jones take her cat to the vet on her way to a meeting with the Prime Minister. After a hectic round of royal engagement, the Queen returns to spend her last night at Padstow. Before she leaves the next morning, she hands Mrs Jones a thankyou gift. It is the most delicately, crafted jewelled crown, one of the Queen's old favourites. Mrs Jones, who is busy packing the Queen's lunch, accepts the crown, joking that this must make her 'the Queen of Padstow'. Although this is where the story ends, republican historian Mark McKenna has reflected in more detail on the crowning of Mrs Jones.

Australian debate on a possible republic in the late 1990s inspired an outpouring of writing from republicans and constitutional monarchists. Almost none of it took the form of novels, poetry, plays or short stories. None of the delegates to the 1998 Constitutional Convention was a writer of literary fiction. Although the republican and monarchist causes had supporters from the literary world like Tom Keneally and Clive James, such writers did not use their fictional talents for their causes. This absence impoverished the republic debate, since works of fiction provide particular opportunities to imagine how familiar political institutions might work if some of their key features were altered.

David Donovan has written recently in the e-journal On Line Opinion that a major reason for an Australian republic is to aid the further development of a distinct and unique Australian identity. He also notes there has not appeared to date a real tradition of republican speculative fiction in Australia. He argues that a great many of Australia’s most important works of fiction look towards our past rather than ahead – “with some exceptions rather than preferring bright and optimistic tales, the stories with which we seem to most identify have a strong sense of adversity, injustice and persecution at their core”. He argues that identity comes through the way we think about ourselves and our nation and the narrative about what we are as a nation continues to be updated with new chapters added all the time. It is time that we speculate more on the future rather than dwell on the misgivings of the past.


The mid-nineteenth century saw the first chapter drafted in the imagined destiny of a republican Australia. This was a period monopolised by a small number of writers and orators such as John Dunmore Lang, Daniel Deniehy and the poet Charles Harpur whose visions of a republican future created an imaginary framework for the rest of the century. In 1849, the republican poet Charles Harpur attached the subtitle “A Song for the Future” to his poem, “The Tree of Liberty”. By 1852, Lang had published Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, an appeal for the establishment of a United States of Australia. This was the first argued case for an Australian republic. In the 1850s Deniehy argued publicly and through newspaper columns that Australian society was to be founded by ‘sons of the soil’, hardy and austere men in love with their native soil. Lang and Deniehy believed that it was Australia that offered the best hope of a great republic, a much better hope than America.
Bushranger and republican, Ned Kelly

The radical thoughts of the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly were evident in the hour of his capture when the police took from his pocket a declaration for a Republic of North Eastern Victoria! Ned Kelly has become an Australian folk hero for his defiance of the colonial authorities. Born in Victoria to an Irish convict father, as a young man he clashed with the police. After he murdered three policemen, the colony proclaimed Kelly and his gang wanted outlaws. It was Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter that showed elements of a manifesto and a foreshadowing of a rebellion. In 1879 the Kelly gang held up the town of Jerilderie, New South Wales. Months prior to arriving in Jerilderie, and with help from his mate Joe Byrne, Kelly had dictated a lengthy letter for publication describing his view of his activities and the treatment of his family and, more generally, the treatment of Irish Catholics by the police and the English and Irish Protestant squatters. The Jerilderie Letter contains language that is colourful, rough and full of metaphors and has become a famous piece of Australian literature.
Henry Lawson

The radical bookshop was the heartland of nineteenth-century radicalism. In the back rooms of radical bookstores and newspaper printeries sprinkled throughout the colonies, republicanism was a topic of heated discussion. Many of the radical republican writers of the 1880s and 1890s found a vehicle for their ideas in the radical newspapers and journals. Henry Lawson was one of Australia's greatest writers. His interest in the republican movement was sparked by his exposure to the radicalism of friends of his mother, Louisa. In 1887 he became titular publisher of The Republican. In the aftermath of the republican riots in Sydney in 1887, he penned his first published poem, "A Song of the Republic". The poem appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887 and on Saturday, 15 October 1887 in The Republican. The last stanza reads:
Sons of the South, aroused at last!

Sons of the South are few!

But your ranks grow longer and deeper fast,

And ye shall swell to an army vast,

And free from the wrongs of the North and Past

The land that belongs to you.

Other republican poems by Lawson included "The Statue of Our Queen" (1890), and “The English Queen” (1892). Lawson was of course not a political theorist; rather, he was the voice of an Australian sentiment that put to words the yearnings of the radical nationalists of his day. Lawson was aware that to achieve independence, identity and a just social order, a Republic was the only form of government.

The driving theme to republican writings throughout the nineteenth century was a sense of the ‘inevitable republic’. However, the acceptance of the ‘inevitability of a republic’ made it possible for nineteenth century writers to ignore the need to win over large numbers. In Mark McKenna’s (1996) The Captive Republic he succinctly describes the notion of a “captive republic”, that is, the myth of an inevitable republic, as “the end point of the colonies’ political development.” He argues that this notion has been used by Australians “to delay the coming of the republic as much as … to legitimise the republic’s arrival.”



Henry Crocker Marriott Watson wrote a number of novels in the utopian genre that was popular during the late nineteenth century. Born in Tasmania in 1835, Watson lived mainly in Victoria where he was ordained as a clergyman. In 1890, he wrote The decline and fall of the British Empire or, The witch's cavern. The novel is set in the future and begins with “A letter of explanation”, dated, “Melbourne, 12 August 2992” by William Furley. Furley’s letter sets the scene for the narrative of his experiences. In the world of 2992 British civilisation survives most strongly in Australia, which is now an independent republic with an elected president. The continent has been developed extensively and is a garden spot, with Eyreton as a new inland capital. Trade flourishes extensively with China, which provides raw materials in exchange for Australian manufactures. While Furley does not describe material culture extensively, there are electric land cars and fairly fast air transportation

Having finished his education in 2988 Furley decides to travel, first visiting Tasmania and then Africa where the population shows signs of racial mixture. Along with his fiancée and Professor Fowler, a historian, he next visits England, the home of the British people. England has gone primitive. Population has decreased enormously, with London consisting of some twenty thousand people who live amid ruins, and with little evidence of the high civilisation of a thousand years earlier. Wolves range through the land and are a particular menace in the north. The land is ruled by Prince Albert, and rank is still important, despite the overall shabby, neo-primitive nature of the culture. As the travellers wander about they find that Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament have completely vanished. One of the causes for the degeneration of England was a change in the Gulf Stream, which with the opening of the Panama Canal altered its course and now flows into the Pacific. As Furley wanders about he sees a large white hare which he follows down into a great cavern where he meets the witch, or Sibyl, as she is sometimes called. She shows him visions and gives him a ring to protect him. He then awakens along with certain of his Australian friends and companions in London of the 1890s.

The heart of the book consists of Furley’s experiences and observations in the collapsing late nineteenth century world. He obtains a job as a journalist on the London Express and sees much of the contemporary misery. While admitting that society is in a bad way, the author takes a conservative position on political economy and religion. When a speaker at a public meeting states the socialist interpretation of history with recommendations for improvement, Furley stands forth and addresses the meeting in reply. His rejoinder to the thesis that capitalists are parasites is that wealth was really created by the capitalists through hard toil. As remedies for the nation’s ills he recommends hard work, thrift, and temperance. England collapses. Strikes break out. In a short time a mammoth demonstration ushers in the Great Revolution. The Sibyl shows Furley spot scenes of the future debacle. Eventually, the better people leave England, migrating to the colonies. Furley awakens back in his own era. He declares that when Australia becomes overpopulated, he and his fiancée will return to England to repopulate and recivilise it.


One of the only examples of early twentieth century republican fiction was M Barnard Eldershaw’s (1945) Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. This is regarded as one of Australia's premier early Science Fiction novels. It is basically an alternative history of an Australian socialist republic from the 1920s on flowing from a revolution during the First World War and was censored by the Australian government when first released because of its attitude to national security.

Almost all republican arguments and explorations of the past and imaginations of the future have been written within the framework of constitutional debates. The few speculative fiction novels since the middle of the twentieth century such as Rodney Hall’s (1987) Kisses of the Enemy, Camilla Nelson’s comic 1998 novel Perverse Acts, and Ken Harris's (2005) Pathway to Treason are as much political thrillers or constitutional whodunits that play out within the settings of future Australian republican governments as they are an exploration of Australia’s republican future.

Republican settings rather than republican political machinations come more to the fore in Valda Marshall's (2009) The First President. The year is 1920 and The Prince of Wales is visiting Adelaide as part of his royal tour of Australia, and the royal party is staying at Adelaide’s Government House. Extra house staff is hired for the important visit, and Lily, a beautiful young country girl, is one of them. When Lily comes face to face with the Prince, history is forever changed. Fast forward to the year 2016. Noelene Jones, one of Australia’s most celebrated opera singers, has decided to retire from the world of entertainment and is looking forward to the quiet life. She decides that her first project as a regular citizen will be to renovate and bring back to life her grandmother’s dilapidated cottage in the Adelaide Hills.

On 8 June 2003 the Preamble Project was launched at the Museum of Sydney. This was an outcome of the rejection in 1999 by the Australian community of the preamble written by poet Les Murray as part of the referendum on a republic. The Preamble Project began as a conversation between the writer James Bradley and other republicans about the need to provide some imaginative foundation for the ongoing debate about an Australian Republic. The project involved inviting several writers to draft preambles to a Constitution of the Republic of Australian as a way of giving voice to some of the deeper impulses an Australian Republic might embody. Six writers offered individual statements reflecting their vision for Australia, its land and people. James Bradley began his statement with a pledge of allegiance to "the land, the sea [and] the sky". Peter Carey declared that Australia was a nation "engendered by a foreign king, by foreign wars, by happenstance [and] by a once great empire which also bequeathed us our first rich cultural inheritance". For Richard Flanigan the preamble became something more like a national prayer, an exhortation to find meaning in the past and in the land that Australians share, and to make themselves anew through the medium of their shared love of that land. It was unashamedly romantic, not just in its language and imagery, but with its explicit belief in the idea of the republic as an act of the imagination. Delia Falconer and Dorothy Porter by contrast offered more plainsong approaches to the question. Delia Falconer compressed her feelings into a single sentence, trying to draw together the many impulses a republic might embody, acting finally to remind elected representatives that their power stems from the will of the people, and no higher source. Dorothy Porter also sought to express the values the republic might embody by reference to the popular will. Leah Purcell's contribution opened in the language of the Kamilaroi and Gungarri people and continued in English, calling for respect for pioneers, immigrants, the land and its first peoples.

Alternate history is a subgenre of science fiction that contains elements of historical fiction and sometimes time travel, but is unique in that it extrapolates upon how, if a given event is changed, the course of history will be altered from that point forward. Historians seem to also enjoy imagining history as it might have been. The 'what if' theme is taken up in a 2006 collection of counterfactual histories edited by Sean Scalmer and Stuart McIntyre called What if: Australian History as it might have been. In McIntyre's counterfactual chapter, Australia's entry into the First World War is pre-empted by a Pearl Harbour-like attack on Australian troop ships in the Cocos Islands, well before they reach Gallipoli. In the shock that follows, Billy Hughes stubbornly rallies his nation to the cause of empire. On the other hand, Sydney academic Helen Irving imagines what might have happened if Australia's initial attempt at Federation did not win British approval, and was therefore deferred until 1910. Rather than Alfred Deakin, Irving has the irracible Billy Hughes bring Australia together as a nation. Greater confidence in nationhood leads to a less obstructionist senate, paving the way for Australia to become a republic by 1980.

However, in A. Bertram Chandler’s (1984) Kelly Country the narrator is sent back in time, into the mind of his great-grandfather, in order to be able to write an eyewitness account of the Siege of Glenrowan, his ancestor having been among those present in Ma Jones’s pub on that occasion. An alternate history emerges, in which the bushranger Ned Kelly was not captured and hanged, but led a rebellion, ultimately becoming the president of an Australian republic, which degenerated into a hereditary dictatorship.

In the Australian Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine Aurealis, 20/21, April 1998 a special double issue speculated on a variety of possible futures of an Australian republic. SF is, afterall, the 'literature of ideas'. It is within the pages of Aurealis that an Australian republican speculative fiction genre appears to finally emerge. In Robert Hood's, 'Occasional Demons' he writes:

.... I toss the antique magazine back to him. "Impossible. She's been dead for what? A decade or so?"

"Security ID gives an 94.7% verification. Do you know what that means?"

Of course I did. But it was still impossible. "Has to be a genetic remake. I saw Elvis Presley at the New Trocadero last week. Dead spit, he was." Digalle huffs, but the scorn's gone before I can protest. "A hologram?" I suggest.

"Do you think we wouldn't sift out the obvious, long before we'd resort to you? Genetic remakes can't catch the nuances. Holograms are unstable. Security ID says it's her."

"The real thing?"

He shrugs. "As you say, it can't be her. But we don't have any alternatives that the analysis programs like."

I get up from behind my desk and wander to the window. Canberra looks stark under the exposed sun, even with the filters running at maximum. "So Princess Di is skulking about the President's house. What's he worried about? That she wants to assassinate him?”

In 2000, Sean Williams published in Eidolon the story he had written too late for the Aurealis Republic issue. Williams’ decribes 'The Land Itself' as "not just a post-human take on the whole Republic issue, but as post-Australia (if that's a thing)." One of the Australian colonies wants to secede from the motherland and its envoy has to jump through several increasingly strange hoops to do it. He follows this up in 2005 with his second novel, The Resurrected Man which is set in a future Australia (2069) that was part of the United Republics of Australia in which 'Old Stott-Despoja' had just been voted in for another term. Alison Goodman’s (1998) Singing the Dogstar Blues is also set in an Australian republican future. It is at the prestigious Centre for Neo- Historical Studies, on the old Melbourne University campus, that Daniel Sunawa-Harrod is reputed to discover the Time-Continuum Warp Field:“On the 10/10/50, the 50th anniversary of Australian Independence Day, Danny receives the Nobel-Takahini Prize for Science”. Finally, Anthony Nguyen's short story 'Australia's Raptors' opens on Friday, 12 August 2016 in the airspace above the Taiwan Straits where the F-22 Raptor in service with the Federal Republican Air Force of Australia during WWIII.

"Speculating on the republic" is the first review ever undertaken on the republican speculative fiction genre in Australia. It seems strange there is no tradition of republican speculative fiction in Australia. It is through speculative fiction that change can begin. We can’t achieve anything unless we imagine it first. Before every great invention and before every great journey is the idea. Without ideas and imagination, we are all trapped in the past. So, for anyone who is interested in speculating on the possible futures of the Australian republic go to

The 2010 Second National Republican Short Story Competition opened on 1 May 2010 and will close on 31 August 2010. The theme this year is 'Life and Death in an Australian Republic'.

(Glenn Davies received his PhD from University of New England in 2005 on the history of Australia’s republican past. He is the Queensland State Secretary (Australian Republican Movement), a 2008-2009 Aurealis Awards Speculative Fiction Judge, and the 2009 & 2010 National Republican Short Story Competition convenor.)

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