The land belongs to you

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Ros Winterton says Australia can banish the apathy stifling progress on an Australian Republic. Ros is the widow of one of Australia's foremost Australian republicans and legal minds Professor George Winterton who died 9 years to the day after the 1999 republican referendum, on November 6, 2008. Ros pays tribute to her husband and Australia's republican aspirations with this stirring call to arms for republicans.

Henry Lawson[/caption]

IN 1887, Henry Lawson, one of our greatest Australian writers and poets, in the poem 'A Song of the Republic' urged all Australians:
Sons of the south, make choice between,
The land of the morn and the land of e’en
The land that belongs to the Lord and the Queen
And the land that belongs to you

In 1995, June 7, Paul Keating, the labour Prime Minister who spearheaded the republican movement of the 1990s, reminded us in his speech: 'An Australian republic: The Way Forward':
"An Australian republic is not an act of rejection, but one of recognition...our deepest respect is for an Australian heritage...our deepest responsibility is to Australia’s future.

Despite these rousing words, as well as the unswerving leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, head of the ARM in the year 1999, the republican referendum was defeated 45/55 on November 6 of that year, precisely eleven years ago this Saturday. What a glorious opportunity was lost to us all.  To quote Mr. Turnbull: "Australia bungled a great chance to make its system of government more relevant to the modern world".  ('How the republic was lost', Canberra Times, Dec.25 1999.)

So, the republic was put to bed and since then, it would appear, has shown little desire to rouse itself.  But one wonders how truly sincere was the patriotic and hyperbolic rhetoric of those heady days? Recently, a Morgan Poll in 2009 revealed that support for a republic is 15% less than it was in 1999, the year when, in July of that year, the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, who evidently did not share Turnbull’s optimism about the outcome of the republic, noted that “...there was not enough momentum to change a lightbulb... let alone a constitution...”  ('Turnbull .....Predicts Public Win', The Australian,  15.7.99, article by Stephanie Balogh and Stuart Rintoul.)

Professor John Warhurst, deputy chairman of the ARM, adds that “the republican aspirations of Australians are not as deep held as they need to be to...sustain the momentum for  change...” ('Reshaping a Model Republic: Issues and Opinions', The  Adelaide Review, 2009, article by Brendan Morley).

So, what has gone wrong and where has gone the republican spirit of 1870s and 1880s, proudly proclaimed by the fledgling Australian colonies?  To wave our apathy away by claiming there are too many other important issues to worry about is nonsense. To wrap our optimism in the defeatist slogan”  if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is pure cowardice. Life will always be full of challenges and in respect of their contexts, our early colonists would have faced equal, if not greater, challenges than we do today. Establishing Australia as a viable country was no mean feat, yet republican fever, no doubt partly fuelled by reaction to the excessive pomp and ceremony surrounding the jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria’s 50 year reign, was such that it caused deep concern to the current English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. (Paul Keating, Republicanism, An Era of Protest: Australia  after 1945, 1995)

Recently, in 2002, there has been perhaps greater pomp and ceremony surrounding the jubilee celebration of our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth the 2nd and it has hardly caused a twitter.

[caption id="attachment_2472" align="alignright" width="207"] Malcolm Turnbull

But perhaps Mr Turnbull’s most compelling argument for a republic is that Disraeli’s concern may have been misplaced.                                
"The most fundamental political principle the British settlers of this country brought with them was the right to choose their leaders.  When we do choose our own head of state we will have honoured that British heritage..."

(M. Turnbull, 'If only we could but see her passing by', SMH. Jan 4, 2001.)

Major General Mike Keating, Chairman of the ARM and David Donovan, writing for “The Punch” as recently as October 5th, 2010 give support to this view by reporting that the“...Queen was amazed that we voted ‘no’ in 1999. Prince Philip said we were ...mad ..and Prince Charles has said we should become a republic”.

As Mr Turnbull goes on to explain, the British government would expect a certain independence and pace of change.  He explains that in 1931 the Statute of Westminster encouraged autonomy, not only to Australia and to New Zealand as well as other white dominions.  This is why he can so convincingly proclaim that:
"If we were a republic today I believe we would give greater and fairer emphasis to the British origins of our Constitution and our Commonwealth" (ibid).

If we cannot blame Britain, perhaps the finger could be more accurately pointed at the labour leadership of recent times. Paul Keating, Henry Lawson’s true disciple, could not have said it better:
"Governments can wait for opinion to force their hand or they can  lead;  they can wait for the world to change and respond as necessity demands or they can see the way the world is going and point us in the right direction."

(Paul Keating, 'The Way Forward',  op cit, 1995.)

Alas, how Keating’s political successors have let him down.

Again to quote Prof. John Warhurst: "For many leaders in public life the issue is too difficult or too complex for them to make a public contribution". (Senate lecture by John Warhurst, March 6. 2009)

State Labor leaders, “prominent as republicans...have  been all talk but no action once in office” (ibid).

Kevin Rudd, despite the prominence given to an Australian republic by the 20/20 conference in Canberra,  described the republic as “a second rate issue” (ibid).

Julia Gillard, our present day prime minister, announced on BBC, 17TH August, 2010,” that Australia should become a republic only when the Queen dies”.

Former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam

This view is supported by the renowned republican, ex labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who believes that the affection and respect the Australian people feel for Queen Elizabeth, “Prince Charles does not have”.  ('Once the Queen is dead, long live the Republic', Tony Stephens, SMH, Oct. 31, 2008.)

Andaccording to Professor John Warhurst,  Bob Hawke, another ex Labour Prime Minister, shares this same view which he  describes as “an ill-thought out soft option that should be totally unacceptable to public policy”  (John Warhurst, Senate Lecture, op cit).

Professor Warhurst is right. The day that the Queen is no longer amongst us will be a very sad day, not only for Australians, but for the entire world. In his rousing speech on the republic Paul Keating himself speaks with great sincerity of the “warmth of our regard for Queen Elizabeth”. (Paul Keating, 'The Way Forward', op cit.)

So, not only it is eerie to sit around and wait for someone to die, especially a person loved and admired worldwide - also when she herself is in no hurry to go anywhere in particular - but the republican issue is not personal to Queen Elizabeth 2nd.  To quote David Donovan again: “as republicans it is the institution we object to, not the personalities.  (The Punch, op cit,  Oct.2010.)

Republicans want to proclaim that the time has come for Australia to break away from the British Monarchy, an institution which espouses the belief that it is birth, not merit which determines leadership, an anachronism in the world of 21st century.  We believe that the time has come for Australia to have its own head of state on its native shore, so better to complete the process of reconciliation. In this way all of us, the indigenous and the diverse cultures from other lands, can better be integrated into one nation.  Thus, the process started on Federation Day 1901 reaches its pre-ordained conclusion and Australia finally comes of age; and all of this, if Malcolm Turnbull is correct, with a benign and understanding nod from our British forebears. (M.Turnbull, 'If..Passing By', SMH, op cit).  This, evidently, should be the natural order (ibid).

If we had flexed our muscles in braver fashion on November 6, 1999, by voting 'YES' instead of 'NO', would we now be better able to face the challenges of today? Would we have had more confidence and authority to lead the world on the issue of climate change, which we so nearly did in December 2009?  Would we have developed the required initiative to seek and find a more humane solution to today’s refugee problem and would we have developed greater maturity, compassion and honesty, to review the war in Afghanistan in a more comprehensive and independent fashion? It is imperative that the right solution be found to this extremely disturbing situation, the complexity of which has drawn the opposing political parties together in rare bipartisanship partnership.

We may never know that answers to these questions? But what we do know, through the exhortations of one of our most respected republicans, the writer and poet Henry Lawson, that our destiny awaits. But it is only through the persistence, the determination, the detail, the daring and above all, the political leadership of the Australian  people that Lawson’s vision will be realised. And if the republican aspirations of our pioneering forebears were not diminished by the challenges of founding a new country why should we be deterred by  the stresses of keeping this country afloat? By cutting ties with the past and standing on our own two feet we may be able to do it far more effectively. Surely we have waited long enough to banish the apathy which mutes and muffles the ring of those famous words:
"Sons of the South...the land belongs to you."
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