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Thomas Keneally: Our Republic

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Thomas Keneally writes a passionate, thoughtful and easily readable history of Australian republicanism in the book, Our Republic, says Brad Webb.

Prominent Australian writer and republican, Thomas Kenneally

FOR THE PAST century and a half, since John Dunmore Lang wrote his pro republican manifesto Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, the issue of a republic has incited enthusiastic discussion from both sides of the debate. One such passionate voice is world–renowned author, Thomas Keneally who, during his time as leader of the Australian Republican Movement, wrote an impressive thesis in favour of becoming a republic.

In his book Our Republic, Keneally puts forward the view that when Britain colonised Australia it brought with it a strong republican feeling in the guise of many of the convicts transported as cheap labour for the new settlement, and that this republican consciousness has remained with us ever since. Keneally contends that surely men and women torn away from their family and friends and transported half way across the world could no longer harbour warm feelings towards King and Country.

To emphasise his argument, Keneally draws upon the disquiet displayed by a number of gentlemen and peasant rebels transported from Cork after the 1798 uprising in Ireland. This unrest ultimately led to the attempted rebellion in 1804 at Castle Hill that was mercilessly put down by the British authorities. For Keneally, while conceding it did not necessarily advance the independence of Australia (more likely the convicts were thinking of their own independence), it is nevertheless a prime example of an early flowering of republicanism in Australia. He argues that “it is certain that they left traces of the Republican idea in Australian society”.

To backup his claim that a strong republican feeling was evident in the early nineteenth century Keneally highlights the unrest of the Currency classes of that time towards the insensitivity of the ruling elite as another example of “the dream of an Australian separation from viceregal hubris”.
Henry Parkes

Keneally also sites the 1854 Eureka rebellion as well as significant figures from Australia’s past as vital links to the republican psyche. He sees men like William Charles Wentworth and Henry Parkes as catalysts for a republic, whilst conceding in later years these men aligned themselves to the Empire for reasons of social acceptance or financial gain. However, Keneally writes, the republican mantle was then carried by men such as Charles Harpur, Daniel Deniehy, John Dunmore Lang and Henry Lawson, ensuring the passion would be passed on to following generations.

While Harpur and Deniehy’s pro–republic writings were heavily censored during the 1880’s, Keneally views the abridged editions as part of the fervour that took place during celebrations for the centenary of European settlement in 1888. Coupled with the birth of federation thirteen years later, this all but effectively shut down the push for a republic. Keneally lamented that Australia needed Great Britain. They needed the British Navy to protect her shores and they needed British investment to expand her entrepreneurial and social agendas.

Fear of the “Yellow Peril” and the desire for Australia to remain a whites only nation saw the majority of the population happily sing the praises of their Sovereign protector. Keneally writes, “Federation had satisfied a lot of nationalist feelings”. As the Irish again attempted to rise up against Britain in the early twentieth century, those in Australia eager to show London their loyalty willingly expelled from parliament wayward politicians who dared to criticise the Monarchy or Great Britain.

Keneally’s attempt to demonstrate Australia always harboured a strong republican feeling is not totally convincing in his book–length argument in favour of an Australian republic. He sites notable events and public figures to help back up his claim of a strong republic sentiment flowing through the timeline of European settlement in Australia yet at the end of the extract he concedes that the period of Federation all but extinguished the people’s desire for a republic.

Keneally writes:
“The early twentieth century was never to be the Republican era the nineteenth was”. If that is the case then there was a period where republic feeling within Australia was almost dormant. Keneally concedes that, “as with the pushing of the Republic today, there is inertia amongst some ideologues.”

The writing style that Keneally employed during his argument for a republic clearly shows his dislike for the British Crown. His essay is littered with off the cuff references to the ruling elite as “the House of Hanover”, “George III and the Prince Regent” and “the Widow of Windsor”. However, his personal views have not hindered his case. As I read his article I felt Keneally had injected a far amount of passion into his writing, for he surely believed that what he wrote was the truth.

Our Republic is one of the most important books about Australia since Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, and quite possibly a blueprint for Australia's future. Keneally encounters the xenophobic Republicanism of the 1890's, the conservation of those who opposed the Federation and the intrusion of the British Government and presents his argument in a generally concise, easily readable manner. Was the book is written for Australians in the hope it would incite a new passion for a republic? Maybe Keneally was hoping his words would invigorate the population in much the same way as men like John Dunmore Lang did one and a half centuries earlier.


  • Tom Keneally, Our Republic, Reed Books Australia, Melbourne, 1993

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