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Why republicanism declined at federation

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Brad Webb says that the early push for an Australian republic stalled because Federation was the easier and more palatable option for most Australians.


by Brad Webb

IN A RECENT ABC documentary, Paul Keating, speaking with Paul Kelly in 100 years: The Australian Story lamented the dilution of the republican movement over the last half of the twentieth century. “I thought, you know, the time’s come to actually put this on the political agenda. You see, the republic was an after-dinner mints and coffee conversation for 40 years.” However, historians such as Geoffrey Bolton believe the demise of the republican movement occurred much earlier, with the birth of the Australian federation in 1901.

Up until the early 1890’s, independence from Great Britain was a much talk about subject in the Australian colonies. Committees and leagues were set up to discuss viable alternatives to the British Crown. Newspapers and periodicals extolled the virtues of a republic yet as the century drew to a close the minds of men turned to less drastic alternatives in an attempt to achieve constitutional liberalism. Leaders of the republican movements became leaders in parliament. Some of the middle-class advocates for independence accepted knighthoods from a Crown they were supposed to be opposed.

In times of prosperity, people are less likely to push for change. Whereas earlier in the century Britain was regarded as an unforgiving ruler, improvements in the living and working standards experienced by the population ushered in significant changes in the attitude towards the Crown. While the Australian Socialist League in 1887 was republican, the following year saw an out pouring of pro-British sentiment coinciding with the centenary celebrations of British settlement in Australia.
“Republicanism, which had enjoyed a flourish in the 1880’s, had faded by 1901. Republicanism was tantamount to isolationism, and isolationism was no option for Australia. For a young nation at its birth the protection of the world’s greatest Empire was a prize to be valued, not repudiated.”

(100 Years: The Australian Story, p.04)

However, some sections of the Australian working class were keen to break the ties with Britain. The Irish living in Australia held little love for the Monarchy yet their call for independence was borne more out of emotion than realism. Practical self-interest belied the new nations desire to remain within the Empire. Australia, at the dawn of the twentieth century was a land of compromise. Its people understood the need to unite yet rejected the idea of an independent nation. Federalism as opposed to republicanism became the answer to Australia’s needs.

What many people were doing, however, was pledging themselves to an Australian destiny under the aegis of Britain, and in terms of the period, this was a credible thing to do. They were men who wanted Britain to prevail so that Australia could go on developing its unique society in peace and without threat. That is, they were pro-British for Australia’s sake, not for the sake of blind fervour towards the Crown.
“Max (Max Harris - Australian poet and commentator) then – reaching for an explanation of Australia’s undefeated dependence on the Monarchy of Great Britain – rightly or wrongly puts the blame for the persistence of the Monarchy on the women of the homestead, particularly the squatters’ homesteads, who saw the occasional invitation to meet the viceroy at Government House as the apogee of a life of rural struggle.”

(Our Republic, p.40)
Early republican, John Dunmore Lang

John Dunmore Lang, the notorious Presbyterian clergyman, was probably the most articulate republican of nineteenth century Australia. He was the only man to offer a detailed republican scheme. While his ideals of self-government were grounded in the teachings of the Bible, Lang also argued for an independent Australia based on strict theological grounds that were relevant to his particular religion.
“Lang’s attempt to link republicanism with independence from Britain, however, was unsuccessful, partly because of the efforts of Henry Parkes, who argued in the pages of his paper Empire that republicanism, in fact if not in name, was consistent with the British constitution, not incompatible with it.”

(The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p.90)

Republicanism in Australia came to mean representative government in the interests of the people, not participation of the people. While a majority of late nineteenth century republicans called for the separation of ties with Britain, most were recently arrived Britons themselves. Among this contingent could be found Welsh or Scots bearing grudges of subject populations. Labour-based republicanism appeared more oriented towards social reform and worker’s rights rather than a separation from Britain.

Republican activity was at its peak in the 1880’s when fifteen organisations and twenty newspapers appeared in support of the cause in Australia’s major towns and cities. While the common thread of social reform and workers’ rights was raised by most of the republican supporters, the absence of true republican ideas hampered any forward planning.

William Lane, early republican who founded the New Australia settlement in Paraguay

Labour leaders seeking success in the Australia wide strikes were quick to talk down republic issues for fear of being potentially divisive. Republicanism without social reform found little support among the leaders of the time. Men such as William Lane, a utopian socialist who created the New Australia settlement in Paraguay, called for a socially radical republic, thoroughly progressive, and democratically political.

Republicans remained a largely secularist minority with little support from the greater population. Vulnerable ethic minorities such as the Chinese and even Catholic bishops remained in favour of a monarchy. While the Bulletin continued with it’s nationalist republicanism, the likes of Louisa and Henry Lawson, through their paper the Republican, argued that independence from Britain was essential if Australia’s national identity was to fully emerge. At Federation there were a few theoretical republicans, however, the crucial voices were more sympathetic to constitutional liberalism and to the ties of Empire.
“McKenna (Mark McKenna, The Captive Republic: A History of Republicanism in Australia 1788-1996) argues that Australian separatist republicans had few republican political ideas and virtually no program. They were often markedly less republican than the constitutional liberals who remained loyal to the monarchy; they were also less effective in bringing about political and social change.”

(The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p.555)

Sporadic and fractured republican groups and committees were often more harmful to the cause than the collective lack of interest shown by the populace. Men like Lang, with a defined vision for an Australian republic, still could not maintain the interest or support of the masses with his short-lived Australasian League.
Leader of the Eureka stockade, Peter Lalor

Even rebellious uprisings such as the 1854 Eureka Stockade led by Peter Lalor failed to generate any republican support once the British smashed the gathering. Calls for independence seemed disjointed and lacked any real substance. In times of prosperity, the population had little interest in upsetting the status quo. Even in times of hardship such as the depression of the late nineteenth century, little advance was made in the cause of republicanism. Other more pressing causes superseded the call for Australian independence. “Britain did not offer enough provocation to stir strong reactions, and the British connection was too useful to the Australian colonies as a source of migration, investment, and defence to discard in a hurry.”

Despite this, late nineteenth century republican sentiment continued to stir throughout Australia. From across the sea, Charles Stewart Parnell’s Home Rule movement in Ireland stirred nationalistic feelings in some Australian quarters. The Irish descendants caught up in the land wars saw the aristocratic squatters as an extension of a repressive British social system. When the judiciary and police were seen to side with the wealthy landowners, many saw this as proof, and some, like Edward Kelly attempted to rectify the situation. Kelly went as far as to lay plans for a republic of northeastern Victoria. His first act of defiance would have been the destruction of a special police train at Glenrowan. That the plan failed, probably averted a potential bloodbath.
Edward 'Ned' Kelly

Seven years later Australia was to experience another outpouring of republic sentiment in large part a reaction to pro-British imperialist sentiment bought on by Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. Republicans disrupted public meetings called to organise celebrations. And yet again another group this time in Sydney, formed the Australian Republic Union which, like it’s many predecessors was short lived, failing to even gather support for a Melbourne branch. This was despite the fact that Australia was about to celebrate the centenary of British settlement in 1888, a time when republicans should have seized the day, and highlighted the need for Australia to adopt a more nationalistic as opposed to imperialistic stance.

Nevertheless, the roller-coaster history of Australian republicanism again rose, this time in an outback Queensland mining town named Charters Towers. Miners and labourers were fed up with the poor working and living conditions bought on by the mining companies refusal to allow far wages and conditions. As the majority of the mines were owned or bankrolled by the British, it led the miners to set up in 1890 a Republican Association pledged to an Australia that would be ‘a democratic commonwealth of free and independent people’.

The movements’ political platform gained widespread local support with its call for universal suffrage, education and land nationalisation among its charter. Yet, once again the movement failed to gather a national following. Its leaders were struggling with more pressing matters. Australia was experiencing nation-wide strikes and stoppages as unions attempted to highlight the poor wages and working conditions many employees were faced with each day.
“Many of the leading members were also engaged in setting up the Australian Labour Federation, a confederation of trade unions originating in North Queensland, and eventually this seemed a more urgent task than republicanism.”

Federation spelt the end of a republican push. For the people Federation seemed far more realistic and beneficial. The call for Federation would placate many nationalistic tendencies. Australia was simply unable to bridge the gap between the working class and the wealthy which it needed to do in order to achieve true independence. Capitalists resisted the push for independence as they saw an Australian republic as detrimental to their business ties with Britain, and they were worried an Australian republic would lose the benefits of trading inside an Empire.

The general populace simply was not interested in a complete severing of ties with the mother country. Britain was a major importer of Australian goods. Britain supplied the naval power to keep Australia’s shores free from invasion. Britain supplied the capital for major public works and British descendent’s made up a large percentage of the Australian population.

The idea of a united Australia lay in a synthesis of indigenous nationalism and Empire loyalty. Nationhood was highly prized in Australia yet the gift was bestowed by Britain. This allowed a nationalist to champion the Empire and an imperialist to become a nationalist. Federation managed to embody all sectors of the community and bind them together, something republicanism, at the start of the twentieth century, had failed to do.


  • Davison, Hirst & Macintyre; The Oxford Companion to Australian History; Oxford Press, Melbourne, 1999

  • Robert Hughes; The Fatal Shore; Collins Harvill, London 1987

  • Paul Kelly; 100 Years: The Australian Story; Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2001

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

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