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November's 'republic season' a time to ponder Australia's future

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November is always a time of remembering. However, it is a time for remembering much larger events as well, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

REMEMBRANCE DAY has set the tone for November as a time to reflect and remember each year on 11 November since 1919, the Armistice of the Great War.

The First World War was in its time the most destructive conflict yet experienced by humanity. When it began in August 1914, few imagined the course that it would take or foresaw its terrible toll. From a population of just under 5 million, more than 400,000 Australians enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force – the AIF, the force that Australia sent to the war – and more than 330,000 served overseas. For most, this meant Gallipoli, the Middle East or the war’s main theatre: the Western Front in France and Belgium.

More than 60,000 Australians lost their lives, a devastating toll for a small country. Yet they were a relative few. Around the world, some 10 million military personnel died in what was then called the Great War.

Families and communities everywhere were affected by the enormous loss. When an armistice ended the fighting on 11 November 1918, celebrations in the victorious nations were tempered by grief and sorrow.

In Britain and the countries of her empire, the day’s anniversary became known as Armistice Day. In 1919 and in every year since, at 11 A.M. on 11 November, people have paused to remember the dead. So great had been the loss of life, so devastating had been the destruction, that people hoped, even imagined, that the Great War would be the last war — “the war to end war”. But it was not to be.

Two decades after the First World War ended, the world was plunged into a second global conflict. No longer could Armistice Day remain a day only to remember the dead of the First World War. After the Second World War ended in 1945, 11 November became known as Remembrance Day. The day’s sombre associations have never changed.

When we pause at 11 A.M. on 11 November each year, we reflect on the price that Australia and countries around the world have paid through more than a century of war and conflict that followed the First World War.

As famously captured in Laurence Binyon's poem, ‘For the Fallen’:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

However, there were annual events before the establishment of Remembrance Day that tapped into this reflective time of year.

The Feast of Saints is held at the beginning of November and is now widely observed across the world to remember those recognised as today’s saints — known or unknown, mighty or lowly.

This is followed on 2 November by All Souls’ Day, an official holiday in the Catholic ecclesiastical calendar. Also known as The Commemoration of all The Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day is generally a day of remembrance when prayers are said for the souls of those who have passed on. Around the world, All Souls’ Day often involves visiting cemeteries where loved ones are buried and tending to their graves. Attending a mass or church service, praying and eating particular foods are all part of these observations.

This is followed on 5 November with Guy Fawkes Night, which remembers the survival of James I from Guy Fawkes’ assassination plot when he attempted to blow up the House of Lords in 1605.

Many will know this English folk verse, circa 1870:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

In an earlier Australia, we held “bonfire night”, or cracker night, to mark the anniversary of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

November is also Australia’s “republic season”. I have written before about how November is a time of year full of republican symbolism, as well as Australian republic-remembering. It is a time when the Australian Republic Movement (A.R.M.) has always elected its national leaders since the foundation of the movement in 1991.

It was a year ago that human rights and anti-racism activist, former Socceroo Craig Foster AM and Nova Peris, Indigenous Australian athlete and former Senator, were elected co-National Chairs to lead the A.R.M. after the resignation of Peter FitzSimons, one of our foremost writers of Australian history who has captured pivotal moments that have shaped our national identity.

FitzSimons joined a line of impressive A.R.M. leaders. The founding chairman of A.R.M. (1991-1993) was author Tom Keneally.

Following, were: 

  • Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (1993-2000);
  • barrister Greg Barns (2000-2002); 
  • Professor John Warhurst (2002-2005); 
  • businessman and future federal politician Ted O’Brien (2005 to 2007); 
  • Major-General Mike Keating (2007 to 2012); 
  • former Premier of Western Australia Geoff Gallop (2012-2015);
  • author and journalist Peter FitzSimons (2015-2022); and
  • Craig Foster and Nova Peris (2022-).

In Australia, the November republic season includes the anniversary of the 6 November 1999 Australian Republic Referendum, the 3 November 1997 anniversary of the voluntary postal election for the 1998 Constitutional Convention, as well as the anniversary of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Dismissal on 11 November 1975 by Governor-General of the day, John Kerr. The Dismissal of Whitlam in 1975 arguably remains the most dramatic event in Australia’s political history and began the modern republic movement.

Recently, there have been claims the British monarch was involved in Australia’s 1975 constitutional crisis. The important book, The Palace Letters: The Queen, the Governor-General and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam, is the ground-breaking result of historian Professor Jenny Hocking’s fight to expose secret letters between the Queen and Australian Governor-General John Kerr during the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

In this gripping and true court drama, Professor Jenny Hocking describes her years-long legal battle to uncover letters between Queen Elizabeth II and Sir John Kerr in which the two discussed the 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam Government. Hocking also provides a piercing analysis of both the extreme efforts made to stop her and what the letters themselves revealed. The Palace Letters show it is absurd how an Australian governor-general reports to Buckingham Palace in a manner not much different from that of a 19th-century colonial governor. Australia’s head of state should be one of us.

In early November 2015, the first significant policy change for the new Turnbull Government was to call it a “knight” on titles. The formal removal by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of one of previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s most unpopular “captain’s picks”, resolved a national embarrassment. Turnbull confirmed there would be no more anachronistic Australian knights and dames. Australia’s “knightmare” was finally over. In abolishing the titles of knight and dame from the Order of Australia awards, Turnbull helped the growth of the movement for an Australian republic.

Early November also sees the anniversaries of the 2014 memorial for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, as well as the 12 November eulogy delivered for Professor George Winterton.

Winterton was a first-rank constitutional scholar and pioneer of the modern republic debate. He spent most of his career at the University of New South Wales, was a prominent republic scholar and writer, a member of the Republic Advisory Committee in the mid-1990s and a key delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention that crafted the minimalist republic model rejected in the 1999 Australian Republic Referendum. More than anyone else, he produced the model that went to the people in that Referendum.

On 6 November 1999, the then national chairperson of the A.R.M., Malcolm Turnbull, pinned the 1999 Referendum’s defeat squarely on the Prime Minister, John Howard, when he said:

“History will remember him for one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s heart.”

November is also a time when royal visits usually happen.  

This latest royal visit is a bookend to the first royal visit, which occurred over five hot months from 1867 to 1868. This was undertaken by Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, a Royal Navy captain on a 'round-the-world voyage on board the HMS Galatea. Stops were made in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. He first landed at Glenelg, in South Australia, on 31 October 1868.

As the first member of the British royal family to visit the Australian colonies, Alfred was received with much enthusiasm. During his stay of nearly five months, he visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Tasmania.

At a meeting on 20 January 1868 to elect three trustees from the subscribers to the fund for the erection of the first Grammar School in Brisbane, there was a discussion on the probability of Prince Alfred who was about to visit the colony to lay the foundation stone.

The Brisbane Courier on 21 January 1868 stated that:

...as almost a necessary consequence, the school would be in some way connected with his Royal Highness by name. As, however, the number of institutions which either now did or promised to bear the name of Prince Alfred, or Duke of Edinburgh, in the other colonies, had become almost beyond all count, he would suggest that they had better confine themselves out here to some such name as the “Prince’s School”, or “Queen’s School”... [another] said he believed according to the Grammar Schools Act they were bound to call the school the “Brisbane Grammar School”.

During his visit to Brisbane, Prince Alfred laid the Brisbane Grammar School Foundation Stone on 29 February 1868. However, the people of Brisbane refused to yield to the pressure around all the colonies to name all institutions after the visiting royal. Instead of naming the school after him, the event was commemorated in the present school with his coat-of-arms included in the northern stained glass window of the Great Hall. The fact that he wasn’t liked much helped the burghers of Brisbane maintain their “republican” stance.

In November 2023, there don’t appear to be any royal visits on the horizon. We certainly seem to be being taken for granted. King Charles III appears to still be avoiding a victory lap of the Commonwealth.

Australians need a head of state of their own — someone who can lead the dignified part of their national life away from the day-to-day screaming match of Federal Parliament and Question Time.

So, remember, remember, Australia’s republican November!

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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