Politics Analysis

Political lessons from history in becoming a republic

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We could learn from Whitlam's example in order to gain independence from the monarchy (Image by Dan Jensen)

In order for Australia to move forward towards independence, it's important to take a look back at the progress made during the Whitlam era, writes Dr Robert Wood.

THE HIGH COURT-ORDERED release of the Gough Whitlam Dismissal papers has reaffirmed the need for an Australian republic. In the correspondence between then Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace staff, we see the outdated modes of address, figures of speech and ideological relationships.

It points to a colonial subservience that still lingers today, but which was already dated in 1975. There can be no doubt that Australia was and is a middling power on the world stage. That we can still be in thrall to a foreign head of state points to unfinished business.

There is something interesting about 1975 in that it was paradoxically the beginning of an Australian autonomy even as it immediately suggests an ongoing reliance on the British monarchy. This paradox is enmeshed with other geopolitical complexities, historically speaking.

The decline of the British Empire is seen in decolonisation around World War Two, led, of course, by Indian Independence in 1947. It is replaced as the world hegemony by the United States at the same time and, with the fall of Singapore, Australia began to shift its focus to a newer master.

This is where the stationing of American military leader Douglas MacArthur in Brisbane becomes a milestone as much as any other. That it takes another 30 years for the monarchy to flex its decaying muscle on Whitlam’s revolutionary government seems to be a case of “too little too late”. And yet, it matters, too, for derailing genuine reform in this country from the end of White Australia to Land Rights in a meaningful way to the republic. It is one thing to “lose” India. It is altogether another when White settlers turn their back. Australia has always been more colonised than we care to admit, just as these palace letters suggest.

The lesson to learn from this, the political lesson we can get from history, is not only that we should do away with the Queen, that there is work to do when it comes to self-government. It is also that every moment is a hinge moment, a chance to reassess how we might go forward when we look backwards. And so, we must ask ourselves, why is republicanism failing in this country now?

The Australian Republican Movement has killed the issue of the republic here. It has become an outdated and conservative movement under the failed leadership of Peter FitzSimons. There needs to be new energy and a new generation of people that make this issue tangible to everyday citizens right across Australia as well. That means connecting it to more than an anti-monarchic impetus.

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That is where we must return once again to the era of Whitlam. It was a magical moment in Australian history, where being a middling power meant being an engine of genuine progress. That was for minority groups including women, LGBTQI+ people, Aboriginal people, working-class people — almost everyone we care to imagine in a nation that cared for the people. It was a moment of liberation after the stultifying and cloying lockdown of the Menzies era and it lay the foundation for the reform efforts of the 1980s.

In the Dismissal papers, Whitlam comes across as a complicated figure, not wholly redeemable, but wronged all the same. We know who the goodies and the baddies are in this play, so familiar are the outlines. We might learn, too, from his boldness, from his zeal, in trying to decolonise Australia and make it a place worth dwelling in for each and every person. That might be what the republican movement tries to capture now.

More than ever, we need republicanism to be a social movement. We need to ask people to design a flag, to cook a new national dish, to have fun with it. To celebrate in difficult times, to think of a new agenda, not to get bogged down in questions of process. Governing is not only about laws, ways to choose a president or the legislation that determines how our tax dollars are spent. Government and especially the republic relies on imagination and making sense of our lives with spiritual purpose.

We need the poetry that Whitlam had on the day he was dismissed. We need that to help us think through the challenges we are faced with — like why we are waiting for national liberation rather than seizing it? While we look back at the past with rosy glasses, let us think about the romance of the future and how we can all do better. That way, the news of the day might be how we can move forward together.

Dr Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. A Malayali with East Indian Ocean connections, he lives on Noongar Country in Western Australia. The author of four books, Robert has held fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

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