This article was published by The Vocal on February 19, 2016.
When you travel, almost the first question you get asked is, “Where are you from?”
For Australians, producing a satisfactory answer can be a struggle because it is not necessarily based on the nationality of your passport. Australians’ diverse ethnic backgrounds don’t always match expectations; the outside understanding of national character is frequently at odds with the individual. What does it mean to be Australian?
A little more than a century ago, it no longer seemed logical for Australia to be ruled by a monarch on the opposite side of the globe. Sounds sensible enough. The thing is, at the time of Federation the King was still a hot favourite, so a constitutional monarchy was created. The British Crown remained the head of state, but Australia governed itself.
The Australians got to create their own laws: one of their favourite policies was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act – colloquially known as the White Australia Policy, leaving little room to ponder just how racist a policy this was – which aimed to limit non-European migration, at times including non-British “white aliens”, for more than 60 years, while they paid for the British to move to Australia.
But the world caught up and the White Australia Policy was no longer tenable. The 1960s heralded the beginning of a golden age for Australia, when people of all the colours of the human rainbow settled in, with their wonderfully diverse foods and cultures and genes. But Australia’s struggles relating to identity, history and culture, however, are still front and centre today.
But let’s go back to where it all began
About 230 years ago, the British invaded the land they would later name Australia. Going against their own policy of only taking terra nullius (unoccupied territory), the Brits killed a bunch of the black folk they found-but-didn’t-find-coz-there-were-no-people, rounded up and interred/enslaved those they didn’t kill, took their children and went about their business of creating a penal colony for the poor folk from their own lands they couldn’t fit in their over-stuffed jails full of other poor people. For many happy years the white folk, with the British Crown as their head honcho, did as they pleased with their giant colony.
In the space of a century or so, Australia went from being a colony to being self-governing. The transition didn’t require a violent revolution – something of a rarity. But the move to independence was not absolute. In 2016, it makes bugger-all sense for Australia to remain an outpost of a washed-up empire. So where to now?
The Australian head of state is still to this day the British crown. It might seem weird that a democratic country has an unelected head of state – even stranger, one who attains the position by bloodline.
This, according to the Australian Monarchist League (championed by none other than RWNJ Alan Jones) safeguards Australian democracy. “[T]o remove the Crown from our Constitution will be to eliminate the main safeguard against absolute control by politicians,” the league argues. A president elected either directly or via parliament would necessarily have to be involved in politics – which is bad, you understand. “Our present system may not be perfect, but it is far superior to a political republic, which is what we would become,” the monarchists believe.
Equally, the league says Britain’s influence on Australia’s political structures means it is “a beacon of democracy in the world. Becoming a republic would negate much of this.” They say the Queen offers her protection to all, making no distinctions between her peoples, before making a point that is at the heart of the debate: “Republicans want Australia to be completely independent of the UK but this has definitively been the case since 1986. The UK has no involvement with Australian government at all”.
So, if the crown doesn’t have any power in Australia, why become a republic?
It’s high time Australia removed itself from the bosom of its old colonial masters and created a new identity for itself. The Australian Republic Movement say they’re not against the Queen, but her position is preventing Australia maturing from its teens to adulthood.
Despite Australia’s multiculturalism, its image is that of a bastion of the British. “The Queen represents British values, British spirit and represents the United Kingdom to the world,” the movement argues.
“We need someone who can do for Australia what the Queen does for the UK… [W]ho we are as a nation is important for our long-term unity and health as a community, as well as sending a strong message about our pride as a people and our standing in the world.”
The post-referendum years
You might remember way back in 1999, talk of a referendum around this issue. The referendum failed because the political model put forward was unpopular – despite this, more than 45 per cent voted in favour of it. The question was not “should Australia become a republic?”, but whether people wanted to replace the Queen as head of state with a President appointed by the parliament.
The concept of an Australian republic is now neither a radical idea, nor a political one – it carries bipartisan support. Every Premier and Chief Minister in Australia, bar one, has signed a petition calling for a republic. Many of the most high-profile federal politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was a founding member of the Australian Republic Movement, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, are right into full independence.
The old argument that Australia will suffer economically or politically from removing the British crown as the head of state is erroneous. The Queen herself seems aware Australia will fly the nest one day and doesn’t appear vengeful – not that she has any control over the United Kingdom’s parliament or military.
And the republic movement advocates remaining in the Commonwealth of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation members join voluntarily, much like the United Nations. Ceasing to be a Commonwealth realm (a country with the monarch as head) won’t preclude Australia from the Commonwealth of Nations – India, for example, became fully independent in 1950 but retains economic and political ties via its membership.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” argument is just lazy. This argument only takes into account political structures, and relegates the issue to the too hard basket instead of making changes that are as inevitable as death and taxes. Claiming the system works and shouldn’t be messed with overlooks the wider social implications of retaining the British monarch. The institution responsible for the decimation of the First Australians’ societies, and the corresponding values that led to decades of a White Australia, remains the nominal head of state.
And sure, old Queen Betty has a few fans, and seems nice enough, with her co-ordinated suits and hats, and her corgis. They say any republic debate should wait until she dies, out of respect. That could swing things in the republic’s favour, as the next in line to the throne, Prince Charles, seems less popular with the punters. But this isn’t a popularity contest. This is a much-needed conversation about the future of an ever-diversifying country and its 24-odd million citizens.
“I will lend my voice to the republican movement in this country. It is time, I think, to at least revisit the question so that we can stand both free and fully independent among the community of nations” – David Morrison, Australian of the Year 2016
What worked in 1901 at the time of Federation doesn’t work now, obviously. It’s kind of like those religious texts that were written millennia ago and include social norms that have long disappeared. The system as it stands creates an us-and-them dichotomy: The whites rule the roost and everyone else gets to stay at their beneficence.
This extends to a community that is often over-looked in the republic debate: Indigenous Australians. In a moving speech on whether racism is destroying the Australian dream, journalist Stan Grant said racism was “there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius. An empty land. A land for the taking. Sixty thousand years of occupation… None of it mattered because our rights were extinguished because we were not here according to British law.”
Imagine what a new political model could do for the reconciliation process. Indigenous Australians would no longer have to live under the tokenistic hand of the people who trashed their communities, cultures and languages. An intended referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition has split the community, with some opposing it on grounds it takes the focus off a treaty establishing rights and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. Others, such as Reconciliation Australia, believe references to race must be removed from the document for the benefit of the Indigenous community.
But a republic, while unable to change current ethnic ratios or rewrite history, could present a chance to more fully incorporate Indigenous people into Australia’s political and social structures – some suggest by mandating an Indigenous head of state. Jakelin Troy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research director at University of Sydney, supports recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and a treaty prior to, or as part of, the move to becoming a republic. “[A republic is] an opportunity to finally recognise and enshrine our sovereign rights, by developing a 21st-century treaty that gives the original Australians a political and legal platform that includes us in its leadership in perpetuity,” Prof Troy said. “Let’s draw on this energy and together lift Australia to a position of world leadership in human rights.”
Anita Heiss, Wiradjuri woman and author of ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’, praised Stan Grant’s speech for its ability to rally people. “Words can be powerful,” Dr Heiss said. “They can make us change the way we think. They can help us understand and feel empathy, but what are words without actions? I think the real power will come now, post Stan’s speech in a call to action to all those tweeting and Facebooking to actually do something!”
Important historical changes don’t occur when people sit on their hands and say “uff I dunno, that seems like a lot of work”. It’s time to create a nation that puts First Australians, and those who followed, on an equal footing. It’s time to again consider the chance to form a truly independent national identity.