‘. . . the whole civilized world is republican.’
Boomerang, 30 Nov., 1889
There is no use pretending that republicanism in 1972 is a controversial topic about which tempers are likely to be easily lost or blows exchanged. The case for Australia becoming a republic—today, this year, anyway as soon as possible—is almost self-evident, and therefore it is now by no means the impracticable, ‘phoney’ issue as Peter Coleman described it in 1966. But first let me explain why my own thinking on this subject has changed drastically in the past six years.
In 1966 I was asked to open the discussion following a Fabian Society lecture in Melbourne by Geoffrey Dutton on ‘Britain in Australia’. He had argued that the survival of the British royal myth in this country was ‘totally incompatible with the achievement of a national sense of identity’ and had supported his argument with predictable urbanity and wit, recalling the ludicrous antics of a governor’s lady who came to stay ‘with us’ and the more recent boast of a young Adelaide ‘social matron’ that she had curtsied six times to the Queen Mother at the Adelaide Arts Festival. There was, he complained, ‘a section of the Australian community which, if kicked by a vice-regal boot, will say thanks and present the other cheek’.
In my comments I confessed that I did not move in the same elevated social circles as Dutton, and conceded that the case for republicanism was in principle irresistible even at that time. But I argued as forcefully as I could that it should not be allowed to distract attention from much more urgent political and social problems, notably Vietnam and conscription, the disgraceful incidence of poverty in Australia, the appallingly anachronistic condition of our social services and such problems as uncontrolled urban sprawl. But I admitted that internationalism stirred me more than nationalism and that, if poverty was still a problem here, it was infinitely more acute and intolerable among our Asian neighbours.
Moreover, I went on, it would be naive to suppose that a switch to republicanism would destroy the old imported snobbery associated with British royalty and viceroyalty. And the new snobbery might even be worse. ‘For example’, I said, ‘given a choice for governor of Victoria between some silly, effete, aged, unemployed member of the British aristocracy and, say, when he has retired to rest on his laurels. Sir Henry Bolte or Dr Sir Henry Bolte or even, heaven help us. Lord Bolte, I am not sure that I wouldn’t find the former more harmless and less sickening.’ The fundamental fact in my opinion was that snobbery would persist so long as the class structure of Australian society, for all its egalitarian sugar-coating, remained as stratified as it was then.
That remains a fundamental fact, but much else has changed since—sufficient I think to make republicanism now a step of major significance to our self-respect as citizens of an allegedly independent south Pacific nation. Several relevant changes might be mentioned, but I have no doubt that the most important has taken place not in Australia but in Britain. And perhaps that is why the full force of the case for an Australian republic did not hit me until I was in London last year when the debate on the Common Market was at its fiercest. From there, following Mr Anthony’s farcical failure to move the British Government to make substantial concessions to Australian primary industry and with British interest concentrated exclusively on domestic and European affairs, it suddenly became obvious how ridiculous it is to regard the British Queen as head of our state. The old imperial assumptions about the British defence of Australia fell with Singapore in 1942 and have not been seriously revived since. Now the economic sheet-anchor of the Commonwealth relationship, tariff preference in Britain, is disappearing too, and the legislative restrictions on Australians even entering Britain are calculated to make us feel less British than foreign. Exactly what substance does that leave for the old flag-waving Royal visit sentimentality of Sir Robert Menzies’ generation?
It is of course instructive that it is Mum who has cut the umbilical cord, not us, and not the first time she has taken the initiative in the reform of the Commonwealth relationship. But she having done so, hasn’t the time come to take mature stock of our vestigial relationship with the British monarchy? That British entry into the Common Market was inevitable and that the effects on the Australian economy will be small I have argued elsewhere. But there is clearly substantial if inchoate resentment among Australians at being abandoned by Mother, and that is why I think the time is now ripe for a move to republicanism—and why there is a degree of urgency about it.
There were already some signs that Australians were gradually waking up to the hard reality of our estrangement from Britain. During her last visit the Queen did not even raise a Moomba crowd of welcome in Melbourne and the Royal Yacht, moored just below Spencer Street Bridge, attracted no more interest than the Tasmanian ferry. Large-scale non-British European immigration since the war has of course reinforced mounting apathy. To Italian and Greek migrants Elizabeth II of England is inevitably as foreign as ex-King Umberto II of Italy or King Constantine II of Greece is to us. Occasionally a nostalgic royalist devotee of King Zog or the like may transfer his or her royalist habits to the British monarchy, no doubt, but most migrants probably regard republicanism as more appropriate to a New World; and though their offspring may learn to play Australian Rules football or some equally exotic local sport as well as the British Australians (soccer of course is overwhelmingly an international and republican sport), they can hardly be expected to take to the mystique of British royalty.
Interestingly enough, even J. D. Pringle, not known as a critic of the monarchy, now feels that ‘sooner or later we must become a republic . . . I agree that it is intolerable that Australia, alone or almost alone among sovereign nations, should continue to have its Head of State living twelve thousand miles away in another country. Even if Australians understand this curious anachronism, no one else can.’
There are other straws in the wind. In Victoria earlier this year it was reported that Laver’s Hill Consolidated School near Colac had dropped all reference to the monarchy in their patriotic ceremony because ‘Australia is an independent nation’, but perhaps the more significant thing was that this was in reply to a questionnaire on such matters sent to the 1,500 state schools by the Victorian Council of State School Organisations.’ That would surely have been inconceivable even a decade ago. And even the Federal Government has been talking about banishing the vestigial union jack from our national flag and adopting a proper national anthem: and how often has this government been ahead rather than some way behind public opinion?
Finally, there is the least tangible but perhaps most permanent force for republicanism in our history, the force of the North American example. With breathtaking optimism colonial newspapers in Australia from the 1830s onwards compared their country with the United States and expressed their faith in one day becoming economically and politically as great. The rider of republicanism was not usually spelt out, but it was understandable that, soon after, British politicians calmly foresaw the time when the new colonies of settlement would follow the United States out of the empire, and that meant republicanism. Thanks to lack of British resistance to constitutional reform that step has so far been avoided, but now the British would probably be privately relieved if it were taken. It is not as if we contribute substantially to the cost of the monarch, except on the rare occasions when members of the family are here on a visit, and the scope for patronage, for jobs for superannuated vice-regal aristocrats, is really very limited. The American example has remained, even if rarely consciously formulated, and there would be a certain felicity in following it constitutionally to a federal republican constitution, especially as envy and national competitiveness rule out any prospect of our becoming the 51st state of the overblown American federation.
But let me be quite clear about what I am advocating. I am not necessarily suggesting that we leave the British Commonwealth. I estimate that, as of this year, a majority of the member countries are republics’—even Nauru is one! So we would only be following in the direction in which African and Asian Commonwealth countries have led the way. (There is irony in the fact that it is not much more than two decades ago since the first of them caught up with our own degree of constitutional independence.) If we did follow suit we would still recognize the Queen as symbolic head of the Commonwealth, but that fiction is certainly less humiliating and hard to stomach than the existing one. Staying within the Commonwealth would make republicanism more acceptable to elderly Australians, and there are still substantial advantages in staying in, even if they take such unspectacular forms as the swapping of legislative ideas at Commonwealth parliamentary conferences. But of course it is quite possible that the Commonwealth will disintegrate. It is even possible that Britain herself will be expelled from the club over some such issue as Rhodesia, and as we are still tied to the British Queen as head of state we would then probably have to leave, too. Republicanism would give us more freedom of diplomatic manoeuvre inside the Commonwealth as well as outside it.
Nor am I suggesting we adopt a presidential system of government. No one who saw the film documentary about Richard Nixon, Millhouse, at one of the festivals this year, or who follows the convulsive party conventions and the U.S. presidential election campaign, is likely to propose any such thing. Our head of state, whether or not he be called president, would be no more than a figurehead, a governor-general writ large ; and if the worst came to the worst I would even be reconciled to accepting Sir Henry Bolte in that office, since I take it from the timing of his retirement from state politics and the way he has been campaigning for the Federal Liberal Party (more fervently than any Federal minister) that he really has set his heart on Government House, Canberra.
The beauty of it is that the occupancy is only temporary. Tom Paine’s description of hereditary succession as a ‘burlesque upon monarchy’ still holds force:
It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot can fill. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a King requires only the animal figure of a man—a sort of breathing automaton. This sort of superstition may last a few years more, but it cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of man.
That was in 1792. One hundred and eighty years later the British Royal family still survives, stripped of all its tyrannical powers and now less active constitutionally than as a tourist trap around Buckingham Palace and as dispensers of miscellaneous charitable patronage and of a sort of royal free masonry—laying foundation stones here, there and everywhere. But still there all the same and still a notorious sanctuary of atavistic snobbery and living on a scale more appropriate to the family of the Empress of India than to that of a powerless monarch of an impoverished secondclass state. The element of truth in Schumpeter’s atavistic theory of imperialism, of functionless individuals and classes finding employment at home and abroad to justify their existence, is admirably demonstrated in the British royal family. It is surely the most polite and resilient form of parasitism left in the world.
At the same time, however, the Queen has found a new role for herself. Not only has she maintained the political neutrality indispensable to the survival of the monarchy, but she has done more than any of her predecessors to win public popularity as the monarch-mother of a royal family which provides both a model for middle class family life and an ideal compensation for the drab, often highly deprived, domestic existences of most working class families in Britain today. (It is worth recalling in the year of his death that Edward VIII might have made an even better job of popularizing the monarchy if he had been allowed a chance, but in any case this is a role Australians do not need, just as we no longer need the mystique.)
As a result, apart from an occasional self-conscious stir from some old-fashioned backbencher, the British Labour Party seems to have jettisoned whatever vestigial republicanism it ever possessed, just as it has apparently given up all thought of abolishing the House of Lords in which it now has such a large vested interest. Once upon a time the British radical and labour movements certainly did possess some excellent and eloquent republicans, as Kingsley Martin’s The Crown and the Establishment shows. But nowadays an editor of the New Statesman evidently thinks he is really way-out for daring to criticize the scale of the Queen’s income from public funds. That of course is no business of ours, but I suspect the A.L.P.’s lack of interest in republicanism has a lot to do with the failure of British Labour to set any sort of example in this direction.
Not that I think republicanism could only appeal to the Labour Party in 1972. Socialists have never had a monopoly of the idea, as the contributions of the Reverend John Dunmore Lang, P. R. Stephensen, Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne testify. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, at the time of the Republican League and the Republican Union, republicanism and socialism did come together in the columns of the Sydney Bulletin and other (then) radical journals, and the Brisbane Boomerang wishfully saw both reforms as inevitable. In 1895 one platform of the Socialist Party of New South Wales was Federation on a Republican and a broad Democratic basis’. George Black’s Why I am a Republican (Sydney 1891) suggests the Australian phenomenon was still in the tradition of Paine:
It is monstrous that animal succession, the mere incident of birth, should entitle anyone to lord it over his fellows. When you consider that the mere caprice that guided a king to the chamber of his wife, instead of that of his mistress, may saddle a mighty nation with a ruler, who has the power in many ways to make or mar its destiny, it seems wonderful that Monarchy has survived so long.
That sentiment would probably be shared by most Australians today, even though probably few monarchs had that power even when Black wrote, and even fewer do today.12 But when the labour movement embraced parliamentary representation it also embraced the monarchy, and despite Irish Australians, that has remained the situation ever since.
In Australia and the Monarchy (1966) Stephen Murray-Smith concluded there was no possibility that ‘republicanism would be entertained by any conference of the Australian Labor Party anywhere in Australia’, but Don Whitington insisted that ‘Once Sir Robert Menzies is gone, there will be little hesitation [among Liberal politicians] about severing ties with the Monarchy if political survival makes that expedient’. If public opinion swung sufficiently the Liberal Party, he suggested, would be the first to adapt itself to the change.
Though I have not seen the results of any opinion poll on this subject I believe that could still prove true in 1972. The Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) is desperately trying to survive by affecting the image of the Leader of a party which is advancing on the 1970s with new ideas to match, but the new ideas have not as yet been noticeably forthcoming. A discreet appeal to Australian resentment against perfidious Albion might well prove attractive to voters and distract attention from the ideological vacuum elsewhere in the party platform. Perhaps that is exactly what Donald Horne always hoped for. One can just imagine the Prime Minister maundering on about the nation only reaching full maturity under his direction, while carefully emphasizing that ‘of course dear family ties with Britain would of course endure. . . .’
The A.L.P. by contrast probably considers it is already on a winning wave and only has to hang on to obtain office by the end of the year. But complacency is a dubious electoral virtue and I would hope that Mr Whitlam might become aware of the advantages to be gained from constitutional as well as economic and social radicalism in the year that Britain became part of Europe. It was impressive that, at the parliamentary reception for the Queen and Duke during their last visit, he alone managed to maintain a sensible, even faintly disrespectful, stance when it came to televised speechmaking. If his party had the imagination and political courage, I suspect that republicanism in 1972 would effectively reinforce the image of a genuinely up-to-date party.
Admittedly this policy would be unlikely to have much appeal for the over fifty age group, long processed to the royal charisma, probably beyond redemption, but young people are another matter. My guess, as a university teacher, is that they can appraise the absurdity of the present constitutional position more objectively than their parents; and I would guess, too, that if the 18-21 year olds did obtain the vote, it would be on such issues as republicanism (and conservation) that their voting attitudes would contrast most spectacularly with that of rather older age groups.
It is not as if republican status would have implications only for our domestic situation, for national self-respect. Probably the most significant change it would bring would be in the attitudes of our Asian neighbours, China included. At present we must look (even to the Americans) like an outpost of a defunct empire saluting the same Queen as the Poms. With Britain in Europe we could even be construed as the agent of a European power-bloc. To overcome these traditional handicaps we must demonstrate dramatically, by the adoption of a thorough-going republican status, our unambiguous national independence. Constitutional separation from Britain might not make any difference legally in our ability to make economic and defence treaties, but psychologically it would certainly increase our flexibility. The British connexion in other words is no longer a help, only an embarrassment.
But there is no disguising the fact that a change to republican status would be constitutionally highly complex. Professor Zelman Cowen judges that a referendum would be needed, so even if an Australian government decided to go republican this year, after successfully contesting a general election on this among other issues, there would be little hope of it being achieved in 1972. Even if the referendum were passed, the Queen or her vice-regal representative would have to sign away her own authority, which she could scarcely decline to do. The deletion of all references to the Crown in the constitution would in itself be an enormous task, and state constitutions would have to be drastically altered too. What if a state government declined to undertake the reform? Financial and even military sanctions might be necessary to force the issue, and ultimately constitutional niceties might have to be disregarded.
That is hardly a prospect likely to attract a Federal government. But these headaches would surely be worth enduring. There may even be a sense in which a break with full constitutional legality would help to emphasize the full significance of the reform. In lieu of a Declaration of Independence most new independent states of the British Commonwealth have made much of ‘autochthony’, the notion that constitutions should have local grass roots and not simply be ‘given’ by Westminster. A larger element of autochthony might be healthy in Australia, too. Even presidential snobbery might be more tolerable if it were autochthonous, not just an imperial transplant!
Presumably, too, every ‘Royal’ society in the country would be obliged to drop the prefix. The honours system would also need reforming; but that, heaven knows, is long overdue. In fact none of these details strikes me as insupportable, if the outcome is judged worthwhile. And it surely is. As a republic with our own unambiguous national flag and a genuinely national anthem we might at last be able to take ourselves seriously as a nation, and then other nations might be more inclined to do the same. Whether we would want to change the name to ‘the United States of Australia’ or whatever I do not know, nor much care, but on the whole I would be content to see it remain ‘the Commonwealth of Australia’. ‘Commonwealth’, after all, once had healthy republican associations.
One final thing I should make absolutely clear. My own conversion to practical republicanism has nothing to do with compulsive anti-British sentiments of the sort Horne and others occasionally delight in. Having spent almost a third of my life in and around London I am almost as much a Londoner as an Australian, and I have researched in British as well as Australian history. My emotional commitment not only to Britain but to Europe is profound, and I do not think I would like to live in a world in which, for example, since the unimaginable is now readily imagined, London has been destroyed by a hydrogen bomb. But if even a bastardized Australian like me sees the case for republicanism as unanswerable and urgent, surely most readers of this article will feel the same even more strongly. What are the implications for the state of the nation if they do not?
Noel McLachlan became a leading historian of Australia after an early career in Fleet Street journalism. He was Reader in History at the University of Melbourne and Editor of Historical Studies.