Republicanism as an intellectual movement in multicultural Australia
October 14 1991. © Jessica Stewart 1991 & 1995.


As a concept in Australian politics, republicanism is fundamentally linked to many other issues which are often of more immediate importance. It is this inter-relatedness of concerns, and the development of republican theories around them which will be analysed in this research. The significance of studying the republican movements in Australia and, by association, the issues surrounding them, has escalated dramatically in the last six months. It has become a salient political topic. Support has come from some of the foremost sectors of Australian public life including both state and federal parliamentarians, the judiciary, academia, and political scientists. This research argues the thesis that republicanism is an intellectual movement (as opposed to a mass movement), as the support noted above suggests; this argument is justified by two main points. The rationality behind severing the remaining constitutional and emotional links with Britain is one of these key issues; it is postulated here that there are logical reasons for changing to a republican form of government but those reasons for remaining with the status quo depend on emotion and tradition. The other point is that republicanism can be encapsulated in an examination of Australia’s intelligentsia, and their progression to independence. Britain’s strong hold over this sector through two centuries of inherited ideas and beliefs, symbolises the ongoing struggle to establish a distinct identity.

After dealing with the historical background, Chapters III and IV concentrate on some of the critical foundations for support which validate the theory postulated here that republicanism is based on rationality. It is inextricably linked to reasoned, logical reformation of aspects of society which affect a great many people. As will be shown, those individuals and their organisations or parties pushing for a republican Australia are not advocating such a substantial change for its own sake. They have seen the consequences of Australia’s present systen and favour reforms to rectify past mistakes. As Henry Reynolds says: “[Republicanism] is entwined with other issues of even greater importance — our relations with the countries of our region and our place in the Asia-Pacific world, immigration and multiculturalism, constitutional reform.”1

Chapter III examines republicanism as a political issue in modern Australian society, reviewing the disparate parties, movements, and individuals who have taken up republicanism and defined its parameters. Why have they felt it to be important as a general issue, and what do they hope to specifically achieve through a severence of final links to Britain? An important background is to look briefly at the Constitution from where much discontent originates. It was written in the last century for a collection of rival colonies a great distance from England and which approached Federation with tentative reluctance. They held fears that their state rights would be undermined by the federal government, an unknown commodity. Today, and taken literally, the Constitution has tenuous applicability to Australian society. Reflecting the rationality of reforms, Geoffrey Robertson in a Hypothetical programme which examined the Constitution, said that he would not propagandise or persuade but “show things as they are by showing them what they may become.2” Conventions and charades abound: “Why doesn’t our most fundamental set of laws say what it means?”3 The dangers of maintaining these ‘imperial relics’ is discussed in Chapter III, focusing on the events of November 1975. Sir Zelman Cowen described this document as the “most important, the most fundamental document in Australian history” yet half of all Australians do not know that it even exists, in stark contrast to that of the United States Constitution which is known by every American citizen. The irrelevancy of the Constitution to most Australians underlies this ignorance but it is also due to the concept of nationalism (or lack of it) which Chapter III explores.

There are no guarantees in the Constitution of individual rights, or racial or sexual equality which people today can use to declare discrimination illegal. Robertson says that “Once entrenched in the Constitution, ‘rights’ become more than rhetoric. They become meaningful and useful…and cannot be taken away by Governments who regard them as inconvenient or expensive.”4 This is significant for Australia’s history of large-scale immigration and the thousands of migrants who are unaware of their rights in this foreign country. Chapter IV researches the policies and consequences of multiculturalism as a basis for republicanism. Stephen Fitzgerald in his 1988 report A Commitment to Australia, voiced grave dissatisfaction with the citizenship ceremony in which migrants, wishing to become full citizens must declare allegience to the Queen, her heirs and successors. He found that opposition to it was echoed through migrant groups around the country: “Regardless of anything else, [she] will certainly be English, absentee, Anglican and aristocratic….While urging migrants to become citizens we should finally cease to be migrants ourselves.”5 Fitzgerald felt that a republic was central to the self-definition problems and deep cultural schisms facing Australia.

A focus on intellectuals is significant because until recently in literature by and about Australians, there has been a paucity of material about an indigenous intelligentsia. “Australians have for too long been indifferent to the source of ideas about their own society and historical experience.”6 Australians retain an image of themselves as egalitarian which gives intellectuals (ensconsed in their ivory towers) and intellectual work a derogatory meaning. However this research is not about anti-intellectualism. Within the specific topic of republicanism it concerns the claim that:

In order to understand both the sources of social stability and the dynamics of socio-political change, it is essential to appreciate the significance of the broader networks in which opinions are shaped, ideals are contested and orthodoxies are modified or abandoned.7 A brief description of Australia’s intellectual heritage is a suitable precurser because it exemplifies the dominance of Anglo culture. Intellectuals here have been reluctant to adopt a high public profile, not only because of the egalitarian myth but because of negative comparisons between them and their counterparts overseas. “The central assumption of the cultural cringe was that intellectual work produced in Australia was thought to be necessarily derivative…or awkwardly provincial.”8 Humphrey McQueen believes that Australians have had dependence bred into their culture through British imperialism which tailored Australia’s economic, political and cultural developments to fit its needs. The intellectual consequences of this were a “lack of confidence in our capacity to experiment with local ideas and institutions, conservative and paternalistic international mass communications and reliance on technically advanced nations for innovations and research and development.”9 Australian intellectuals were torn between celebrating the distinctiveness of their own society on one hand, and conforming to a shared heritage with Britain on the other. The historical detail in the next chapter examines the last decades of the nineteenth century which witnessed a burst of national pride expressed particularly through intellectual literature. It will focus on the twin issues of dependence and obsession with identity, and set the context of republicanism as an intellectual and rational issue which is what it has remained in modern society.

(Next Chapter)