It appears we are in the throes of another Australian republican moment. There have been previously three major republican moments in Australian history. Each of these republican moments occurred seemingly out of nowhere resulting in republican arguments becoming prominent in Australian political discourse. Hitting like a republican strike of lightening, an event such as the knighting of Prince Philip creates a new zeitgeist, a new republican ‘spirit of the times’. Of course, the reality is the political landscape was already covered in republican tinder that had built up over years.
I wrote recently that the sunlight of Australian independence is appearing over the horizon and it was a great time to be an Australian republican. Confidence is growing that Australians are going to get there, helped along by the fact that we finish the year with Australia’s most famously passionate republican as our Prime Minister, as well as the Opposition Leader, all six Premiers, and both Chief Ministers of the Territories as republicans.
2015 will come to be viewed as the year that the renewed push toward an Australian republic began. There are many reasons for this prediction including Peter FitzSimons’ ground breaking speech to the National Press Club, the ALP’s updated republican policy, Australian Republican Movement's former National Chair Malcolm Turnbull’s ascendance to the prime ministership, and Prince Charles and Camilla’s lack lustre royal visit in November. But really the momentum began to build early in 2015 with the memorable knighting of Prince Philip.
This latest moment of alignment of the stars of the Southern cross began on Australia Day 2015 with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s bizarre ‘captain’s pick’ to award an Australian Knighthood to the Queen’s consort Prince Philip.
Abbott had taken Australia by surprise in March 2014 when he brought back knights and dames of the Order of Australia with little to no consultation. The titles had been discontinued in Australia in 1986 and the decision to reintroduce them was met with much derision.
When Australians woke on Australia Day 2015, having heard the previous evening Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s positive comments about our republican future, the overwhelming public response of disbelief to the announcement demonstrated that Australians recognised that our identity is Australian, not colonial, anymore.
What was confirmed in the response to Tony Abbott’s restoration of Knights and Dames and the granting of an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip is the strength of republican values in contemporary Australia. That means support for our independence, support for our own institutions and a belief in our own capacity to govern.
Tony Abbott’s staunch support for the monarchy during his political career and popular visits from Prince William and his family over the past few years had put the republican debate on the backburner. Early in 2015, the Queensland Newman LNP government and its monarchical horde were removed. Since the election of the LNP Newman Government in 2012, there had been a steady output of ideological revisionism aimed at bolstering the concept of monarchy in Queensland. By June 2015 Queensland looked like becoming a little less 'Queenie' with the proposed move of the Queen’s Birthday holiday next year to October to return Labour Day to its traditional date, Even Prime Minister Abbott had been rattled by the republican sentiment in the country and had not taken the opportunity to appoint more ‘Sirs and Dames’ in the honours list.
In July 2015 the Australian Republican Movement appointed distinguished author, journalist and Australian rugby union international Peter FitzSimons as national Chair as it geared up for a high-profile campaign ahead of the next Federal election.
On the evening of Monday, 14 September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull became the 29th Prime Minister of Australia. This was a game-changer for Australian republicans. The removal of Prime Minister Abbott, a former National Director, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, began with his unpopular first budget in 2014 and continued with his widely-mocked decision to award a knighthood to Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip on Australia Day, 2015. The successful coup resulted in Australia’s fourth leader since 2013 and followed an 18-month run of dismal polls from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Facing an electoral wipe-out at the next election, due in 2016, the Federal Coalition turned to Malcolm Turnbull, who came to national prominence as National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement and chief proponent of an Australian head of state in the lead up to the 1999 referendum. With that the King of the Monarchists was felled.
The first significant policy change for the Turnbull Government was to call it a knight on titles. In abolishing the titles of Knight and Dame from the Order of Australia awards, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull helped grow our current Australian republican moment.
The mid-nineteenth century saw the first republican moment in Australia’s past. This was a period in which colonial grievances reached their height. In Sydney in 1850 the outspoken firebrand Reverend John Dunmore Lang, the People’s Advocate editor E.J. Hawksley and the young Henry Parkes campaigned through the Australian League for a republican form of government when the British government wanted to reintroduce transportation of convicts. By 1852, Lang had published Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, an appeal for the establishment of a United States of Australia. This was the first argued case for an Australian republic.
In the early 1850s during the gold rushes there was an influx of large numbers of migrants from Europe and the United States to Victoria, many of whom were sympathetic to republicanism. This caused British officials to fear the possibility of revolution. In 1854, the Eureka Stockade rebellion at the Ballarat goldfield was ultimately a republican desire for government by the people. However, the urgency vanished when responsible government was granted in 1856.
The second republican moment occurred during the late 1880s to early 1890s. This was a time when republicanism became strongly anti-monarchical and nationalist in sentiment. The ‘inevitability’ of an Australian republic became a common theme.
The radical bookshop was the heartland of nineteenth-century radicalism. In the back rooms of radical bookstores and newspaper printeries sprinkled throughout the colonies, republicanism was a topic of heated discussion. Many of the radical republican writers of the 1880s and 1890s found a vehicle for their ideas in the radical newspapers and journals. By the 1880s, Australians had become a more mobile people. In addition a majority were native-born and most were literate. These two factors helped in providing an audience for the many nationalist writers who were active in the last three decades of the century. By the 1880s and 1890s, radical journals such as the Bulletin, Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn and the short-lived Republican in Sydney, the Clipper in Hobart, the Tocsin in Melbourne, the Worker and Boomerang in Brisbane and the Charters Towers Australian Republican reflected the radical, intellectual and political energies emerging in Australian life. For these journals, Australian nationalism was closely interwoven with republicanism.
The Commonwealth of Australia was the title chosen for the new nation at the 1891 National Constitutional Convention. Although there was controversy over the republican ancestry of the term it was the title accepted in 1901. Prior to the mid-1890s, republicans had insisted that national independence could be achieved only by Australia’s secession from the Empire. However, by 1901 federation was seen as the first step on the road towards political independence.
There were brief republican moments in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s republican activity was restarted by authors Geoffrey Dutton and Donald Horne. At the same time the student magazine Oz lampooned the monarchy. However, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the appointed Governor-General on 11 November 1975 outraged many Australians. Since those turbulent days, several notable Australians declared a commitment to an Australian republic. There were many Town Hall meetings and calls to ‘maintain the rage’.
The third significant republican moment was during the 1990s. In 1991 the Australian Republican Movement was established, with Tom Keneally as the Inaugural Chair. In 1993 Prime Minister Paul Keating formed the Republic Advisory Committee, led by Malcom Turnbull to prepare options on how to achieve a republic with minimal constitutional change. In June 1995, Keating announced his goal of a republic with an Australian head of state. The 1998 Constitutional Convention helped to strengthen the debate for a republic. However, on 6 November 1999 the republic referendum was defeated because many pro-republicans voted ‘no’ as they feared that without a direct election they would gain a ‘politician’s republic’.
While the republic was a major issue in the late 1990s, the debate was caught up in an argument about the best selection method for the Head of State and on this crucial issue republicans divided. With the waters muddied in this way – and not cleared with proper community engagement – the voting public said no.
It appears 2015 is the beginning of the fourth republican moment in Australian history. An Australian republic is back in the headlines, and the Australian Republican Movement has bold new leadership with Peter FitzSimons AO. Right now, Australians are thinking and talking about our national leadership, and our national identity, in ways they haven't for a long time. And better still, the ARM's membership has quadrupled this year.
So where to from here?
The Prime Minister set the Australian Republican Movement a challenge when he recently remarked that:
"The republic issue cannot belong to a politician, it's got to be a genuine popular movement."
Grassroots activism is the focus for enabling change - changing the minds of Australians, one by one if necessary. Perhaps it is the Scouts who are showing the way. Their survey of all members nation-wide on their view to the removal of the oath to the Queen in the Scout Promise ends on 31 December 2015. The purpose to removing the oath is not only about making the Scouts more inclusive, but an understanding that Australia is changing. Their review acknowledges this nation seeking its own identity as part of being Australian.
The Scouts can see the change that is coming.
Change is coming.
Let's all work to ensure this fourth time we achieve our republican destiny.