Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This (republican) life

It's been twenty years this month since I submitted my political history honours thesis at James Cook University on the history of an Australian republican moment. The thesis was an analysis of the Charters Towers-based Australasian Republican Association between 1890 and 1891. I've spent the twenty years since then exploring Australia's republican past and publishing many academic articles, newspaper articles, and book chapters on the topic.

Twenty years later I find myself an active member within the current Australian Republican Movement. In September 2005 I was returned at the top of the poll during the ARM election for the 12 member Queensland State Council, and was awarded a PhD from University of New England on the middle class dimesion to Australia's republican past. In 2006 I negotiated the affiliation of Queensland's largest trade union, the Queensland Teachers' Union, with the ARM (the first union ever to do so), and in 2007 was elected ARM Queensland State Secretary.

My family on my maternal grandfather's side have lived in Charters Towers since the 1890s with each generation involved in the mining industry. Growing up in Charters Towers in the 1970s my political outlook drew upon my large extended family's working-class mining heritage and deep personal roots within the gold mining town. In particular it was my grandfather's stories of life working the Charters Towers gold mines, and his memories of his father working the goldfield in the 1890s that moulded the way I saw the world. It was obvious that I would approach life with a strong commitment to support the Australian labour movement.

Charters Towers was a country town of conflicting and clashing ideas. Townies and bushies. Small businessmen and workers. Rural conservative and Labor. A Marxist scholar could have a field day defining class lines and divisions. Class lines in western Queensland have not changed much. There is still a tacit division between old establishment figures and non-land owners. To marry into the landed gentry is still viewed by many mothers of the brides as a step into a better world.

But it was the egalitarianism of the goldfield that seemed to absorb me growing up in Charters Towers. I always had the strong feeling that 'jack is as good as his master'. As a result my view of republicanism was initially grounded in class conflict.

In 1977 I remember seeing for the first time Star Wars. For me it was the Empire verse the Republic - with the rebels being the good guys fighting against the evil Empire. My first republican moment was played out within the confines of the aptly named Regent Theatre with a working-class community cheering on the successful overthrow of the Empire by the rebels within the grand flourish of a space opera.

By 1983 I was reading Russel Ward's, Australia since the coming of man and listening to Australian music such as Goanna's Spirit of Place. This was time when Redgum was lampooning the federal Liberal government, People for Nuclear Disarmament were active within the community, and many Queenslander's were sick and tired of the Bjelke-Petersen government. For me the radical nationalist approach to Australian history constituted Australia's real past.

It was during the 1940s and 1950s that radical nationalist historians wrote histories that retrieved the radical temper of the workers of the past. The radical nationalist view of the 1880s and 1890s reinforced the belief that it was a peiod of intense interest in ideas, in being Australian and in working out solutions to society's problems of poverty and inequality, and drew its support from the popular beliefs founded in mateship, egalitarianism and socialism.

This was best codifed in Russel Ward's 1958 The Australian Legend. In this book, Ward used as his conceptual basis radical distinctiveness. Wards set out to reshape historical thinking about the origins of Australian nationalism. He argued that national identity or the 'Australian spirit' was "intimately connected with the bush and that it derived rather from the common folk than from the more respectable and cultivated sections of society". For Ward, mateship was forged in the hostile environment of the bush and was adopted by the rural unions of the shearers and miners in their famous struggles against the pastoralists during the 1890s. Ward's 'bush legend' was collectivist and democratic in politics. It was the labour historians of the 1950s and 1960s who showed how the organised working-class were the heirs and custodians of the radical nationalist tradition. It was within the radical nationalist historical tradition that I wrote the history of Charters Towers based Australasian Republican Association.

Three cheers for the coming republic!