|The National Identity of Australia|
|Written by Geoffrey Partington|
|Saturday, 20 August 1994|
Nationality and national identity are contested concepts, rather than unambiguous attributes such as height and weight. The Duke of Wellington was once greeted as the greatest living Irishman on the grounds that he had assuredly been born in Ireland. His reply was that the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable did not make him a horse; nor did his own accident of birth make him any less an Englishman. The countless migrations of human beings have ensured that there is rarely an easy relationship between defined territories and distinctive national or ethnic groups. In East Timor in 1999 a central issue is whether all people who now live there are part of an ‘East Timorese’ people. Ethnic cleansing recently in the Balkans, and its far more extensive precedents ordered by Hitler, Stalin and Mao, have been brutal attempts to bring place and people into conformity.
Many problems concerning national characteristics arise even among relatively stable and homogenous populations. During the late seventeenth century the English were a byword in Europe for political tumult and instability, but by the nineteenth century they were the prime example of moderation and compromise; the impractical and dreaming Germans laughed at by their eighteenth century neighbours had become notorious for ruthless efficiency. The more individualist and pluralist a society, the more difficult it becomes to generalise about common national characteristics. Some continuities doubtless persist in ethnicity, as in all other generic attributes, but no characteristics are entirely immune from change.
The Creation of an Australian National Identity
In 1999 the High Court of Australia decided, when considering the case of Heather Hyde who had been elected to the Senate without formally renouncing her British citizenship, that Britain is a foreign country, just as are Peru, Morocco or Thailand. In a similar vein Malcolm Turnbull has proclaimed that ‘The lie that the Crown is an Australian institution is, of course, the ‘big lie’ of the whole monarchist cause, although it is often repeated’. Yet the whole history of Australia since 1788 makes nonsense if Britain has been and is merely another foreign state, and if the Crown is an institution alien to Australia.
Before 1788 there was no Australian nation. The island continent contained a large number of Aboriginal peoples who did not know they dwelt on an island and would not have cared had they known this. Some groups intermarried, but each group was more conscious of its distinctive identity than of any shared characteristics. Distant groups could not communicate directly with each other, although there was often expertise in understanding very different languages spoken by key neighbouring groups. The creation of an ‘Aboriginal Identity’ was the result of growing awareness of the wide gulf between the way of life of the British newcomers and that of the myriad indigenous peoples. Ironically, much of the activity needed to create ‘Aboriginal Identity’ has been carried out by non-Aboriginal anthropologists and by part-Aborigines who have chosen to repudiate their non-Aboriginal ancestors.
The creation of a distinctive national identity relatively easy to recognise in the speech and way of life of a large number of Australians was fully achieved before the separate Australian colonies of Great Britain entered into federation a century ago. Indeed, it was because such a shared identity had already been forged that federation was relatively easy to secure. That distinctive national identity has been developed and strengthened, but not fundamentally changed, during the twentieth century. Major post-1950 changes in the ethnic composition of Australia have not significantly altered central conceptions of Australian identity, partly because none of the non-British ethnicities has come to constitute more than about five per cent of the total population, so that each minority group has to use the English language to make its way in Australian society and ‘marriage-out’ is very common. The adoption of ‘multiculturalism’ has done little to slow down the process by which immigrants have been assimilated by an Australian ethos of British origin, which had been in most cases part of the attraction of Australia for them.
It was shared Britishness as much as shared Australianness which enabled a federal Australian Commonwealth, incorporating the entire land mass of the continent, together with Tasmania, to be created peacefully. Until well into the twentieth century more Western Australians and South Australians had visited Britain than had visited New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria or Tasmania. Similarly more of the population of that second group of colonies had visited Britain than South Australia or Western Australia. Substantial percentages within each colony, especially Victoria and South Australia, were born in Great Britain and Ireland. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, links with London were more important for each colonial and state capital city than those with cities within Australia. The near identity in patterns of political culture, religious beliefs, family structures, sports and pastimes in each colony or state was ensured as much by the continued links of each with Britain as by frequent intercourse between the colonies themselves.
Early Australian colonists could find nothing of cultural significance in their new country which might become part of a new national identity. The Report for the Year 1838 of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts commented:
‘As a section of the British empire, our history is bounded by the recollections of the present generation. Everything around us is new, and nothing is to be met with calculated to awaken our sympathies with the past, or which takes a part in our historical reminiscences’.
The first non-Aboriginal Australians, both convicts and free migrants, came overwhelmingly from Great Britain and Ireland, predominantly from England. They carried with them the basic ideas long developed in the ‘old countries’. The large majority insisted on being treated as British subjects in just the same way as if they had never left Britain. Being a British subject had two aspects: one concerned rights, such as the right to trial by jury and to freedom of religious belief; the other concerned duties, especially that of allegiance to the Crown. Most convicts showed loyalty to the country which had convicted them. In 1800, when a French attack on Sydney seemed likely, many ex-convicts who had just become emancipists volunteered to form a militia to defend New South Wales. The composition of the population of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land made full extension of English legal and constitutional practice impossible, but early colonial courts followed English precedents as closely as they could. Convicts could only be charged with crimes known to English Law and on indictment following strict judicial requirements.
When the Australian colonies gained internal self-government during the 1850s, their new constitutions were modelled as closely as possible on British practices or conventions. Parliamentary procedure was modelled on Westminster, with Erskine May the chief authority on precedents, so that each colonial assembly had its Speaker and Chairman of Committees, Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition, front-benchers and back-benchers, and so on. The political division of Australia into separate colonies was almost entirely made in London. It was as a result of decisions made in London that Tasmania (1825), Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1836), New Zealand (1841), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859) came into being.
Yet a new Australianness soon emerged among convicts and free settlers, and even more strongly among their descendants, many who had both convict and free settler parents or grandparents. Many emancipists came to consider themselves the only true colonists or Australians, on the grounds that New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land had been formed for the express purpose of receiving prisoners. Some free settlers such as the Macarthurs of Camden sought to replicate their ideal of traditional English social structure. James Macarthur’s advice to the free colonists was always to ‘extol their rights and principles as Englishmen’; his friend Charles Campbell was applauded by his neighbours at Queanbeyan when he told them that they should always act ‘as English gentlemen anxious to make this a second England’. Yet James Macarthur and his friends realised that New South Wales could never become a replica of England, or Camden Park indistinguishable, apart from its larger scale and its gum trees, from a stately English country house, and their children usually sympathised with ‘nativism’.
Nativist sentiments developed as a political force among many of the native-born when, as ‘twenty young men of property - natives of the colony’ put it in 1827 in a letter to the Australian, they felt that as ‘the natural ameliorators of the face of the country’, they had special rights in their native soil which was ‘their birth-right and inheritance’. Yet nativist thought retained a strong sense of Britishness as well as Australianness. Chief Justice Forbes observed that many native-born colonists ‘adore their native soil’ and viewed new immigrants with suspicion, but added: ‘they regard the institutions of Great Britain with an enthusiastic, nay an idolatrous devotion’.
Sport and Fear of Degeneration
Many Australians during the nineteenth century were interested in how they compared with the peoples from which they had sprung. This interest was intensified by theories of natural selection associated with Darwin and Wallace. Some colonists agreed with Anthony Trollop that most emigrants were superior in the first place to stay-at-homes and benefited in Australia from a better climate, diet and education, although Trollope suspected they might peak early and fail to achieve full potential. Other Australians feared that they might degenerate in a totally different climate from that of their ancestors.
Ability to perform physical feats and to do so in an appropriate spirit became seen as a valuable criterion for measuring whether there was degeneration or improvement of the British stock in a strange new land. Sporting prowess became central to ideas about Australian identity. Rowing was the first sport which gained mass interest by pitting Australian against British champions, but was supplanted by cricket as a way of enabling Australians to judge how they compared with the ‘old country’. The first recorded match played by the Hobart Town club was in 1835 against the crew of H.M.S. Hyacinth and the first played by the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1838 was against a team of British soldiers. Some of the most keenly contested early matches in Sydney were between ‘Sterling’ (British-born) and ‘Currency’ (colonial-born) men. The big annual match in early Adelaide was British vs Colonials.
For several decades English teams paid more visits to each Australian colony than did any other colonial team. ‘Banjo’ Paterson as a boy was fearful that the Australians would never be able to play England on level terms, but he and the young supported ‘our men as best we could, while the English- and Scottish-born heads of families adopted a tolerant and patronising smile, very hard to bear’. Soon the play of the Australians was at least on a par with that of the English teams and Australian victories helped to dispel fears raised of degeneracy in the Australian climate.
The Irish and Australian Identity
There were two key elements in the formation of an Australian national identity. One was the constant interaction between established British colonists and ‘new chums’: Australian colonists felt very Australian when they talked to new chums from Britain, but very British when they encountered Aborigines, Chinese, Kanakas or even non-British Europeans. The second was the interaction between Australians of Irish-Catholic origins and other groups of British emigrants. Thomas Keneally’s stereotype of Australian history as one of continual cantankerous sectarian strife is crude and false. John Joseph Therry and Mary MacKillop were two of many Catholics who testified to major help they received from beyond the sectarian divide. Leading Irish-Australians such as Roger Therry, John Hubert Plunkett, William Augustine Duncan, John O’Shanassy and Charles Gavan Duffy criticised what they considered grievous errors in past and present English policies, but they acknowledged great merits in the English contribution to civilization as a whole and the development of Australia in particular. Many Irish-Australians appreciated they had became beneficiaries, if initially unwilling ones, of the world-wide expansion of the United Kingdom.
During a fund raising visit for the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1895, Michael Davitt noted in many homes of Australian Catholics what to him was a strange combination of portraits: three heroes of Irish nationalism, Parnell, Dillon and O’Brien, together with Gladstone and Queen Victoria. William Bede Dalley, the first Roman Catholic Premier of New South Wales, raised Volunteers for the Sudan Campaign of 1885. In later years he taunted Orangemen: ‘Fancy, after all these years they have been calling us plotting papists and Fenian rebels, the first men...to serve the Queen...are being sent by a Paddy and a Holy Roman’.
Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, the first Irish-born Archbishop of Sydney and a leading figure in the federation movement during the 1890s, recognised that in Britain and Australia basic freedom and equality had been achieved by the Catholic Church, whose position in many countries with an overwhelmingly Catholic population was much worse. Moran wrote that he regarded ‘our colonial Administration, linked as it is to the Crown of Great Britain, as the most perfect form of republican government. It has all the freedom which a republican government imparts, and it is free from the many unpleasant influences to which, as in the United States, an elected head of a republic is subject’.
Nineteenth Century Republicanism
There were two periods in which republican ideas had significant influence in nineteenth century Australia. The first followed the European Revolutionary Year of 1848 and the arrival of militant gold miners in Victoria, culminating in the Eureka Stockade. However, Peter Lalor and most of the men of Eureka soon reconciled themselves to the order they had briefly challenged. Lalor became a minister and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and often emphasised his political moderation. Few of the 1850s radicals remained hostile to Australian Identity as it had by then developed. Henry Parkes, an artisan in his native Birmingham, had republican sympathies in the heady revolutionary atmosphere of 1848 but, like many former Chartists in Britain, he became increasingly attached to British constitutional traditions. Parkes told an audience on a return visit to England:
‘If people liked to stay in England, all he had to say was God bless them in the dear old country. He was just as much an Englishman as any man present. The people in Australia were as thoroughly English as the people of the mother-country; they had forfeited nothing by going to a distance of 14,000 miles. Shakespeare and Milton belonged as much to them as to the people of England; they possessed by right of inheritance an equal share in the grand traditions, the old military renown, the splendour of scientific discovery, and the wealth of literature, which had made England the great civilising power of the world’.
In 1890 Parkes urged delegates to the Australasian Federation confederation in Melbourne to form ‘one nation, one destiny’, but he also planted an English oak as a symbol of ongoing attachment to Britain and ‘the crimson thread of kinship’.
The 1890s saw a re-emergence of republican sentiments. The Sydney Bulletin, founded in 1880 by J.F. Archibald and John Haynes, was in favour of the immediate end of constitutional connections between the Australian colonies and Great Britain, and virulently antagonistic to British, particularly English, cultural influence. In the Bulletin’s perception no progress worth celebrating had been made since 1788. The Bulletin’s centennial issue argued:
‘A century of grovel has almost abolished the virtue of self-reliance, and Australia has learned to put her trust in pawnbrokers until she has little that she can really call her own ...And it is in honour of these things that Australia rises to celebrate the great day when her ancestors were lagged. Another such century and it will be time for us to be transported to Patagonia’.
Republican William Lane became so convinced of this thesis that he and his followers did emigrate to South America.
The Bulletin was less clear about what it wanted than about what it hated and despised. Much as it hated Britain and the monarchy, it hated Chinese and non-white immigrants even more, and it despised Aborigines even more than the British aristocracy. It is because of the racism of the Bulletin that few 1990s republicans care to recall their predecessors. Since the historian of Aboriginal relationships most favoured by republicans today, Henry Reynolds, admits that British politicians such as Earl Grey and British jurists such as James Stephen, Pemberton, Burge, Follet and Lushington, were more active than any colonial governments in their concern Aboriginal welfare, it is not surprising that Australian history is almost totally neglected in the so-called ‘republican debate’.
Most Australian authors, including those who tried hardest to break away from its sway, have been strongly influenced by English literature. Charles Tompson, who wrote the first native-born Australian poems to be published in book form, claimed there was unfair discrimination against the native-born, but he avowed his equal loyalty to the Crown and the colony: ‘I solemnly avow my loyalty to my King and the British constitution nor do I wish to see any other usurp its sway’. In a poem commemorating the founding of New South Wales, Tompson conceived of the First Fleet bearing the seeds of future freedom and prosperity:
‘And loyalty shall stamp thy name
The brightest gem in Albion’s crown’.
Adam Lindsay Gordon combined a deep affection for the British past and the Australian present. His most famous lines combine Australian and English images:
‘Hark! the bells on distant cattle
Waft across the range
Through the golden-tufted wattle
Music low and strange;
Like the marriage peal of fairies
Comes the tinkling sound,
Or like chimes of sweet St. Mary’s
On far English ground’.
‘Banjo’ Paterson was steeped in traditional ballad literature of the British Isles, especially that of the Scottish Borders where his father’s family originated. When Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda he set it to a tune derived from the Scottish ‘Bonny Wood of Craigielea’ and the English ‘The Bold Fusilier’. The original chorus concluded ‘Who’ll come a’soldiering for Marlborough with me?’ Another Scot, Peter Dodds McCormick, wrote Advance Australia Fair, which included, before censorship by the politically correct:
‘When Gallant Cook from Albion sailed
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave.
With all her faults we love her still.
Britannia rules the waves.
Britannia then shall surely know
Beyond wide ocean’s roll,
Her sons in fair Australia’s land
Still keep a British soul’.
Another influential Scot was Catherine Helen Spence, but her ideas give little encouragement to republicans. Spence was convinced that the lands of her birth and her adoption were at the van of human progress. She wrote after visiting Britain and the United States:
‘Socially I liked the atmosphere of America better than that of England, but politically England was infinitely more advanced. Steadily and surely a safer democracy seems to be evolving in the old country than in the Transatlantic Republic’.
Most Australian women novelists of the nineteenth century were fascinated by the relationship between Britain and Australia. A key theme is a romance between a ‘new-chum’ and an established colonist. Miles Franklin, who despised them, classified writers such as Rosa Praed, Ada Cambridge, Catherine Martin and Jessie Couvreur as ‘Anglo-Australians’ who failed to appreciate the value of ‘burgeoning Australianism and egalitarianism ’.
Leading figures who wanted separation from Britain included A. G. Stephens, literary editor of The Bulletin, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy. Stephens perfected, although he did not invent, a useful distinction between being British and being Australian. His ploy was to call earlier colonists ‘British’ when they had things he disliked, but ‘Australian’ when their conduct was more to his liking. Sometimes it seemed to Stephens a fine thing to be a young land, removed from the wrongs, ancient quarrels and exploded beliefs of the Old World. Yet Stephens considered that, after a century of British Australia, ‘Whereas there was a wealth of tradition and meaning behind Nelson’s signal "England expects...", Australia is meaningless by comparison, lacking the inspiration of the past’. One of his main concerns was to emancipate Australian literature from what he conceived to be excessive English influence and he looked to Henry Lawson as a path-breaker, claiming of his works that ‘their value is largely an Australian value’.
However, in his obituary review of Lawson, Stephens recognised that he had been
‘like Henry Parkes typically an English peasant, an Australian example of what is, physically and mentally, one of the strongest breeds in the world...The Peasant character, the village attitude, were Lawson’s English inheritance; they coloured his life in Australia; he saw Australia through an English glass, darkly. His English personality was at odds with this strange exotic environment.’.
During his twenties Lawson believed that Australia’s past had been one of oppression by the rich and misery for the poor. In the 1887 ‘Song of the Republic’ he scorned ‘old-world errors and wrongs and lies ’ and the ‘Old Dead Tree ’ transplanted from Britain. Once Lawson came to fear the Japanese he no longer attacked Britain as bellicose or imperialist, but as lacking the will to take a firm stand in the Pacific. Lawson tried to revive a martial spirit among the British as well as Australians. The English figure he came to admire most was the stern Oliver Cromwell who ‘thrashed her enemies at home/ And crushed her foes abroad’. In ‘The King of our Republic’ he called for an Australian Cromwell.
Joseph Furphy, who wrote under the pen name of ‘Tom Collins’, described his Such is Life, perhaps the finest Australian novel of the nineteenth century, as: ‘scene, Riverina and Northern Vic; temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. Tom Collins hopes that Australia will take a different path from that of the ‘old worn-out’ northern hemisphere, but his conversation is filled with references to English literature. Furphy and Lawson regarded ‘mateship’ as the true test for immigration and sought a society of ‘mates’ who shared common values and would back each other up in times of trouble, but who were autonomous individuals. As Furphy saw it, Chinese immigrants to the goldfields had come in gangs subject to the control of a boss, had no experience of free institutions and seemed unlikely to acquire it. A century ago most Australian trade unions were bitterly opposed to non-British immigration. The foremost demand of the Miners’ Protection League established at Lambing Flat in New South Wales in 1861 was ‘the expulsion of the Chinese’. William Guthrie Spence, the father of militant unionism among miners and then shearers, barred from membership of the Australian Workers’ Union, ‘Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, or Afghans or coloured aliens ’ but admitted ‘Maoris, American Negroes, and children of mixed parentage born in Australia ’, which shows that his test for mateship was cultural rather than racial. If hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, of Chinese had entered Australia in the late nineteenth century, a stable democracy might well have been under threat. By the time mass Asian immigration took place again during the 1960s, Australian society had rooted its British way of life so deeply that assimilation had a fair chance of success.
The Twentieth Century
Some republicans try to make political capital from the First World War. It began badly from their viewpoint: when war came in Europe in 1914 Australia’s Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook declared, ‘all our resources in Australia are...for the preservation and the security of the Empire’. Worse still, Cook was backed by Andrew Fisher, leader of the Australian Labor Party, who stated ‘Australia will stand beside our own to help defend her to our last man and our last shilling’. During the war there were, of course, legitimate Australian criticisms of the effectiveness of some British military commanders, both in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front, but these criticisms were little different from those made in Britain. Overall the sufferings of war brought the two countries even closer together than in the past. The friendship to Britain and loyalty to the monarchy of most Australians who had personal experience of the fighting has frequently been attested to by Australian republicans, such as Robert Hughes who castigated ‘the fiercely reactionary role’ played by the Returned Services League. Recent republicans have tried to convert the Anzac experience from Australia’s greatest time of solidarity with Britain to a source of suspicion and hatred, but every ANZAC memorial service I have ever attended has ended with the same words as the comparable services for the fallen in Britain:
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them’.
On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies told the Australian people: ‘Great Britain has declared war and as a result Australia is also at war’. As leader of the ALP before war began, John Curtin displayed little interest in resisting Hitler and the Nazi threat, declaring as late as August, 1938:
‘He would be a bold man who would commit the Commonwealth and the lives of Australians as a pawn in a European conflict. For my part, I say that the safety of the Australian people impels us to recognise our inability to send Australians overseas to participate in a European war ‘.
Curtin subsequently rose to meet the challenge of the times and he responded to the entry of Japan into the Second World War with these words
‘We here, in this spacious land where, for more than 150 years, peace and security have prevailed, are now called upon to meet the external aggressor....We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them’.
As he urged renewed efforts to win the war, Curtin told the nation, ‘Australians, you are the sons and daughters of Britishers. You came from England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales’.
Curtin was well aware in 1941 that British conscripts were fighting on fronts much closer to Australia than to Britain, whereas Australian conscripts were confined to home duties, later extended to include New Guinea, and only volunteers went overseas. Curtin appreciated that Churchill made desperate efforts to save Singapore, including sending to their destruction the battleships Prince of Wales and the Repulse, both sunk in December, 1941, with six hundred drowned. This understanding had disappeared from the minds of many Australian republicans by the 1990s. In his first major assault on Britain and its links with Australia, Paul Keating accused his Liberal opponents of ‘cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malay peninsula, not to worry about Singapore, not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination. That was the country you wedded yourselves to’.
The Crown and the Australian People
Contrary to the claims of Malcolm Turnbull, the Crown has been an integral part of Australian Identity. James Cook wrote in his journal on 22 August 1770:
‘Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places along this coast, I now once more hoisted English Colours and in the Name of his Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast’.
When Arthur Phillip took a party ashore at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, he and his officers drank the health of the King and the royal family and the success of the new colony. Patriotic occasions, especially the King’s Birthday and that of the Queen, aroused enthusiastic expressions of devotion to King and Country among many convicts, although free grog and a day off work may have been more even effective than patriotic zeal in producing this effect. The first poems published in Australia were odes written by Michael Massey Robinson for recitation on the
King’s and Queen’s birthdays.
The British Empire was transformed peacefully and step by step into the Commonwealth of Nations and legislation such as the 1931 Act made ever clearer the full political independence of Australia from Great Britain. But this did not necessarily weaken the symbolic role of the Crown. Labour leader H. V. Evatt in his 1935 The King and His Ministers saw the Crown as ‘ both a means of unity among nations which had emerged from the old empire’ and at the same time ‘a symbol of the independence of each one’. He added that ‘there was only one monarch living in Britain, but the full monarchical authority might be invested in several governments at once’.
During the Second World War Australia’s greatest historian of his generation described the monarchy as ‘a living and popular institution’ in Australia. He admonished American commentators:
‘I understand very well that the American people found their freedom by repudiating the British monarchy. I respect their republican symbolism. Won’t they understand that the British people, and the Canadian people, and the Australian people, and many other peoples, have found or are finding their freedom by adapting the flexible institution of the British monarchy to their own special needs and purposes? Won’t they respect our monarchical symbolism ’.
Sir Keith Hancock had no need to address such an admonition to Australians in 1943.
Robert Hughes, the celebrated republican art critic, admitted:
‘The cause of republicanism was so feeble in 1954, so tied to old socialist dreams of the late nineteenth century, that it seemed to middle-class Australians merely an obsolete rhetorical idea, fatally contaminated by its left-wing origins’.
Hughes added that for people like him born in or around 1938, ‘The sacramental mana of royalty was still in place and wholly intact’ and "...it seemed entirely natural and inevitable that we should have a Head of State, with power to dissolve our governments and repeal our laws, who was not a citizen of our country and lived 14, 000 miles away." Such sentiments were, in Hughes’ view, even stronger after the Second World War.’
Even Malcolm Turnbull conceded in 1993 that:
‘Fifty years ago the patriotic ideas of Australia were not distinct from those of Great Britain. Public and political meetings in those days would have seen the platform festooned with Union Jacks’.
According to Turnbull, ‘all political parties, including Labour’ were ‘effusively pro-British in the 1950s ’. Indeed, the national leader of the ALP, Herbert Vere Evatt, claimed in the 1953 debate on the Royal Style and Titles Act.:
‘the word British means as much to us as it does to the people of the United Kingdom itself and of New Zealand and Canada. To all of us it means the British tradition of Government under which every member of this Parliament pledges his faith and allegiance to the monarch’.
For several generations the tyranny of distance limited visits of the royal family to Australia, but there was great enthusiasm when the Duke and Duchess of York and Cornwall (later George V and Queen Mary) were present for the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 and when Parliament first met in Canberra in 1927. The 1954 Royal Tour outdistanced anything before it; some seven million Australians, out of a population of nine million, managed to get themselves in front of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at some point during their eight-week tour. The Queen presided over the Cook Bicentenary in 1970, the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 and the New Parliament House in 1988.
1975 was the critical year for some republicans. Robert Hughes maintained that ‘the fact, suddenly made concrete, that any elected Prime Minister could be dismissed at the royal pleasure brought all Australians up with a jerk, regardless of their political loyalties’. For other republicans, however, such as Al Grassby, it was not the Queen’s alleged intervention into the 1975 crisis that proved their moment of conversion, but her failure to intervene.
Australia ‘Ethnic Composition’
Republicans often claim that our constitutional monarchy is alien to ethnic groups which have entered Australia since the end of the Second World War. Paul Keating argued that ‘The people of modern Australia are drawn from virtually every country in the world. It is no reflection on the loyalty of a great many of them to say that the British monarchy is a remote and inadequate symbol of their affections for Australia’. Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Irene Moss, conceded in 1994:
‘Less than 50 years ago, Australia was very secure in its national identity, and had been so for some time. The population was homogenous, mainly Australian-born of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic stock. At the time of the Second World War only two per cent of Australia was of non-English speaking background’.
Her clear implication was that large scale non-British immigration has rendered Australia’s national identify insecure. On this basis refugees are entitled to ask not only for admission to Australia, but that its constitution, symbols and way of life be transformed to make them feel more comfortable.
Diplomat turned republican author, Malcolm Booker, has made the incredible claim:
‘The Union Jack is a symbol of imperial rule and oppression, especially among people in our own Asia-Pacific region. The present flag gives this symbol pride of place, and it cannot be expected to win the devotion of all those people and their descendants who have come to this country to find freedom from domination and exploitation’.
Tens of thousands of people defied their governments, pirates and sharks to get away from their ‘own Asia-Pacific region’ and reach a land where the Union Jack is part of the national flag.
The Relevance of the Past
Many leading republicans are determined that not only must the constitutional monarchy be destroyed but much else together with it. Cheryl Saunders denounced ‘the outmoded symbolism of a 26th January Australia Day,’ adding that ‘it is hard to discard the myths; that Parliament is sovereign; that it securely safeguards rights; that it decides whether to incorporate or not to incorporate international obligations; that the hostile cut and thrust between Government and official Opposition is the only way to settle public policy’. Malcolm Turnbull asserted that, ‘Far from being the birth certificate of a nation, our Constitution is rather the cook book for a colony.’
The deposition of the Queen would be sufficient to convince such people that Australia has achieved the new identity they seek for it. The flag is already a target, and then will come the many place names in Australia which republicans consider as much alien to these shores as the Queen. Surely Australian states cannot be allowed well into the new millennium to bear the name of a dead queen of England and Scotland, part of the Principality of Wales and a dead white male Dutch sailor!
The city in which I dwell is named after another dead Queen of England and Scotland and its northern satellite after our present Queen. The names of many suburbs of Metropolitan Adelaide are borrowed from Britain. A host of old British Whigs and Liberals provide the names of nearly all the streets close to our main thoroughfare, itself named after a long dead King of England and Scotland, William IV. My own suburb is called Malvern and the streets are named after Oxford and Cambridge and English schools. The university which once gave me employment bears the name of a long dead English sailor, Matthew Flinders. Other Britons, such as Light, Sturt and Stuart, still have statues in our streets. The task of decolonisation will require much effort, but there will be no shortage of republicans to serve on the necessary committees.
Paul Keating was in one sense right when he claimed that ‘The fact is that if the plans for our nationhood were being drawn up now, by this generation of Australians and not those of a century ago, it is beyond question that we would make our Head of State an Australian’ So was Malcolm Turnbull when he maintained that ‘Her Majesty is Queen of Australia simply because at the time our Constitution was enacted Australia was a colony of Great Britain’. Who can doubt that, if the colonies which formed the Commonwealth of Australia had not been British, the Queen of England would not be Head of State in Australia today. Nor would English be the national language, nor would games such as cricket, rugby or bowls be played, etc., etc.
Paul Keating was absolutely right when he noted in 1995 that Australians ‘are not as we once were, in a parent-child relationship’. He added that ‘Nothing in the creation of an Australian republic will alter the facts of our heritage and our affections....We are friends with separate destinies to carve out in the world’. Yet when children achieve full independence of their parents, as all sensible parents hope and pray will happen at some time or the other, those children are still the offspring of their parents and filial obligations and decencies remain which are of a different order from those of even the closest friendship. To acknowledge and value these is not to become ‘a political or cultural appendage to another country’s past’, as Keating claimed.
If the national identity and system of government we inherited is destroyed in the near future, some blame will lie with those of its defenders who have been fearful of acknowledging the British origins of that identify and form of government. The case for the continuation of an Australian constitutional monarchy has been detached by many constitutional monarchists from Australia’s British past, and all the emphasis placed upon the practical utility of our current constitutional conventions. If parent and child have irretrievably ended family ties and if Britain is merely a foreign country as Thailand or Mexico are foreign countries, I fear that all efforts to preserve for Australia the national identity developed over the last two centuries may be in vain. I hope that such fears will prove unfounded.
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