Unbinding the republic -a snowy river leap

Judith Brooks

Paper to Women’s Constitutional Convention Canberra June 2002

The idea of an Australian republic doesn’t exactly throb in the public imagination. For most Australians, particularly women, it is simply not a sexy issue. They don’t think it’s particularly necessary and it’s not going to pay the mortgage. I suspect that lying under these utilitarian attitudes is a more complex truth. I contend that Australia is still bound in Empire, stifled by subliminal allegiances to our British heritage and all it seems to have provided for us. We, as a people, are constantly subdued by this.

We lack the driving desire to make what I have called a Snowy River Leap into real constitutional reform.

This paper sets itself the task of exploring how this could be changed. It notes both the positive and negative forces shaping our national character and the problems this raises for rebuilding a republican mood. Certainly republicans need to sustain an extensive rebuilding program. This program must include a recognition of the need for reassessment, the need for reform and the need to reclaim our history.

Most of us acknowledge that before there can be change there has to be a realistic reassessment. There has to be a painful stripping away of denial syndromes. This is exactly the same for the progress of reconciliation as well as the republic. We should begin with a profound reassessment of our history and of our national character. The second step is to reform organisation and attitudes among republicans and republican leadership. The third step is the reclaiming of our foundation stories and the building of an emotional basis for the republic via an independent republican iconography. That is, to reclaim and rebuild our stories and free them from the bonds of Queen, Empire and the Cult of War.

Reassessment of who we are

Firstly, reassessment. We need to face a few unpalatable notions. It is depressing to acknowledge that we are not the country we’d like to think we are. We are certainly not the country many republicans hoped we were. Yes, we are adventurous, courageous, innovative, intelligent and proud of our country but we are not historically republican by temperament or inclination. True, our historians can point to moments of republican fervour but they did not take hold. Rebels and republican misfits regularly tumbled onto our shores but they were never able to build a broad-based movement. Individual republican voices rose and fell but their calls never equalled the power and pull of Empire and Monarch.

The Eureka Rebellion at Ballarat is claimed by republicans but this is also problematic. Thirty rebels lost their lives, not necessarily for an Australian republic but for a level playing field in the exploitation of the new land. They wanted all white men to have a fair piece of the growing cake. It was egalitarian, perhaps even a tad socialist, but not primarily republican. Neither does our recent jingoism and patriotism about protecting our borders and celebrating the ANZAC spirit make us republican.

It cannot be taken for granted that our positive mythology of equality, a fair go for all and an instinctive desire for democracy will finally translate into a new push for a republic. Republicans must acknowledge that as well as their genuine egalitarianism, Australians are deeply conservatism and frankly materialistic. This translates into a people who will not support anything which gives power to others and doesn’t improve their lot. And you’d be a mug to do otherwise, they say.

A second unpalatable truth for republicans is that Australia has generally behaved as a follower rather than a leader on constitutional change, foreign policy and positioning in the world. We loyal colonials developed a certain bravado and celebrated larrikinism but underneath we were fearful and we still are. Fear lends us to being manipulated into being loyal followers of another imperial power, the United States of America.

Thirdly, our dominant angle-Saxon culture is still subliminally bound in Empire. Republicans have tended to underestimate the simple power of tradition and allegiance. For instance, don’t suggest to the RSL or the CWA or some sporting clubs that they remove their portrait of the Queen.

Scoff all you like at the sexual antics of the royal family but don’t criticise the Queen. Don’t suggest to all the Royal organisations, including our defence forces, to change their names, their coats of arm and their crowning symbols. And try taking the Queen off our money, out of our parliament, our oaths of allegiance and off our passports, a symbolism which has remained by choice rather than constitutional law.

When discussing the republic women almost invariably express two concerns. One is a worry about spiritual values and the other is about becoming ‘like America.’ There appears to be an ingrained cultural revulsion against the rass ma tazz of American presidential elections, yet no one expresses the same acute revulsion about living under the trappings of royal ceremony power and privilege which still costs Australia millions of dollars. We are comfortable, indeed are still attracted to the rass ma tazz of royalty. That’s our type of rass ma tazz. It’s also interesting to note how two funerals, a jubilee and masses of propaganda have revived the monarch’s popularity and miraculously increased the ‘stability’ which commoners are said to absorb from her aura.

Reforming the republicans

It is also vital to work at reforming the loose network of groups calling themselves republican – groups where women are still outnumbered and at times marginalised. The first wave republicans, known in some quarters as the Chardonnay republicans, believed they owned the republic and tried to build it in their image. They created a big enough wave to bring on a referendum but failed to carry even one state. Some of these first wavers are still blaming their advertising campaign, or John Howard, or even worse, the Australian people. Anyone or anything but themselves. We need a genuine change in attitude among leading republicans everywhere. Without a real desire to allow the Australian people to fully participate and express themselves in choosing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a republic the movement will just go round and round in ever decreasing circles. When a choice of models for a new constitution is being discussed at netball practice we are on the way to a successful referendum.

Of course for this to happen republicans themselves need to commitment to internal democracy and open debate. Republican need to agree on a process involving the people and be able to accept their answer. Of course, after the conventions, the debates and the selection of the final model there must be a closing of ranks for the next referendum so that republicans present a united front.

Reclaiming our history

There are two constitutional cultures in Australia. A small republican one, a much larger subterranean monarchist following and a neutral popular culture caught in the middle. This popular culture is often despised by both sides. I am suggesting that whoever captures popular culture captures the republic.

Katherine Betts has argued that the 1999 referendum divided Australia not just on city v’s country but on cultural lines between the ‘new-class cosmopolitans’ and the remnants of the British-orientated establishment plus the majority of average suburbanites. They thought that the new class cosmopolitans looked down their noses at the old Australia which they wished to preserve. These suburbanites would hang on to what they knew and they certainly wouldn’t be patronised. Perhaps the failure of the 1999 referendum can be seen as the revenge of the Kaths and Kims.

The point here is that republicans must be aware of the need to convert popular culture into an essentially republican one rather than a monarchist one. Without our connection to the British monarchy our Australian identity is left largely in a vacuum despite the multiculturalism of our cities. A vacuum which could be filled by American culture. Without am compelling alternative Australians would rather cling to the monarchy than be thought American.

Republicans are also in denial about the building of national identity, that achieving our own head of state will be the crowning achievement of that identity. They are wrong. Where it counts, in the suburbs and the bush, national identity is not associated with the head of state. The suburbs and the bush have been quietly building their own national symbols and values and they don’t include a republic.

Sometime in the last decade or so the great grand-children of the Anzacs decided, individually and in small groups, to stop on their migratory trips to Europe and London and make a pilgrimage to Anzac cove. Young women as well as young men. Some of them even timed it so that they could be at the dawn service on the actual anniversary. They may drink a bit, play CD’s and dance away night but turn patriotic as dawn spills onto those shallow beaches. When questioned about why they bother they say, almost universally, that it makes them feel proud of their country.

These are our young patriots and should be our future republicans. The trouble is they don’t fit the image we’d like them to fit. They wear nikes and eat MacDonalds, they watch Big Brother and are psychological experts on Temptation Island, they are used to voting on TV polls, evicting rather than selecting, but they enjoy a popular culture which includes them in decision making. Some of them think the Queen’s quite groovy. They would be more inclined to vote for a political party which decriminalising marijuana rather than defended indigenous rights. They have taken to wearing the national flag around their shoulders a la Pauline Hanson and Cathy Freeman. They do not seem to notice or care about the Union Jack nestling at the top privileged corner. Many of them, boys and girls alike, would fight without question for their country tomorrow. In their eyes, and the eyes of many of the young who march on Anzac day the Anzacs have become heroes who died protecting out freedom rather than, as I see them, naive cannon fodder running blindly to their deaths supporting a decadent Empire.

Certainly the Commonwealth, both Labor and Liberal governments, and the media have promoted the Anzac mythology however this is not the full story. The visits to Anzac Cove by the young is a parallel phenomena fed by its own spirit. This youth-lead phenomena is exactly what republicans would like to have happen about the republic. Of course it is depressing for largely well-educated middle class republicans to contemplate that the way forward is through a popular culture they disapprove of, don’t like and don’t trust. It is difficult to image how we can enlarge our sense of national identity in an honourable and enlightened fashion given that our foundation stories have be co-opted by war, invasion, land destruction and white supremism.

This is where we need Australian stories free from the shadow of War and Empire.- for my generation it would be a Snowy river Leap. I hope some of you are familiar with Banjo Paterson’s poem about chasing wild horses. I apologise if you are not but it is available on the net for further research. This is a slightly modified version, so my apologies to Banjo.

Perhaps some will recall that

“There was movement at the station, for the word had got around

That the colt from old Regret had got away”

You will know that all the beautiful horses and all the beautiful men arrived to show their prowess and recapture the thoroughbred. You may also remember the marginalised “stripling on a small and weedy beast” who is finally allowed to come because she hailed from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side.

This was the woman whose horse

“….bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,

And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.”

Of course they find the colt with the wild horses and all the beautiful horses and all the beautiful men give chase but wimp out when things get too scary.

It is the woman from Snowy River who trusted her experience, her knowledge and her horse and “never shifted in her seat”

She: ” let the pony have his head

And she swung her stockwhip round and gave a cheer,

And she raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed

While the others stood and watched in very fear”

Of course being a woman rider she didn’t need spurs and her horse returned covered in sweat not blood, and being a woman she’d rather have done it with a group of sisters, but circumstances meant acting “alone and unassisted” something that women have done far more than men realise.

That’s what the republic needs to be in Australia, an act of confidence and courage, figuring out our constitutional future with faith in our selves and our capacity to act “alone and unassisted.”