Australia can again begin the formal process towards becoming the Republic of Australia – an independent sovereign nation; beneath the Southern Cross we stand, a sprig of wattle in our hand
A generation ago Australia had a go at becoming a republic and for a variety of well-documented reasons – most particularly including disunity, even among republicans, and a prime minister who just didn't believe in it – didn't quite get there.
But that was then, and this is now, and it is our hope and belief that sometime in the next five years Australia can again begin the formal process towards becoming the Republic of Australia – an independent sovereign nation, beneath the Southern Cross we stand, a sprig of wattle in our hand.
I say we must do it like Ireland did, with their inspirational push towards same-sex marriage. House by house, street by street, suburb by suburb, powered by the passion of our cause, sustained by the incontrovertible logic of our argument – that Australia is mature enough to run our own affairs, and must be seen to be so.
In the 21st century it is against the natural order of things that a mature and sophisticated, multicultural and independent nation like Australia, proud of our egalitarianism, more than ever aware of our Indigenous heritage, should still be finding our head of state from one family of English aristocrats, living in a palace in England. Please. It is out of kilter.
No matter how many of us might admire many members of that family, including her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. We offer sincere congratulations on the fact that her majesty will shortly pass Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning British Monarch and wish her many years of reign ahead, in Britain. Britain needs reign. We do not.
It is time for us to be entirely self-governing, and we believe it can be accomplished fairly simply.
We propose it starts with a simple question to be put before the Australian people some time in the next five years: Do you support replacing the British Monarch with an Australian citizen as the Australian Head of State? Bingo. Simple as that.
We reckon the "Yes Vote," for that question will look like Phar Lap at Flemington, like Bradman at Lords – well ahead of the field, and looking good!
Current projections on the republic are about half of us Australians are yay-sayers, a quarter are nay-sayers. But the answer to that basic question is always going to romp home as yes, and then we move to the next stage.
Through a process of political engagement with the public – perhaps a constitutional convention, a people's forum, the way they did it in Ireland – we come up with a model. And then, simply, we build towards a referendum to ask "Do you prefer the old model or the new model?"
The Australian Republican Movement is a broad church with lots of great models that will fly. Our obvious challenge, once we have everyone inside our broad church is to decide and unite behind one model, so we don't splinter, like we did last time.
At the moment the system for selecting the Governor-General is very simple. The Prime Minister, the democratically elected leader of the Australian people, makes his or her choice, and then writes a letter to Her Majesty The Queen, seeking from the hereditary head of Great Britain – occupying the most entrenched position of elitism in the world – her approval for this decision.
I propose a single change, the minimalist model, with no bells, no whistles and no postage stamp.
Everything stays the same, starting with the title of "Governor-General and including the convention that the Prime Minister chooses that person; including their reserve powers, and including the writing of the letter seeking permission.
But, and here is the rub, we simply save the price of a postage stamp – instead of sending that letter external mail to the British Queen, the Prime Minister sends it internal mail to a joint sitting of the Parliament of the people, to seek a two-thirds majority.
This minimalist model is the most likely to succeed, as it addresses the foremost concern of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it," crowd, because, essentially we're not fixing it, we'd just be doing one thing – we'd be snipping one unsightly apron string that runs all the way around the globe, making sure that the whole shebang resides holus-bolus, beneath the Southern Cross.
Others within the Australian Republican Movement prefer other models including having no Governor-General at all, and then of course there are many direct election models.
The direction election model, I note, in the presence of Australia's Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Noel Stewart, does work well in Ireland. At all costs, this time, we must avoid a damaging division.
The only thing I would note about the "direct election model" is that it in Australia it is frequently proposed by those who say they don't want a "politician's republic" – and yet, by making the Head of State an elected position, automatically makes it a political position, and the Head of State a political figure. Does anyone think that any of our most beloved recent Governors-General – and they've nearly all been good, but I cite particularly Sir William Dean and Dame Quentin Bryce – would ever have been elected to the position? Does anyone think they would even have stood?
By embracing the minimalist model, we make the person holding that position entirely apolitical, above the political fray – particularly in this political climate – which I believe is what we need!
I say we must do it like Ireland did, with their inspirational push towards same-sex marriage. House by house, street by street, suburb by suburb, powered by the passion of our cause, sustained by the incontrovertible logic of our argument – that Australia is mature enough to run our own affairs, and must be seen to be so. And it could be fun! Over dinner last night, His Excellency's wife Nessa told me of Ireland's Phone Your Granny campaign, where young Irish were encouraged to call Grandma and talk to her about same-sex marriage, and demonstrate there was nothing to fear.
At the moment we sense the goodwill of most of our fellow Australians, but goodwill alone is not enough. We need people's active engagement, we need you to sign up to membership, to donate, to help convince the naysayers that this can really work, really be a phenomenal time in our national story.
If we have a plea on this coming debate it is that it would be wonderful if it could be more gentle than last time . . .
Back in 1987, when John Howard lost his first national election, against Bob Hawke, he said "I may have lost tonight, but the things that unite we Australians are greater than the things that divide us."
It was true at the time, and I think is true for most of our history, but I am not one hundred percent it is true right now.
When I launched the biography of my friend Joe Hockey last year I was critical of what I call the mad march of Australian politics – left, right, left, right, I'm left, you're right, I hate you and you hate me – and a lot of that narkiness is duplicated in so much else of our discourse. In so many areas we are divided up into the McTavishes and McTeres, the Fairfaxes and Murdochs, Liberal and Labor supporters, warmists and denialists, Christians and Muslims, believers in same-sex-marriage and proponents of traditional marriage and so forth . . .
Could we not have one thing, one issue, where we look forward to the quite reasonable goal – being the quintessence of a mature nation, which is to manage our own affairs within our own borders – and hold hands to gently get there, together, an issue where we first turn to each other, and not on each other, where we nut it out together?
It can be done, on this issue above all issues, and there are already signs that Australia is tiring of the constant division and wants to get back to "I am, you are, we are Australian".
Our Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, will be the co-Convenor of a new Parliamentary Friendship Group for an Australian Head of State, joining former ACT Chief Minister Senator Katy Gallagher. But Hockey is one of many in the Coalition with such passion, including Christopher Pyne who has given the most eloquent speech I've ever heard on the Republic, Malcolm Turnbull who was of course the former driving force of the Republican Movement – a man to whom we owe a great debt – Senator Marise Payne who is a long-time activist for the Republic, and the torchbearer of the republics for the rising generation of Australian politicians Wyatt Roy.
There are more and more Republicans across the spectrum, politically, in the media, among the public, and not just in the so-called elites, but everywhere – rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, settler, farmer's wife, on a dry and barren run, as the song goes . . .
And how exciting it could be, to be part of it, to have done your bit to, ten years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now look back upon the time when we became the Republic of Australia, and say, "I was there, I did my bit, I put my shoulder to the wheel on that historic moment in the nation's history, and helped turn that wheel forward".
And yes, of course there will be committed nay-sayers, there will be those who insist "we can't do this, shouldn't do this, don't need to do this, can't do it at this time, because there are more important things to do first, etc".
Those naysayers have always been there, and have been on the sidelines for every single step on our nation's journey towards our self-determination.
We love those Nervous Nellies, too, for they, too, were part of our history. They were there in the 1890s, when the first move was made towards Federation, decrying the whole notion of nationhood, even if it would retain the British Queen.
The nascent nation rolled its sleeves up and got on with it anyway – and were proved right as Australian demonstrated it could be more than a mere collection of colonies.
The Nervous Nellies were horrified in 1931, at the very thought that the Australian Prime Minister Scullin would, for the first time in our history, install a home-grown Australian Governor-General in Sir Isaac Isaacs, and not a British aristocrat, as was the long tradition.
Disloyalty, Nellie cried! Rudeness to the monarch! Nevertheless, Scullin's home-grown Australian choice, proved brilliant.
It went on. Nervous Nellie hated the idea of every Australian postage stamp not having an image of the Queen in the 1971, and replaced by actual Australian images, Australian symbols, but it all turned out fine!
In the 1970s they resisted fiercely the very thought of God Save the Queen being replaced by an Australian national anthem, in Advance Australia Fair – thought it near treasonous – but we now belt that out with more gusto than we ever did, and it is unimaginable that anyone but the British would sing such an anthem, as God Save the Queen, as fine as it is.
And of course, closest to home, when it comes to the Republic, in 1975, the Nervous Nellies, the naysayers, were out in force, when Gough Whitlam announced that his government would begin the process towards cutting off appeal to the British Privy Council – that Australians seeking legal redress could find it in the Australian legal system, alone, without connecting to the Law Lords of Great Britain. Outrage! Calumny! Predictions of legal chaos.
The answer? For the last three decades, we have done it ourselves, without a single problem. Gough sorted the cutting of the legal apron strings, connecting our whole judicial system to the British Judicial system, and we have never looked back. It is only the political apron string that remains.
My point is this: at every step along the way, of separation, there have been Nervous Nellies predicting catastrophe if we do things our way, instead of being mere extensions of Great Britain. And at every step we have proved, it is okay, we can do this.
There remains one last step, the final separation, Australia providing our own Head of State. This time, Australia should no more listen to the nay-sayers than we did in the past. We have trusted ourselves before, to get on with it, despite those who doubt, and have always been proven right. We are capable of this.
The thing that most stuns me in the argument against us becoming a Republic is the notion, like the flag debate – which I note is entirely separate from the Australian Republican Movement umbrella – that separating ourself from Great Britain, disrespects our history.
This is as nonsensical as the notion that the push for the Republic was just a 1999 phenomenon, and therefore should never be visited again – because we've settled that.
For while it's true that this debate was at its most fierce in the 1999 referendum – though I prefer saying "before the turn of last century" – in fact the push for a Republic goes back a lot further than that, even well beyond all the examples I have listed above.
And rather than disrespecting our history, Australia becoming a Republic it would actually be a wonderful blooming of our history, a quintessentially Australian story of an underdog struggle, against long odds, against the established top order, coming good in the end as the British Crown gracefully recedes, and Australian crowd rises and roars.
In fact, the early settlers in Australia were keenly aware of both the American and French Revolutions which were in the air at the time of the early Sydney colony, and took some inspiration from it.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1804 had a strong Republican theme, and in 1832, the pastoralist Horatio Wills was a passionate advocate for republicanism, in his journal The Currency Lad, while in 1850 the Reverend John Dunmore Lang and Henry Parkes campaigned for a Republic, and in the circles of the NSW Parliament, in 1853, when William Wentworth famously proposed an Upper House that would be created of "a colonial nobility, with hereditary privileges," it was the Irish dandy Daniel Deniehy, who made the young colony rock with laughter by deriding the very notion of an upper house by birth as a "Bunyip aristocracy."
So often, a reason given against change is that our soldiers fought for King and country and flag, but let the record show 'twas not always the case. Right at the end of the book I have just finished on the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres, where we had 30,000 casualties in six weeks, I have a scene where our blokes have just come out of Pozieres, and King George V comes by on a visit.
While the British soldiers fall back in awe, one Australian soldier, speaking up on behalf of egalitarianism calls out "Good day, George! Hallo, George! How are you, George!" at which point the British soldiers are not sure whether to faint, or kill him, the situation only saved because King George laughs . . . at which point the Digger holds forth on the virtues of republicanism to all who will listen, which is many of the Australians for starters.
Republicanism is in our DNA, in the very marrow of our bones! It has always been there. It is just that we have not got there. Yet.
In this year, of the Centenary of Gallipoli, there has been much discussion that we can do better for a founding story than a defeat where we lost 9,000 brave soldiers killed, for no ostensible gain. As one who wrote a book on it, I tend to agree, while also observing that one can't be proscriptive about the stories the population will and won't thrill too.
And if we did move on from Gallipoli to another, there is an obvious problem with the likes of, say the Federation Story. For the key to a founding story has to be the story party
But when we become a republic, we do have a great founding story, made to order the Eureka Stockade of 1854
And I reject the notion put to me once by a famous Labor cabinet minister who will remain nameless – let's just call him Bob Carr – that the whole thing was little more than "a local tax revolt."
It was so much more than that! After activism for the basic tenets of liberal democracy across Europe through the 1830s and 1840s – male franchise, secret ballot, paid parliamentarians – many of those activists for democracy have to flee for their lives, and wind up at Ballarat in 1854.
When they again find themselves repressed by the Brits, they rise as one, men and women, and on 11 November form the Ballarat Reform League. They made exactly the same demands made by the reform movement back in Europe, but added two:
"That it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey – that taxation without representation is tyranny . . .
That if Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of the dishonest ministers . . . the Reform League will endeavour to supersede such Royal Prerogative by asserting that . . . the people are the only legitimate source of all political power."
What a moment!
"The people 'are the only legitimate source of all political power."
That is what we say today, in 2015, a very basic, but sacred principle.
In the words of Professor John Molony, "No monarch, no parliament, no government can lessen, suspend or supersede that power. Nor can we alienate it."
And I love the idea promoted by Labor parliamentarian, Andrew Leigh, "Our rather limp citizenship oath could be revitalised with a fragment of the bold Eureka oath: 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other to defend our rights and liberties.'"
As Gerard Henderson has pointed out, its surprising that the conservative side of politics in general, at least in the modern era, has not embraced Eureka strongly – given that one way of looking at it is that the whole uprising was in fact a collection of small businessmen /entrepreneurs rising against iniquitous over-regulation that was stifling their creation of wealth. Right up the Libs' alley!
So that's the vision.
So that's the vision.
A free-standing republic beneath the Southern Cross, with an authority resting solely on the democratic will of the Australian people.
Egalitarian, home-grown, dinkum, multicultural, inspirational!
There have been echoes of that sense of inevitability through our whole history – "She'll be right, mate, she'll be right!" – up to and including Bob Hawke calling it "inevitable" in 1991, but we still have not got there. In fact, is not inevitable, and merely wanting it to happen will not make it so. We need, engagement!
We republicans need to achieve the critical mass of engaged Australians – and ideally non-critical mass-media – to make it happen, make it a political imperative.
The ALP has committed to putting the republic question to the Australian people, which is a great start. We don't know if the current PM will be there ten days, ten months, or ten years – I wish him well – but in all likelihood he will be the last Monarchist Prime Minister of this country, and one way or t'other we will have bipartisan support in terms of Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to do this. This is not far off.
But to get there, it has to be bipartisan.
How fantastic if, when that moment comes, when the PM and opposition leader are aligned on supporting a republic, they don't play politics with it, they go with the rest of us, gently, saying we can do this! And what a legacy it would be for that PM and opposition leader to be a part of – something the nation would thank them for ever after.
Let the record show – at one time in our sometimes turbulent history, base politics was put aside, to get a job done, that needed to be done.
It will help, greatly, if we don't get celebrity worship of the royals getting mixed up with governance.
To those who love all that stuff, we say great, go for your lives! The royals will not cease to exist, once we become a Republic.
They will likely still visit, just as they visit other republics of the Commonwealth, and we can still be part of the Commonwealth of Nations, alongside the existing 32 republics, that were once constitutional monarchies, but have successfully made the transition. Those other nations have done it, why can't we?
None of this need be disrespectful of the Queen, of Prince Charles, Prince William Duchess Kate, Prince George, Princess Charlotte. This not a rejection of them, it is an embrace of the idea that Australia, is no longer derivative of another nation, dependent on the government of a motherland far over the seas. It is us, free-standing beneath the Southern Crosss.
For ultimately, it is not about the royal family, and their children. It is about our Australian family, and our children.
In the 21st Century, it is ludicrous that we still have a system whereby none of our kids will ever be good enough to fill that role, because they are not born to that family.
Even John Howard during the last republican debate acknowledged that at some point in the future Australia would be a republic, just not now, to which there was a strong response in the Herald – as a matter of fact written by me – saying the only reckoning you could say not now, sir, is if you thought we weren't a mature enough nation to do it now, and I reckon we are.
I approached Mr Howard three weeks ago, to see if he'd like to be the patron of our movement this time. He graciously declined, noting, and I quote, "Not this time . . ." and I regret that.
We will go forward without him. This time. But we need the rest of you!
We want not just your goodwill, but your active engagement. We want you to join up with the Australian Republican Movement.
Thank you all. I salute you
Vive La Republique!
Peter FitzSimons is the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. This is an edited version of an address delivered Wednesday to the National Press Club.