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An Australian republic for national unity and stability

By David Donovan - posted Friday, 18 February 2011

Some people claim that Australia should not become a republic for reasons of national stability. The argument goes that having an unchanging constitutional set-up doesn’t “scare the horses”. It is a conventional conservative argument that can be used against doing anything constructive.

It’s a short-sighted attitude. In the short-term, the country may seem more stable, but in the long-run inaction will almost inevitably lead to greater internal tensions and ructions within the Australian community. The truth is, only after breaking our last colonial links to form a fully independent Australian nation can a truly unifying national story be told - one that binds all Australians by an uplifting national narrative to a compelling common purpose. The Crown simply cannot do this - it is no longer a unifying symbol for Australians.

Some say, why worry that Australia hasn’t quite become fully separate from Britain? It is rather a clumsy arrangement but it does seem to work, goes the argument.


They are right, there, to some extent. Australia does seem to work for the most part - at least for now. The problem is, until we “mortar in the last brick of our nationhood”, then our entire national structure is inherently unstable - and when something is unstable, there is always the danger it may topple over.

It cannot be denied that tensions exist within the community. In the 1990s, there was the rise of Pauline Hanson and her popularisation of xenophobia and racism, especially towards Asian immigrants. In the previous decade, we saw the Cronulla riots and the rise of the “you flew here, we grew here” attitude towards recent immigrants. Right now, tensions rumble under the surface, with the enduring moral panic about asylum seekers, especially those arriving on boats - a modern manifestation of an ancient Australian fear (more about that in a moment).

The political climate is driven by fear of Australia being overrun by boat arrivals from the North

The riots and xenophobia symbolise a nation divided within itself. This is not a new phenomenon, indeed it dates from the very earliest colonial times. The Irish rebellion and then the Eureka Stockade were earlier manifestations of these same issues. The difference between then and now is simply that British kinship and sentiment has never been weaker.

Despite the odd-flare-up, the colony, dominion and nation stayed together reasonably well when the British population dominated and its interests were hegemonic. It allowed, in the very early days, for British colonisers to easily and mercilessly persecute, exploit and dispossess Aboriginal Australians. A strongly sectarian British establishment saw Irish and Catholic settlers placed into an underclass that saw the rise of such popular Irish rebels as Ned Kelly.  And of course, there were the brutal riots and vendettas against Chinese people at the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s.

Britain’s importance to Australia was enshrined in our Constitution when Australia became “a self governing colony” of the United Kingdom in 1901, always under the rule of the British monarch despite the strong republican sentiment that existed in Australia around that time. Interestingly, one of the few areas of agreement amongst attendees of the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s was the White Australia Policy (WAP), whose general aim was to maintain a national bloodline based on British stock to the exclusion of other nationalities, especially non-Europeans. There was, in particular, a strong fear of China and the “Asian hordes” to the north - the so-called “yellow peril”. The policy was massively popular amongst the community at the time and all three of then major Australian political parties.


Australia at Federation was afraid of losing the unpopulated regions of Australia to the "Asian hordes"

Australia was founded on the WAP - the very first act of the first Australian Parliament in 1901 was to pass into law the Immigration Restriction Act, with only one MP fully opposed to the policy.  In the 1950s, this policy was relaxed somewhat to allow more immigration from southern Europe. These Europeans became the newest underclass, and were labelled for years as “wogs” or “wops”. British immigration was still very actively encouraged during this period, the Australian Government even paying the way for British people to emigrate to Australia - the ‘£10 poms’, as they were known.

A less discriminatory immigration policy towards non-Europeans was not achieved until Prime Minister Harold Hold abolished the WAP in the late 1960s. With the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, Australia for the first time started seeing substantial numbers of Asian faces in its crowds.

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About the Author

David Donovan, 40, is the editor of the online journal of Australian identity and democracy,, and a vice chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

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