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Australian identity, Australian literature and an Australian republic

By David Donovan - posted Friday, 2 July 2010

A major reason for an Australian republic is to aid the further development of a distinct and unique Australian identity. This identity comes through the way we think about ourselves and our nation: the stories we tell, the songs we sing, our legends and our myths. From our literature and popular fiction, we can see that Australia has built a narrative about who we are as a nation, and new chapters are being added all the time as the national identity is updated with each new era.

As part of this process, the Australian Republican Movement runs an annual speculative fiction short story competition. Entries close in August for the current installment of this competition. This year, writers are asked to present stories about Australia’s republican future, under the theme “Life and Death in the Australian Republic”.

There is no real tradition of speculative republican fiction in Australia. A great many of Australia’s most important works of fiction look towards our past rather than ahead. Moreover, with some exceptions rather than preferring bright and optimistic tales, the stories with which we seem to most identify have a strong sense of adversity, injustice and persecution at their core.


Perhaps Australia’s first great novel was Marcus Clarke’s depressing 1874 story, For the Term of his Natural Life, which told of an English aristocrat wrongly convicted of the murder of his father and sentenced to transportation. It featured starvation, death, shipwreck, flogging, rape, child suicide and an unhealthy slice of cannibalism.

Rolf Boldrewood’s 1888 book, Robbery Under Arms, tells the tale of a noble downtrodden outlaw fighting against a despotic colonial system. Such is Life, Joseph Furphy’s 1897 classic, tells the tale of bullock drivers and their battles against the outback, the authorities and each other.

Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White’s greatest work was his 1957 novel, Voss, which was based on the ill-fated expedition of the German explorer Ludwig Leichardt. Xavier Herbert’s 1975 Miles Franklin award winning novel, Poor Fellow, My Country, decried Australia’s status as a colonial lackey to Britain and the USA and polemicised the subjugation of Australia’s native people. Peter Carey won the 2001 Man Booker Prize for his portrait of legendary hanged outlaw, Ned Kelly, in The True History of the Kelly Gang.

This melancholy seems to also be present in many of our most famous movies, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and Breaker Morant (the latter two doubling as national myths). To push the theme even further, our national song is Waltzing Matilda.

This is not to say that everything we like is dark, or that these stories should not be told. They are told because they strike a chord with Australians; they tell us who we are. There is a theme that runs through the Australian collective consciousness, a sense of victimisation and longing for home.

Despite my Irish-sounding name, I come largely from English ancestry. My grandmother was born in Islington and my father was a strong Anglophile and an ardent monarchist. He spoke fondly about “the rolling green hills of England”, despite never seeing them in person. And he never said so, but I think in the back of his mind was the feeling, taken from his mother and developed through being a grazier in the outback that Australia was desolate place, somehow second rate in comparison to what he always called “the mother country”. This attitude still persists in Australia, though it is slowly fading.


Some years after he died, for a long time I went and lived in England. I have many fond memories of the place and a host of British friends. Yet, it was abundantly clear to me - almost as soon as I arrived in Britain - that this was not Australia and, furthermore, that it was not the ideal Australia should strive to be. It is not worse, but it is certainly no better. It is striking how much we are foreigners there; it is a foreign land, as it should be. English people, who do not pang for Australia as some Australians do for mother England, cannot understand why Australia forwent the opportunity to become a republic in 1999.

In the Australian Republican Movement, one of the reasons we think a republic is so important to Australia is because it will allow us to express our own national identity and help us move away from the mindset that we are simply an offshoot of Britain. The challenge and the goal of the Australian Republican Movement is to update the Australian identity to one that allows us to see ourselves as whole, not a downtrodden outcast. We need to entrench in our national character all the things we love about our nation, but leave behind the rest, so we can move forwards as a strong, confident and united nation.

The Australian Republican Movement expresses this very well in its policy statement, which can be read in full on its website:

“An Australian republic will embrace our egalitarianism and the concept of a fair go. It will honour and acknowledge our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and cherish its culture, with its timeless connection to the Australian land and sea. It will recognise our British heritage and acknowledge its gifts, including our political and legal institutions. An Australian republic will celebrate our immigrant heritage of opportunity and endeavour and its contribution to our national identity. It will unite all Australians behind an Australian Head of State.”

The fact is, our country started as a British penal colony and through the dispossession of the native peoples. A republic will allow us to go quite some way to heal this lingering pain our writers and artists often seem to channel from the soul of the nation. Malcolm Turnbull famously said that John Howard broke the nation’s heart when the 1999 republican referendum was defeated. A republic will help us heal this broken heart.

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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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