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Why the role of our Head of State is important

By Lisa Singh - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The balance of the world is shifting. With the rapid rise of Asian economies and culture, this has been dubbed the Asian century. With so much change, Australia has the chance to position itself for decades ahead. We have the opportunity to define our direction.

Yet it seems the republican movement is at an ebb. Opponents seek to characterise the questions of destiny arising from global change as a reason for us to relegate discussion of our republic. The truth is, no matter what the time, opposition to the republican movement has always been thus. Arguments against republicanism are retrospective at exactly the time when we need to be looking ahead.

Critics of republicanism stake their case on the household logic that: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The implication is that republicanism is an issue of those with a radical reform agenda. But it is difficult to maintain that Australian republicanism is confined to radicals and revolutionaries. Contemporary republicanism is better described as recognition than regicide; an acknowledgment that we have created a society with more to do with our ourselves and our neighbours than with some of our ancestors.


When our new democratic nation was born out of the federation movement, through the initiative of Australian democrats like Andrew Inglis Clark and Sir Henry Parkes on 1 January 1901, what was so significant was the fact that occurred through the granting of a yes or no vote, albeit one with limited franchise.

No other nation in history had been created through the vote. More common were nations born out of war, rebellions or great heroism. From that time on, the constitution has only been successfully amended, through referenda, eight times.

In his book The Sweet Spot, Peter Hartcher writes of Australia being modelled on the American Union, yet no one asked the American people to vote on the Declaration of Independence. Despite the political, economic and social links between Australia and the United States of America, there were fundamental differences in the formation of our two nations. Ours was born from democracy, theirs from war; our delegates were elected, theirs were not. And at the moment of creation Australia clung onto the British monarchy whilst American broke away from it.

America ended its association with Britain by rejecting a monarch they saw as a tyrant, dissolving their link with the Crown altogether. But America held onto the rights of Englishmen, continuing to exalt the British tradition of liberty found in John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. More than that, America turned British values into American values, inspired by the Glorious Revolution rather than eternally limited by it. American culture, shaped by the self-belief of a country that was willing to confidently assert its place in world, has now become a global phenomenon and a guiding light for global democrats.

While some of our institutions changed quickly after 1901, many did not. Without an institutional catalyst for our new nation, our culture did not change or experience the progress of other republics, like the United States or India. Instead, inertia ensured that we were still more loyal subjects than citizens of a newly independent state. We continued to defer to Britain, and our policies continued to reflect British priorities rather than our own.

Why an Australian Head of State? Because it is only the republics of the world that have the political institutions with which to etch out national values and a national identity. It is exactly the President and the republican ethic with which American values could evolve British liberties; and it is only a republic which will enable Australian values to fully come into their own.


Slowly, some of the particularly British artefacts of Australia did fade away. The despicable White Australia Policy finally ended in 1973, ending the overt racial discrimination in our migration system that had been based on a belief that our population should be literally coloured by our English heritage. God Save the Queen gave way to consideration of our own national anthem in 1974. And in 1994, less than two decades ago, reference to the Crown was removed from the Pledge of Commitment, replaced by a solemn respect for democracy, rights and liberties and the rule of law.

That means the more than 80 percent of new Australian citizens who do not hail from the United Kingdom no longer have to swear allegiance to a monarch who has never had an impact on their lives. These migrants have come not for an empire upon which the sun never sets, but for a sunburnt country. The heritage our new citizens honour when they take the pledge is the heritage of Australia. And it is time that all of us recognised what our new citizens do: that we don't need to pretend that British history is our history. Our country has its own history.

That history began 50 000 years ago, when Aboriginal Australians formed communities and founded nations across some of the most difficult landscapes in the world and forged connections to Country that are as certain as they are profound. Those connections were ruptured by colonialism, but contemporary Australia is a place in which Country can coexist with other deep spiritual beliefs. We can share our spaces and respect each other's cultures.

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This is an edited version of a speech given by Senator Lisa Singh on February 4 at the Australian Republican Movement Victorian Conference.

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About the Author

Senator Lisa Singh is Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Water and prior to this was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General. She was also a Minister in the Tasmanian Labor Government.

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