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A republic: answering a need for hope, optimism and unity

By Terry Fewtrell - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2006

The recent racial disturbances in Sydney are a cause for sober reflection on a number of levels. That such volatile feelings lie seemingly just below the surface of the ordinary business of life raises issues concerning the type of society that Australia is and aspires to be. The headlong rush to identify the ''insiders'' and the ''outsiders'' - the gnawing worry that a significant part, perhaps a whole generation of an ethnic community, feels alienated and disconnected from mainstream Australian society - are features that make the fabric of our polity look suddenly tattered. In fact the very symbols that are meant to unify us became partisan weapons in the conflict.

The events surrounding the initial Cronulla clashes are complex and it is unhelpful to offer simple explanations or solutions. They are multi-layered and need to be responded to in a similar manner. Much of the debate has been around whether multiculturalism has failed or whether it is part of the solution.

But perhaps there is something else to consider to help address the alienation lying at the heart of the disturbances.


The events before Christmas highlight an obvious need for new symbols and mechanisms of nationhood: symbols that can unite Australians and offer both the perception and reality of acceptance and tolerance for all. A republic offers that opportunity. Over the past few years the Australian Republican Movement, as part of its national republican lecture series organised by the ACT division, has invited contributions from representatives of immigrant and Indigenous communities to reflect on the opportunities that a republic would provide for building unity and harmony in a future Australia.

Huy Truong came to Australia from Vietnam as a child on a refugee boat in the 1970s and is now a successful business leader. Larissa Behrendt is Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. When delivering lectures, both drew on their own stories to outline arguments - developed well before the Cronulla events - that provide the hope and insight that Australia would appear to need right now.

Disconnection and even alienation from mainstream Australia are common elements of the immigrant experience. Truong courteously expressed the feeling as, ''I still felt like I was a guest of Australia and the Australian people and specifically, a guest of Anglo-Australia and Anglo- Australians. With this 'guest mentality' I have felt that I was not a bona fide Australian citizen, a 'full member of the family' as it were - with its full set of social and political rights.''

In his 2004 lecture Truong reflected on the type of taunts much in evidence recently. ''I can still be immediately cut down by the words 'go back to your own country' - I guess those first 10 years or so in Australia where this phrase and other such terms of endearment were common, left an underlying insecurity in me that has been hard to overcome. And it is because of this insecurity that I have shied away from engaging in the social and political debate on Australia's future.''

But he sees that an Australian republic offers a real chance to move beyond this sense of separateness, an opportunity to ''formally and symbolically say to all Australians - old and new, Anglo and non-Anglo - that we are all members of the Australian family - with its full rights and obligations. Changing the head of state of Australia to that of an Australian citizen - and perhaps at some point having a head of state who is not Anglo-Australian but rather Indigenous Australian, Greek-Australian, African-Australian or even of Asian-Australian origins, will go a long way to breaking down the insecurities that I myself have felt.'' He stressed the importance of the process of becoming a republic and redefining Australia's self-identity, as helping to eradicate the ''guest mentality'' of new migrants.

Behrendt emphasised the same point in her lecture last November. In her case she spoke of the process of moving to a republic as being ''a nation-building exercise'' that should engage all Australians. ''Excluded from the previous moment of nation-building when our constitution was drafted, Australia will not mature into a just society until the nation-building processes have included Aboriginal people,'' she said. ''Evolving into an Australian republic is a moment that offers this opportunity. And it is a moment at which the many other sectors of the Australian community that were excluded from the original nation-building exercise can place their stamp on our country.''


For Behrendt, a republic could build inclusion based on a commitment by all to values, long considered distinctively Australian. ''By reclaiming and reinvigorating the values of 'a fair go for all', 'an even playing field' and 'treating every one equally' as the principles of non- discrimination and equality of opportunity, we can further our work towards the caring and inclusive society.''

In this sense there is a give and take, a commitment by all cultural groups to shared values and an investment by the community to ensuring the effectiveness of equality and a fair go. So a republic offers the opportunity for the Australian community to seize the issues that divide it and to do so in a way that evokes traditional values and ensures all citizens are involved and valued. Truong sees the political symbolism of a republic being ''as direct as it is powerful. In one significant gesture, the assumed status of Anglo-Australians and Anglo-Australian culture could be 'demoted' in a metaphorical sense to be only a part of the Australian identity - albeit an important part of the identity due to its strong heritage - but no longer be perceived as THE identity.''

Reflecting her legal perspective, Behrendt proposed changing the constitution to ensure an Australian head of state and to include civic principles such as equality of opportunity and freedom from racial discrimination. Significantly Behrendt does not see such a change as a magic fix for all the challenges of Australia. No republicans do. What such reforms do offer, in her view, is a ''reinvigorated and engaged society better able to address some of the more difficult social issues that continue to remain unresolved in Australia''.

If Cronulla has taught us anything, it is that there are such issues to be resolved. The contributions of Truong and Behrendt are powerful because they speak from communities that know the taunt of ''outsider''. They remind us that we must engage all who come to our shores in building our society on shared common values that start with acceptance and tolerance. Moving to a republic offers all the prospect of inclusion and engagement around shared values. It offers hope and optimism. Cronulla reminds us that the republic is the journey we need to take.

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First published in The Canberra Times on January 14, 2006. Full texts of lectures are available on

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About the Author

Terry Fewtrell is the deputy national chairman and ACT Convenor of the Australian Republican Movement.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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