By Robert Wood
Hidden in Benjamin T. Jones’ new book, This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future, is the question: what does a future Australia look like? To you, this might be about decolonisation, which might mean dismantling the white state. To others, it might be about unsettlement, which might mean rejecting the Crown. To others yet, it might be about utopian communities, which might mean creating new institutions that govern us. And those are all important considerations when we think about treaty, republic, and a bill of rights. What they share however, is the idea that we need a new social contract for life here. That is the philosophical question that Jones gestures towards but never really gets at.
It might be worth pausing to think about what ‘Australia’ is. To my mind, that means acknowledging that the nation is distinct from the country, which is distinct from the continent. Nation is the state apparatus, the infrastructure, the government, the legislation, something that has been here in earnest since Federation in 1901 though its roots go back to the earliest times of colonisation. In that way, rejecting nationalism means rejecting this state as an expression of a dominant whiteness even though this is inflected by other qualities, raced and not. It might be said that decolonisation responds to this, that a treaty is about recognition in the state’s vision.
Country has its roots in Indigenous discourse, for it is a word, in its political meaning, which has passed from Aboriginal English into a vernacular everyday. We get it when someone does a ‘welcome to country’. Country, as the place they are talking about, is about the ecology and the social relations that pre-date 1788. The affective bonds go deeper than the nation. Understanding that there are lots of countries on the continent means many treaties are to be signed with lots of different governing bodies, that this was never a terra nullius, however defined.
Finally, the continent understands this complex body politic to simply refer to the landmass as a whole, a unified island that goes beyond Ngarluma and Yolgnu and Arrernte. It is a place that is bigger than politics and people.
When we think of all this, we have to ask what is the future of the nation, of country, of our continent, all of which we call ‘Australia’ at different moments in various discourses. We could envision a social contract that was respectful and moved us towards an idea of progress, our own tarruru as a society and as individuals. To do that means truly knowing that the conversation about the republic, treaty and a universal bill of rights has to start from a year zero.
In that way, there are problems with Jones’ article in The Conversation, which advocated for the election of a president by combining nominations from state parliaments with a popular vote of the commonwealth as a whole.
This model is a lazy, unsatisfying hybrid not a higher synthesis. Why not abolish the states? Why not remove one layer of government so we are left with a national one and regional bodies? I do not mean regional bodies in the way we conceive local councils now, say the People’s Republic of Brunswick; but rather the abolition of councils and states and their replacement with bodies based on sovereign borders.
If you consult the AIATSIS language map you will see that there are a number of regions that generally conform to ecological boundaries – the Desert is not the same as the Kimberley, for example. Fitzmaurice differs from Arnhem. These are one of the ways that we could map and administer the state that recognised the differences in Indigenous localism and also gave representation to marginalised areas. That they approximate areas that can be autonomous and well governed, which responds to differences in nature and culture, means that they are a good fit for how we might make progress to being here in a more enlightened way.
Whatever the merits of this position, Jones’ shows us that the present conversation about the republic is hamstrung by old debates. It lacks a utopian impulse let alone the ability to speak beyond its echo chamber to activists who want a treaty and those who argue for a universal bill of human rights. And without that, it will be a misrepresentation of the body politic and risks becoming simply a continuation of the colonial state, a place of old power and conservative privilege that extends the nation into the future without thinking through to truth and becoming. It will fail in its ambition to call into existence a new tomorrow and simply collapse into being a rejection of the Queen, a celebrity politics that is neoliberal and angry. It then becomes a simple labour of negation rather than a beautiful dream. The republican debate should not stifle the broader conversation – how might we belong? How might we relate to each other and our land? How can we create truth? I for one, want to ask those questions in such a way that we allow each other to become a better people in a better place.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.