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Towards an Australian republic (part 9)

By Dr George Venturini
From military encampment to republic

There have been only four episodes of rebellion to ‘constitutional authority’ in the history of Australia: the Castle Hill revolt of 1804, the Rum Rebellion of 1808, the Eureka Stockade of 1854 and the Darwin Rebellion of 1919. The first of these was an Irish convict attack on the army; the second was a move by a group of scoundrels to seize a monopoly of the distribution of land and rum in the still young prison-colony. The Darwin Rebellion was sparked off largely by a government edict raising beer prices. Only in the case of the Eureka Stockade was the flag of a republic unfurled, but the chief aim of the uprising were more narrow and its leader, Peter Lalor, was the most conservative of 150 revolutionaries. He went from being the leader of the Eureka Stockade in 1854 – an event most questionably identified with the ‘birth of democracy’ in Australia – to becoming the only outlaw to make it to the Victorian Parliament, and be elected to the position of Speaker in 1880.

The lack of rebellion in favour of a republic – bourgeois or socialist but reflective of the society does not matter – or other kinds of utopia is a feature of Australian history. It could be explained, but that would involve an excursus into a number of aspects of Australian political development features: the legacy of the prison-colony period, the upward social mobility for large sectors of the population after the end of the 1840s, the peculiar nature of Australian nationalism and democracy, the limited horizons of the labour movement, and the role of the State.

If the political history of Australia indicates a quietism and pacifist attitude to revolution on the part of the people, those same Australians have exhibited a militant nationalism.

It has not been the kind of nationalism which would lead to a republic. Its main characteristics have been racial pride tinged with fear and hatred of Asians and Melanesians, an ambivalent attitude to English intrusions in local affairs and the identification of nationalism with the problem of self government and what was called, incorrectly from the very beginning, representative democracy. Hancock thought it just “possible to imagine a nationalism gradually developing from the old colonial society, uninterrupted by the upheaval of the gold rush, proceeding by a gradual separation of English and colonial interests and affections, and directed (as happened in America) by substantial landowners and merchants.” (W. K. Hancock, Australia (London 1930) (Melbourne 1961, 5th ed. 47).

He employed this theme to make the point that the conservative classes of Australia joined with the radicals on the nationalist issue and came to resent the appellation ‘colonial’ as applied to Australians. But such a picture needs to be supplemented by paying due attention to the resistance of the monopolistic landowners – the large ‘squatters’ – which, in setting off an unsatisfied demand for ‘responsible government’, also meant that “Australian nationalism took definite form in the class struggle between the landless majority and the land-monopolising squatters.” (Hancock, op. cit. 44).

Did a conservative historian such as Hancock mention, and repeatedly, class?

The first real glimmering of a proposal for an Australian republic, and the desire for an end to the class divisions typical of England, are to be found during 1824-1855 in the newspaper The Australian. Editorials by Robert Wardell opposed regulations for land disposal as “ruinous to agricultural interests, … production of revenue and the progress of immigration,” (2 C. Manning H. Clark, A history of Australia (Melbourne 1982) 182) but mainly expressed early nationalism. However The Australian was only one of a dozen newspapers and it reflected the views of only a section of the emancipists – not the whole class. Agitation in Australia for independence from England increased between 1835 and 1843, and received full support from the New South Wales Legislative Council, which concluded in 1844 that “there is but one remedy for all other evils – responsible government in the sense in which it is understood in England as the absence of interference on the part of the home authorities, except on questions purely Imperial.” (1 C. Manning H. Clark, Select documents in Australian history, 1788-1850 (Sydney 1950) 367).

The gold rushes of the 1850s brought self-reliant migrants, but their view on democracy, self-government and nationalism were not of a Utopian, republican or socialist kind, and they were satisfied when between 1855 and 1860, the five major colonies were given control of their own destinies as ‘state’ governments, elected by universal manhood suffrage.

Xenophobic nationalism emerged in the 1850s. Political agitators like Daniel Deniehy raised against the danger of immigration of the ‘Asiatic hordes’. This was to be the authentic voice of Australian nationalism for many years. By 1861 meetings of Queensland workers were petitioning the government to make illegal the import of all ‘Kanaka’ or Melanesian labour for Queensland sugar fields. (W. J. H. Harris, The struggle against Pacific island labour, 1868-1902, [1968] Labour history (No. 15) 40).

Agitation for this aim increased sharply in the 1870s and 1880s, and by January 1898 the Australian Labour Federation decided that “pending the exclusion of Asiatics and other coloured labour, the Provincial Council of the A.L.F. urges upon the Parliamentary Labour Party the desirableness of introducing legislation during the coming session providing for the payment of all employees of such labour a wage not less than that paid to white men.” (W. J. H. Harris, op. cit. 42).

There were similar moves in South Australia and in New South Wales.

To many if not most contemporaries, nationalism and levelling, democratic ideas seemed merely different aspects of a single ideal, summed up in its most romantically exaggerated form by The Bulletin in an editorial of 2 July 1887: “By the term Australian we mean not those who have been merely born in Australia. All white men who come to these shore – with a clean record – and who leave behind them the memory of the class-distinction and the religious differences of the old world; all men who place the happiness, prosperity, the advancement of their adopted country before the interests of Imperialism, are Australian … In this regard all men … who leave their fatherland because they cannot swallow the worm-eaten lie of the divine right of kings to murder peasants, are Australian by instinct – Australian and Republican are synonymous.”

The Bulletin was a weekly journal first published in Sydney in 1880. Under the editorial guidance of J. F. Archibald, its policy was strongly nationalist, radical and republican. After the achievement of federation in 1901, republicanism was quietly dropped from its programme, and it became less radical and less ‘anti-imperialist’ or anti-British with the years, but it did not take on its later conservative colouring until about the time of the first world war. (R. Ward, op.cit. 197).

There was some contribution of the conservative classes to nationalism: The Bulletin was nationalist and republican, but anti-federalist and reactionary on many issues. In 1896 The Bulletin and the Truth reached something of a peak in vigorous republicanism and anti-monarchism. On the occasion of Queen Victoria’ reaching a record term as sovereign on 23 September 1896, Truth wrote:

“In these degenerate days of political apostasy and slavish sycophancy, … it is the chief pastime of the ‘very nicest of the nastily nice and nicely nasty’ people to glory in the fact that they and their countrymen were ruled 60 years ago by a silly, snivelling girl at 16, and today by a semi-senile old woman of over 70 …”

It described The Queen as “this flabby, and flatulent looking scion and successor of the most ignoble line of the Royal Georges,’ and denounced these monarchs as madmen, ignoble lechers, bastards and blackguards.”

Of George IV it said, “He was the biggest blasphemer, the greatest liar, the foulest adulterer, the most infamous swindler and impudent turf blackleg or ‘welsher’ that the world has ever seen. He was a bigamist, a wife-beater and a madman with prolonged lucid intervals.”

And William IV, Queen Victoria’s uncle, was “a cross between a wild and a mad bull. By a Mrs. Jordan, whom he afterwards cast off in a most callous fashion, this scoundrel had 16 bastards, all of whom were foisted on the State.”

The Queen … “while amassing a fabulous private fortune and drawing enormous State allowances without performing the duties for which they were granted … has literally swamped the Court with German princelings,” all of whom were pensioners on the British taxpayer.

None the less … ‘God save the Queen’ ‘if only to keep her rascal of a turf-swindling, card-sharping, wife-debauching, boozing, rowdy of a son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, off the throne.” (Quoted in C. Pearl, Wild men of Sydney (Melbourne 1965) 117-118).

Having ‘integrated’ the country in systems of ‘mutual defence’ controlled by Washington, ‘globalised’ the economy, sold everything which stands or moves, desecrated public services, organised banking on a four-pillars oligopoly dependent on foreign support, trivialised information through the concentration of its sources: newspapers and television, delivered the populace to infotainment: ‘death hours’, fire-and-flood, travel and cooking programmes, and to ‘lotto quiz’ with such difficult questions as “How many were the seven hills of Rome?”, transformed higher education into an ‘industry’ delivering bachelors in hairdressing, masters in real estate auctioneering and pee-aitch-dees in master cooking, while the once serious studies: medicine, law and science are placed and accepted to be beyond the reach of the average family – and never mind ‘the arts’, concentration on matters of public interest is re-directed by both wings of ‘the System’ to the personal mixed-fortune of the Royals. There is, just about as there was 120 years ago, the occasional talk about ‘the Crown being above politics’, a sense of empathy for a Queen engaged in “amassing a fabulous private fortune and drawing enormous State allowances” after having swamped the Court with half-German parasites – part tree-huggers, part weapons-merchants, horse-trainers or quietly living off the Exchequer, and all that under the clear eye of ‘The Hun’ – as his future mother-in-law referred to Philip.

The time has long passed for Australians – all Australians – to develop a historically correct and truthful awareness of their past, identity and character, abandoning forever the shallow jingoistic parody one sees on such events as Australia Day. That may only come by entering into a treaty – something which may scandalise the Oxford-branded ‘legal philosophers’, but is justifiable by basic decency – embracing and reconciling with the Indigenous People and their culture in a true and meaningful way, but above all in a way that they understand and appreciate. With that goes a serious commitment to reparation for past tragedies. And that means cancelling any trace of racism and of its consequences. It may take time, but this must be done, not only for the Indigenous People but also for the young generations of new migrants, beginning with changing completely Australia’s attitude to asylum seekers. In welcoming rather than imprisoning them all other Australians would honour themselves.

Passing provincial actors who cover themselves with the flag: the Rudds, the Gillards, the Abbotts – and it is too soon to say the Turnbulls, but the time may come – Governors-Generals and State Governors, whose first and foremost loyalty oath is to the Queen, will pass.

They are not even telling the truth, misrepresenting the wish of the Australian People: two out of three persons prefer a flag without the Union Jack.

That will pass, too. Only then, perhaps, Australians will direct their collective mind to real problems which have been facing them from the beginning of Federation: a really representative democracy, an overdue re-organisation of the constitutional arrangement, and – to guarantee all that – a peaceful, reconciled, federal, secular republic.

To be continued . . . Tomorrow: What kind of republic and how to get there

GeorgeVenturini Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.

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