The 26 January marks the 229th Anniversary of the landing of the British First Fleet at Sydney Harbour—now a national holiday down under, known as Australia Day. Australia Day is typically celebrated by the immoderate consumption of cheap beer, with any Australian in possession of a pool under a quasilegal obligation to have people around for a BBQ and a swim. Even in Oxford, on Thursday there were full-blown gatherings at Green Templeton College and the Turf Tavern where Australians (and others) can catch up and reminisce about our sunburnt country on the other side of the world.
Over recent decades though, the day has become considerably more divisive. Many refuse to recognise 26 January as a day to be commemorated—associating it instead with the beginning of a brutal campaign of colonisation that dispossessed the indigenous people of Australia of their traditional lands and way of life.
Increasingly, there are calls for a national day that represents a conscious and constructive act by the Australian people, and not merely by a British convict fleet. Lurking behind the Australia day question is a much more profound debate of who we are as a nation, and whether or not Australia should cut ties with the Commonwealth and the British Monarchy in order to become a republic.
The republican debate divides Australia into old and new; those who see our position in the world as an outpost of the Anglosphere, a derivative society whose political and cultural legitimacy rely upon Britain; and those who see Australia as a multicultural, cosmopolitan participant in the Asian century, for whom the old colonial ties with Britain have become an irrelevance. For the former, removing Queen Elizabeth as Head of State would signify an attack on our history and cultural heritage; for the latter, it would signify the final step in our transition to full nationhood and a clear signposting that both the oldest, original inhabitants of the land, as well as the newest arrivals from any and every part of the world, have a place in modern Australia.
Australia today is an immensely confused place. If you ask its citizens (and certainly if you ask Brits) to describe to you the quintessential Australian, the image that will be painted is inevitably the Crocodile Dundee type—usually a beer loving, parochial white larrikin who lives somewhere in the bush.
What’s bizarre is that this hasn’t been the reality of Australian life for quite some time. Today 90 per cent of Australians live in cities. We also have, per capita, more immigrants and more skyscrapers than any other major economy, and our GDP is the 12th largest (coming in above Russia and Spain). The days of a monocultural, internationally insignificant, rural Australia are categorically over.
The problem is that Australians continue to look at themselves from a 19th Century British perspective, a fact which stifles our ability to progress as a nation. Central to this is our status as a constitutional monarchy; as long as we have a colonial Head of State, and a colonial flag, the battle against a colonial self-image will be an uphill one.
The push to become a Republic doesn’t simply revolve around a desire for higher cultural self-esteem. The genesis of the modern nation state of Australia is irreversibly tainted by the original sin of colonisation—over decades of slow advancement the country we now call home was forcibly wrested from the indigenous population by European Australians.
We ended some 40,000 years of aboriginal history, committed a genocide in the state of Tasmania and stole a generation of mixed-race children from their mothers. The deep and lasting wounds sustained by the indigenous community in Australia are unlikely to ever fully heal, and the deep-seated sense of mistrust will take generations of hard work by committed indigenous and non-indigenous citizens to erode.
We, as a nation, are grappling with a healing process that at times can seem almost impossibly difficult, one that is continually frustrated by enduring racism and revisionism. We quite simply cannot embark on such a process while our highest source of political authority is a representative of colonialism and while our flag is the same as the one under which indigenous Australians were at one point classified as fauna. The movement towards a Republic would recognise an Australia which has thousands of years of history instead of two hundred.
To be clear, the calls to become a republic are not, and never have been, connected with hostility towards the United Kingdom, or even specifically towards the House of Windsor.
The republican debate within Britain itself is one that Australia has stayed well clear of, and ultimately one that deals with quite a separate set of issues. Unlike in Britain, the Monarchy is not an institution that holds a great deal of cultural significance to the Australian people, nor is it an institution we can really participate in. Nobody looks at Queen Elizabeth as a personification of the Australian State, nor as a symbol of Australian-ness. Removing the royal family as the final source of nominal authority in the Australian political system would not, therefore, signify any ill will towards the Monarchy, it would simply signify that the Monarchy doesn’t make continued sense in the context of the modern Australian political landscape.
Referendums on the issue have failed before, and the Australian republican movement needs to agree on a common vision of what exactly their goal is before any serious progress can be made. However, with the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, and every state Premier supporting making the leap, the future is looking brighter for the prospect of an independent, inclusive and culturally distinct Australia.