Two definitive historical events of the past quarter-century have determined the agenda for 21st-century Australia: the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Governor General John Kerr in November 1975; and the defeat of the republican cause in the referendum of November 1999.
Close to 55 percent of the Australian electorate rejected the proposal to sever ties with the crown in last Saturday’s referendum. In addition, the latest counting suggests that the one state, Victoria, that seemed to have chosen republicanism has actually slipped into the “no” camp. It may be only the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory, the district in which Canberra is located, who for now believe that supreme power rests with the people’s elected representatives.
The outrage and bitter recriminations of the losers and the I-told-you-so justifications of the victors may dominate the media in Australia for some time. This referendum has touched every nerve of Australian politics.
After the government of the then Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was outmaneuvered in the Senate and dismissed in 1975 by the queen’s representative in Australia, voters were urged by the disempowered supporters of the Labor Party to “maintain the rage” against what was seen as, at best, a questionable tampering with democracy.
But rage dissipates, and dust thrown into the air settles, eventually to cover the tracks of both transgressors and transgressed.
What will history tell us about these two milestone events?
I believe that though they may be seen today as setbacks to republicanism, they actually give momentum to that movement. They have pulled back on the spring of democratic entitlement, setting it to surge forward at a later date.
Australians have throughout their history been characterized by divided loyalties. The main ingredients of Australia’s political and social culture have been predominantly British. The Australian element was tossed on top of this, giving Australian life its flavor. But at least until the outbreak of World War II, Australians of virtually all persuasions looked to Britain as the home country.
Before the war, Australians were content to have Britain represent them diplomatically in most places around the world. All trappings of culture and a refined sensibility were seen to emanate from there. If Australians aspired, they aspired to be “almost as good as.” To be thought of as effectively derivative was a cherished achievement; to leave Australia and gain recognition in Britain, ambition’s crowning glory.
Still, Australians wallowed in their rough impiety, brandished their clowning cynicism before all and sundry. After all, poking fun at yourself and others is the classic ruse of the culturally disenfranchised.
These were the divided loyalties, the schism in the national identity that Australians carried with them throughout the war, during the years of multicultural immigration and right up to the referendum Nov. 6: on the one hand, a sentimental attachment to the crown, an ethical allegiance to the notion that somehow, somewhere, there were people more sophisticated, capable and authoritative who knew better than Australians did what was good for them; and on the other, an unashamed egalitarian streak, a stubborn conviction grounded in a sense of fair play and belief in a fundamental equality divested of the cloth of hereditary privilege.
These two loyalties — one to the crown, the other to the bush hat — vied with each other and continue to do so, right over the heads of the Aboriginal population and the non-Anglo-Celtic migrants who are sanguinely unencumbered by this historical burden.
This, then, is the background noise of precedent. And the result of the voting last Saturday has shown that Australians are still as troubled over the division in their natural and inherited loyalties now as they were in 1975.
It is a rather bizarre phenomenon. Consider the fact that some of the most traditionally patriotic elements in Australian society — those that in America, for instance, are associated with the right wing of the Republican Party — elevate the foreign overlord over their “lowly” compatriots, preferring to be represented by a nonnative head of state than by one of their own.
Australia, it must be remembered, never had a revolution. The country had to be dragged into independence, federating reluctantly in 1901. If it ceased to be a colony as a political entity, the tradeoff was an affirmation of cultural colonial status, proudly worn, proven in word and later in deed with the senseless sacrificing in World War I of thousands of Australian lives in the defense of inept British military planning.
Australians, in this tradeoff, did not have to take responsibility for their own geopolitics, their own predilections or their own fate. They passed every conceivable buck, lest a single one inadvertently stop before them, obliging them to decide what on earth to do with it.
This is why the majority of Australians still prefer the overlord. Yes, the monarchist Prime Minister John Howard cleverly worded his referendum to divide the supporters of the republican movement into two camps: those favoring a directly elected president and those opposed to it. Yes, the building of a consensus that would afford Australians peace of mind in making such a momentous move, a consensus leading to a more perfect federal union, was strikingly insufficient. And, on top of it all, some republican-movement advocates operated a PR campaign that smacked of the slick in a country that despises unctuousness.
But, to my mind, Australians rejected republicanism now because they do not feel ready to take up its responsibilities, to trust their fate to one of their own kind. The flavor of the political culture may be strongly Australian. But its meat and bone are grown elsewhere.
In the end, the two events of the last quarter of this century will come back to Australians, not to haunt them, rather solely to remind them that, eventually, their own will is all that they, like any citizenry, have going for them.
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