The Traditions of Australian Republicanism

Research Paper 31 1995-96

Dr Mark McKenna - Consultant
Law and Public Administraton Group


Major Issues


The Not So Far Distant Day: The Inevitable Australian Republic

Who Is The Republican?

French Model

American Model

English Model

The Conservative Traditions Of Australian Republicanism

The Labor Tradition Of Australian Republicanism


The Commonwealth Of Australia


Major Issues

The republican debate in Australia has been most intense in the 1990s and, as the 2000 Olympics and the centenary of federation approach, there is every reason and many a pretext for examining Australia's constitutional history and national symbols.

In 1996, all parties in the federal parliament broadly support a referendum on the republic and it is likely that within 18 months delegates will be chosen for a constitutional convention which will, amongst other issues, examine the possibility of a republic.

Some say that a republic is now inevitable, but such claims have borne no fruit in the past.

In all that has been written and said on the republic since the debate was on rekindled in the early 1990s with the formation of the Australian Republican Movement, the revival of pro nationalist sentiment in the Labor Party under Prime Minister Keating and the work of the Republican Advisory Committee, the failure to examine Australia's republican history has left a gap in contemporary discourse.

Indeed, the traditions of republican thought in Australia are not well understood and are only infrequently acknowledged.

The most common image of republicanism in Australia is one inspired by a predominantly nationalist, socialist and Labor led historical legacy and this is sometimes misconceived as the only model of republicanism that has had much bearing on Australia's past. However, there are other republican traditions of continuing relevance in Australian political thought, traditions which have yet to be acknowledged by protagonists in the current debate.

There are three principal republican models - the English, French and American, and each is relevant to both the conservative and Labor traditions of Australian republicanism.

The English model is one steeped in constitutionalism and the rule of law. It is one which owes much to the classical model encompassing a desire for balanced government, the separation of powers, the promotion of civic virtue and the resistance to absolutism and arbitrary rule.

The French model is associated with more revolutionary images. In the Australian context this image carries more negative connotations. The monarchy has been seen as an antidote to such radicalism, as the bedrock of stable government and a bulwark against excess, undue experimentation and even social decay.

The American model, whilst deriving from a revolutionary past, owes its continuing currency to the enduring reconciliation of federalism with representative democracy, individualism and the market economy. The influence of the American model in Australia is most pervasive and is reflected in our federal institutions including our written constitution which divides powers and responsibilities between two levels of government.

The dominant Labor tradition of republicanism has mostly sought to frame the issue of Australian national identity as a choice between independence and loyalty to the mother country. But the Labor tradition also contains sentiments and beliefs which have been forgotten or suppressed such as democracy and egalitarianism. The conservative tradition of republicanism has more closely embraced the classical model of republicanism drawing on the American and English models. Championed in the nineteenth century by Sir Henry Parkes, these traditions have led many of their adherents to perceive the Australian Constitution as a republic in disguise. This is understandable as it stresses balanced government, gradual political reform and is not anti-monarchical or anti-British. It is also inherently suspicious of executive power and favourable to checks and balances and the dispersal of power within a federal framework.

The failure to acknowledge or to give full weight to the diversity of Australia's republican antecedents has stultified and polarised debate producing many unhelpful stereotypes and caricatures such as:

  • republicans are nationalists, whilst monarchists are not nationalists
  • republicans are anti-monarchical and anti-British
  • the Australian community consists of republicans and monarchists.

Reflecting this narrowing in the debate, Australian conservatives have perhaps invested too much of their democratic heritage in the British monarchy, while the Labor Party has severed the connection between republicanism and social democracy which was a part of republicanism in the early years of the labour movement.


Since the formation of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) in Sydney in July 1991 and the decision by the Australian Labor Party at its National Conference in Hobart two weeks earlier to work towards the declaration of an Australian republic in 2001, the issue of an Australian republic has been a prominent feature of political debate. In 1996, all major political parties within the Commonwealth Parliament are broadly supportive of a national referendum on the question of a republic within the next three years. While the debate so far has been substantial, it is likely to be eclipsed by the discussion which is yet to come. As the centenary of Federation approaches, and the republican debate increases in scope and intensity, it would seem appropriate to turn our eyes to the debates we cannot remember. In all that has been written and said on the republic since 1991, little attention has been paid to the history of Australian republicanism. Australia possesses a rich, sophisticated and varied history of debate on the issue of a republic. It is this history which has the potential to cast considerable light on the current republican debate and enrich our understanding of the traditions of Australian political thought. Too often, Australian republicanism is narrowly interpreted as the property of a radical, predominantly Labor inspired, anti-British Australian nationalism.

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that there is both a conservative and labor tradition of republican thought in Australia - traditions which are not necessarily opposed but often related. The first section of the paper will deal with two aspects of our republican past which affect our understanding of the contemporary republican debate - 'the inevitable republic, and the question of definition.' The bulk of the paper will be devoted to exploring the republican arguments which surfaced before the granting of responsible government in 1856 and prior to Federation in 1901. Finally, the paper will seek to encourage a reappraisal of current republican policy, primarily by challenging the extremely narrow image of republicanism which prevails in the 1990s. If there are republican traditions in our past, they are the property of all political parties. They are beholden to no political ideology or creed and they bear as much relevance to the conservative traditions of Australian politics as they do to radical and socialist traditions.

The Not So Far Distant Day. The Inevitable Australian Republic

'The independence of the Australian colonies is not a mere abstract idea. It is as certainly approaching as is the dawn of tomorrow's sun.'

People's Advocate (Sydney) 17 June 1854

In the 1990s, we have grown accustomed to public statements from federal and state politicians proclaiming the inevitability of a republic(1). In the press, parliaments and public meetings of Australia - there has been a chorus of inevitability around the word 'republic' since the early nineteenth century.(2) To borrow an image from the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor, it has long been assumed that time would eventually run its bony knife through the British connection.(3) Across the political spectrum, the inevitability of a republic has rarely been contested, the point of disagreement more often being centred on the most appropriate time for its arrival.(4) In the parliamentary debates which preceded the granting of responsible government in NSW in the 1850s and in the colonial parliaments of the 1890s prior to federation, there were many members who professed their loyalty to the British crown and at the same time accepted the inevitability of an Australian republic.(5) Perhaps this should remind us that playing the inevitability card in the republican debate has not only been employed to justify the coming of the republic, but also to delay its arrival. This was something which one of Australia's greatest republicans, John Dunmore Lang, realised as early as 1850.

It is universally admitted that there must ultimately be a time for the separation of a colony or group of colonies from the parent state. 'But nobody surely', it will be added, ' can be mad enough to suppose that the time has come yet! Wait a while longer by all means - it is only a question of time.' [But] this question of time is just the point upon which the whole case turns.(6)

In the early nineteenth century, a republic was often thought to be inevitable because the notion of an essentially republican form of government under the guise of constitutional monarchy had yet to emerge.(7) After the colonies were granted responsible government in 1856, it became clear that democratic institutions could develop without the need for separation from the mother country. Nonetheless, colonial Australians accepted the validity of the inevitable republic. They looked to America, a beacon of prosperous and democratic republican government in the New World, as one example which the Australian colonies might follow. But most of all, they saw the development of colonial societies as analogous to that of individuals.(8) Young Australia was frequently depicted as a child awaiting maturation. Today when we listen to republicans, such as Thomas Keneally, we can still observe the power of the filial metaphor.(9) One of the most common arguments used to prop up the republic is the need for Australia to 'come of age'. This metaphor suggests the necessary metamorphosis from a pubescent mono-cultural and British Australia to a multi-cultural and republican Australia. Yet regardless of the reasons behind the belief in the inevitable republic, there is no doubt that it has become a hoary cliche in the current debate. The dusty dream of the inevitable republic has never inspired the involvement of the Australian people, instead it may have trapped them into thinking the republic will come of its own accord. It has tended to delay and stall the debate rather than stimulate and invigorate it. To claim that the republic is inevitable makes no contribution to the republican debate. It is neither a statement of support, nor a rejection of policy. It does not lead, it simply equivocates. Perhaps it is worthwhile remembering the words of the democrat

E.W. O'Sullivan in the NSW Parliament in 1892:

We...who desire a republican form of government can afford to wait. Time fights on our side and just as surely as the sun will shine tomorrow, before all of us who are here tonight are in our graves there will be a republican form of government in Australia.(10)

It is precisely this view of an Australian republic which has kept the grave diggers so busy.

Who is the Republican?

The establishment of a republic ... means insurrectionary war, it means the desolation of a thousand households. When the question shall arise, it will be determined ... by balls from cannon and from musket, by grape and shrapnel, by bayonet and by the sword.

Sir Alfred Stephen, NSW Legislative Council 1887.(11)

The history of Australian republicanism is not the history of a movement or even that of a consistently understood idea. As the American John Adams remarked, 'A republic may signify anything, everything or nothing'.(12) While the word 'republic' has remained the same, the meanings which we have attached to it have not. In the 1990s, a President's penchant for military uniform may be a more reliable indication of the existing form of government than the word 'republic'. Even a cursory glance at Australia's republican history indicates that we should be wary of some of the stereotypes which characterise the republican debate. Some of the most common are:

  • republicans are nationalists
  • monarchists are not nationalists
  • republicans are anti-monarchical and anti-British
  • the Australian community consists of republicans and monarchists

Broadly speaking, there have been four distinct but overlapping republican models in Australian history. The British, the French, the American and the Australian, the last being a largely derivative variation on the themes of the first three. Perhaps now, in the late twentieth-century, we possess a uniquely Australian republican language in the form of patriotic minimalism. In many ways, the history of Australian republicanism is the story of Australian politicians, journalists and political activists, drawing on these models and often taking one set of associations - the 'true' republic, into the public domain.

French Model

The French model of republicanism is familiar. From the earliest years of the colony, the French revolution of 1789 evoked images of violence and anarchy. In the minds of the governing classes, the French Republic and works such as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, sparked fears of bloodshed and mob rule. This revolutionary image of a republic steeped in gore certainly helped to stigmatise the notion of a republic in colonial Australia. These negative images - at least for anti-republicans, were kept alive by the European revolutions of 1848, the Irish Easter Rebellion in 1916, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the many third world dictatorships which emerged from colonial rule in the twentieth-century carrying the title 'republic'.(13) Whether it was fear of Jacobins, Irish Catholics, or communists, the song remained the same. For those who saw the monarchical connection as the bedrock of stable government, the active adoption of republicanism conjured up images of social decay, economic disaster, totalitarian government, or even worse, rule by the Vatican.(14) Even in the late twentieth-century, it is still possible to find Australians who believe that a republic will mean the end of civil society and gentlemanly behaviour.(15)

American Model

Closely connected to the revolutionary model of the republic was the American. In the early nineteenth century, the governing classes equated the 'Yankee' republic with the overthrow of colonial rule and the tyranny of the majority, or in Australia's case, convict rabble.(16) Gradually, as the economic, military and political power of the United States became more formidable, the image of the American republic also became more positive. The Americans had shown that republican government could be reconciled with federal government, representative democracy, individualism, and free market economics. Rhetorically at least, the American republic had enshrined the principle of popular sovereignty, a step which cemented the connection between republicanism and democratic government in the New World. Ironically, it was the American War of Independence of 1776 and the subsequent loss of the American colonies by Britain, which virtually ensured that the Australian colonies would not be forced to take up arms to achieve the degree of independence they desired. After 1776, the Colonial Office was more likely to adopt a policy of appeasement towards the Australian colonies, just as the Australian colonists frequently felt free to remind the Colonial Office that another 4th of July would be the only recourse if their demands for responsible government were not met.(17) As the British Constitution slowly evolved to the status of a disguised republic by the late nineteenth century, Australian politicians began to point to the virtues of the English Constitution over the American republic. Evidence of social inequality, the American Civil War of 1861-1865, and the monarchical powers of the American President, did much to tarnish the image of the American republic in Australia.(18)

English Model

Just as American republicanism was seen to carry singular associations, so it was with the English republican experience. From a contemporary perspective, readers may well view the words English and republican as oxymoronic. When we think of republicanism today, we often imagine a political concept which is anti (or at least non) monarchical. We think of severing the last ties with Great Britain - perhaps an Australian President replacing the British monarch as Head of State. While this may be the meaning which we associate with the concept of an Australian republic in the 1990s we should be extremely careful not to impose our contemporary understanding of the republic on the past. The fact that constitutional monarchists in the 1990s want Australia to remain a 'crowned republic' should indicate that there is another, submerged tradition of republicanism which we have yet to recognise. To grasp the English republican model we have to be prepared to accept that the non-monarchical concept of a republic is only one of the understandings of republicanism which have played a formative role in the development of our political institutions.

The particular understanding of the English constitution which was brought to Australia's shores by British immigrants was one 'steeped in the rhetoric of constitutionalism and the rule of law'.(19) All classes placed great faith in parliamentary and legal processes as the appropriate mechanisms of reform. When conservatives sought the maintenance of existing institutions or liberals or radicals sought reform, all appealed to the English Constitution. These demands frequently consisted of appeals to the anti-absolutist principles embodied in Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution of 1688 - the right to trial by jury, to be protected from excessive punishment, the right to petition and above all else, the right to resist arbitrary rule.(20) After 1688, the monarch's powers were restricted, parliament was sovereign and the old notion of the divine right of kings no longer prevailed.(21)

Thanks largely to the work of historians such as J.G. Pocock, we are aware that the language used by the English colonists to protect their constitution (as outlined in the English Bill of Rights of 1689) relied heavily on classical republican principles.(22) Implicitly, the first of these principles was that 'true' republican government was based on a balance of the three-fold order - Kings, Lords and Commons, ie., the classical model of a republic which did not necessarily exclude monarchy. As Graham Maddox reminds us, it was this aspect of the classical republic, the mixed constitution, together with the notion of checks and balances, which was first applied to Rome from Aristotle's original suggestions by the Greek historian Polybius and later by Cicero. The notion of balanced government was also integral to the popular understanding of the English Constitution and had been since the seventeenth century. According to Henry Parkes, every Englishman who arrived in Australia understood the most ideal form of government as a balance between the three fold order - monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.(23)

For Pocock, classical republicanism was represented by the articulated desire for balanced government, the separation of powers, civic virtue, and the resistance to arbitrary rule, a tradition of political thought which originated in Ancient Rome, was filtered through Renaissance Florence and enshrined in the Stuart Restoration of 1660 and the Bill of Rights in 1689, before finally providing the foundation for the anti-absolutist arguments of the American revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century.(24)

Classical republicanism could embrace or be synonymous with the trappings of proper citizenship status such as trial by jury. It could be associated with the granting of responsible government or emphasise the value of citizen participation. It opposed oppression and tyranny and feared corruption and patronage. It was not principally a doctrine about monarchy but about constitutional rule. Finally, it was neither anti-British nor necessarily anti-monarchical.

Although this language dominated the grievance rhetoric of colonial politics in Australia - especially in the early nineteenth century - it was never referred to as 'republican' by those who used it. More often than not Australian colonists saw themselves as exiled Britons appealing for citizenship rights under the British Constitution. For those who led the campaign for responsible government and an end to transportation, their sense of the word republic was overwhelmingly dictated by the modern anti-monarchical concept of republican government as encapsulated in the American and French models. To refer to themselves proudly, actively and openly as republican would have been thought to be anti-British. Yet when they were pressed to explain their understanding of a 'true' republic, they frequently retreated to the classical model, equating republican government with balanced government, representative democracy, and insisting that their precious English constitution was essentially a republic in disguise. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, maintaining the monarchy in Britain was one way of concealing the steady democratisation of the English constitution - as Lord Balfour admitted in his introduction to Walter Bagehot's English Constitution, published in 1867:

[Monarchy] provides the disguise which happily prevents the ordinary Englishman from discovering that he is not living under a monarchy but under a republic.(25)

The classical republican inheritance of the English model, sought to enshrine one form of a republic - not the American or French, but the essentially conservative and disguised English form.

The remainder of this paper will focus on the manner in which Australians derived various elements of the French, American and English models to form their own traditions of republicanism, traditions which have the potential to offer some insight into the way we might approach the republican debate in the lead up to the centenary of Federation.

The Conservative Traditions of Australian Republicanism

Our lineage is long and honourable. Our predecessors are not the republicans. We are the people who demanded self government from the British. We are the people who made the Commonwealth out of six colonies. We are the people who adopted our own flag, and our own national anthem. Now we ask for an Australian Head of State, the last step to our independence.

John Hirst, 1994(26)

Australian historian John Hirst has argued the conservative case for an Australian Republic since 1991.(27) In the above quotation, taken from his recent book 'A Republican Manifesto', Hirst denies that the antecedents of the Australian Republican Movement are in fact 'the republicans'. Hirst's denial of a republican inheritance is interesting because it implicitly suggests a stereotypical image of republicanism. By seeking to separate republicanism from the campaign for self-government and federation, Hirst pushes republicanism back into its radical and anti-British corner. To some degree, he is right. The republicans of the 1990s are indeed following in the footsteps of those Australians who fought for self-government from the British. Yet there is no reason for us to exclude 'republicanism' from those political struggles. We can now recognise that there is, after all, one kind of republicanism present in these essentially conservative movements for limited constitutional independence. It is not the republicanism of Henry Lawson or the Sydney Bulletin of the 1880s, but the republicanism of the great reformers of Australian liberalism such as Henry Parkes. To understand this republican tradition it is best to begin with the campaign for responsible government in the 1850s.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there were two issues which dominated the face of colonial politics in Australia. The first was the fight to halt the transportation of convicts and the second was the struggle for responsible government. The majority of men who led these campaigns were colonial liberals, they were men of the emerging middle class - men such as the Tasmanian John West or the New South Welshman Charles Cowper. They held a strong allegiance to the principles of the English Constitution and at no time did they entertain thoughts of disloyalty to the Crown. Yet when they grew impatient with the accepted vehicles of protest, such as the petition, they occasionally resorted to threats of separation and independence in the hope of forcing concessions from the British government.(28)

Before responsible government was granted to the colonies in 1856, it was common to encounter colonial politicians declaring their loyalty to the monarch and in the same breath threatening a republic.(29) By threatening separation, they hoped to extend the full benefits of the English Constitution to the colonies - rights such as an independent House of Assembly and freedom from the forced transportation of convicts. Their grievances were not with the monarch - for it was the monarch whom they petitioned and the monarch whom they believed would uphold the validity of their claim as subjects of the British Crown - instead, their grievances were with those ministers in London who sullied the English Constitution by maintaining unjust policies. Thus, we find John West, editor of the Launceston Examiner, and one of the instigators of the inter-colonial league to fight for an end to transportation - the Australasian League, writing of the prospect of an Australian Republic in 1852.

We believe that at the present moment no people could be more loyally disposed than those at the antipodes - that none would sever the tie with more regret - that none would be more proud of the connection, or maintain it with greater power, skill and valour; but if responsible government be refused - if the fair claims of Australia be disregarded, in our heart we believe that in less than two years she will be a republic - a southern counterpart of the confederacy in the north....Will England be wise in time with respect to Australia?(30)

West, and those who campaigned with him, were reluctant rebels. Ideally, they did not seek an Australian republic separated from Great Britain (unlike republicans such as John Dunmore Lang and Daniel Deniehy). What they did want, as the young Henry Parkes so often explained, was the 'substance' of republican government, without the 'shadow' of the name - and without the dangers of separation. When Parkes was pressed to explain what he understood by republican government, he cleverly exposed the ambiguity of the 'R' word.

The word 'republic', as everybody ought to know, does not convey any necessary distinction between one form of constitution and another. Every constitution is in reality a republic. There is just as much a republic in England as there is in the United States, the only difference being, that in the one case the word is not used, and in the other it is.(31)

This view of republicanism was widespread in colonial Australia - especially among those who campaigned for responsible government. Even at the height of the diggers' discontent on the goldfields of Victoria, the paper which had championed the rights of the diggers, the Gold Digger's Advocate, explained that the coming of responsible government in Victoria would bring republican government.

(The new Constitution) will make the government elective, insofar as it will be responsible to the representatives of the people. It will be government emanating from the will of the people, and ruling for the good of the people. It will recognise the sovereignty of the people and this is what all the world calls republicanism...Were this colony to be severed tomorrow from the mother country it could not be more a republic than it will be under responsible government fairly carried out....(32)

In August 1855, the Melbourne Age, edited by the Victorian liberals David Blair and Ebenezer Syme, agreed with the Gold Digger's Advocate, and devoted an entire editorial to the issue of a Republic.

In this colony the term [republic] has already acquired a meaning distinct from any which have been mentioned. From the nature of our relation to England, it has become synonymous with national independence. This is almost the only meaning we attach to it when we use it ourselves, and we observe the same in others. A Victorian Republic indicates Victorian self-government. We shall have the reality under the New Constitution; and having that, the name is of little consequence. We may add, what may appear a paradox, that, in our opinion, we shall have more of the reality without the name than with it.(33)

Interestingly, the Age saw no contradiction at the time between 'national independence' and the continuing power of the British government to veto colonial legislation. This should remind us that for many conservative reformers in the nineteenth century, Australian nationalism and loyalty to the Crown developed and co-existed in tandem as compatible allegiances. As the Australian colonies approached Federation, many conservatives carried this equation of republican government with representative federal democracy into the federation debates, under the secure umbrella of continued allegiance to the Crown. Sir Richard Baker, member of the South Australian Legislative Council, openly proclaimed that 'he was a republican but was as loyal to the Queen and strongly attached to Great Britain as anybody'. Baker told the people of Adelaide in a public speech on federation that South Australia was already a republic just as the new Commonwealth soon would be - 'government by the people, for the people.'(34) Leading advocates of Federation such as Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin also considered the word 'Commonwealth' as apt for the new federation, not because it indicated any allegiance to the Crown, but because of its old English meaning - government 'for the common good'.(35)

When Henry Parkes spoke at the beginning of the convention, he made it clear that he had 'no time to talk' about 'republicanism'.

If a time should come when it would be necessary to sever the connection with the mother country, it will come, as it came in America, in spite of the loyalty, in spite of the good feeling of the chief men of the time. It will not come to meet the wild ravings of some person who may call out 'Republicanism', without the slightest knowledge of what he is talking about.(36)

For Parkes, 'true' republicanism had always been grounded in the English civil war period of 1649-1660. Parkes believed that the spirit of republicanism and the commonwealth was not anti-monarchical, but anti-tyrannical. This explains why he consistently argued that the United States could not be strictly called a republic because its system of government allowed for a President who was more powerful than the monarch in the English constitution, the very constitution which Parkes wished to embrace by suggesting the title of Commonwealth for the new Australian federation.(37) When Parkes asked Edmund Barton's 'journalist-brother' G.B. Barton to write an 'annotated version' of the Convention's Draft Bill, Barton's introduction explicitly set out to connect the title of Commonwealth with pre-Cromwellian England.(38) Quoting Shakespeare, Harrington and Locke, Barton stressed that the word 'Commonwealth' simply described a state or community which in turn did not necessarily exclude monarchy. 'It corresponded', said Barton 'with the term respublica, as used by the political writers of ancient Rome... King James the First was even pleased to call himself 'the Great Servant of the Commonwealth'.(39) For both Parkes and Barton the choice of the word 'Commonwealth' was the achievement of one type of republic. In this sense, many Australians have yet to appreciate the submerged 'republican' legacy in their present constitution. While this legacy is not the dominant and more active anti-monarchical strain with which we are familiar, it still deserves to be acknowledged.

Consequently, one conservative tradition of Australian republicanism is centred on the reform of political institutions in a way which focuses on enhancing the traditions of parliamentary democracy. It is not anti-monarchical or anti-British, but a tradition which is inherently suspicious of executive power, and favourable to checks and balances and the dispersal of power within a federal framework. For many conservatives, the republic is not the nation, the President, or the monarch, but the essence of democratic government.

The Labor Tradition of Australian Republicanism

To use the words 'Labor Tradition' is to step onto a well mined field of historical interpretation. Labor has been far more active in inventing its own historical tradition than have the conservative parties in Australia.(40)

To some extent, this imbalance has resulted in a particular interpretation of Australian nationalism becoming ascendant, largely through the attention the Labor Party has devoted to its own political history - as well as the influence exerted by Labor leaning intellectuals such as Manning Clark throughout the 1970s and 1980s The battle for ownership of Australia's nationalist and progressive political traditions has only intensified in the 1990s, as the republican debate has encouraged both parties to 'claim' competing representations of Australia's past. In the next five years we are likely to witness more attempts by those parties involved in the republican debate to appropriate certain views of Australia's past in order to legitimise policy initiatives.(41) One of the key ingredients in this act of remembering is the Labor tradition of republicanism.

From 1991, the Keating government represented the nationalist republican agenda of its own government as a policy dominated largely by a Labor legacy.(42) The nation and the coming republic, at least so far as Federal Labor was concerned, have not been part of the conservative traditions of Australian politics. The image is familiar: Labor is painted as the progressive party of national renewal while the Conservatives are seen as vacuous fifties retros with their feet stuck in the Menzies' mud of the 1950s. In the previous section of this paper I set out to demonstrate that there is a conservative tradition of Australian republicanism. In this final section, I hope to demonstrate that the Labor tradition of Australian republicanism contains elements which have also been forgotten or repressed, perhaps to the detriment of the current debate. By referring to a Labor tradition I refer not only to the Labor Party itself but to those individuals and elements whose political philosophy might be seen as broadly associated with the labour movement.


The Australian is not a Briton by birth, nor is he a Briton in sentiment. He has aspirations and sentiments, habits and capacities of which a Briton knows nothing and cannot share...He is of a new denomination and has new thoughts, beliefs and aspirings.

The Australian Star, 1890.(43)

The first and most clearly discernible feature of the Labor tradition of republicanism in Australia, is its nationalism. Whereas the conservative tradition of republicanism was able to accommodate a dual allegiance to both Crown and adopted Country, the Labor tradition has always sought to frame the issue of loyalty as a choice between Australian independence and fealty to the mother country.

The republicans who were most responsible for initiating this tradition were the two pivotal figures of mid-nineteenth century republicanism - the Scottish born Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang, and the native born politician and publicist Daniel Deniehy. Lang and Deniehy were both leading figures in the fight to end transportation and the campaign for responsible government.

In 1852 Lang published his most impressive republican work, 'Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia', in which he argued passionately and intelligently for an Australian republic. He was quick to point out that a republic was not compatible with continued allegiance to Britain.

Under the universal government of God, there cannot possibly be two inconsistent and incompatible rights... the right to obedience and allegiance on the one part, is clearly inconsistent and incompatible with the right to freedom and independence on the other.(44)

Like Lang, Deniehy believed that it was only under a republic that government would be entirely identified with place and people, the growth of national character [and] the full development of the country's physical resources. 'While Australia remained a British colony or a dependency of any state', said Deniehy, 'this was impossible.'(45)

Naturally, this choice must have seemed more dramatic in a colonial society such as NSW in the 1850s, but the connection between republicanism and nationalism was to become even stronger in the late nineteenth century. Deniehy knew, even after responsible government had been granted, that one of the important questions facing the Australian colonies would be whether 'the Australian and English nationality' were henceforth 'to be identical'.(46)

In the 1850s few colonists saw themselves as Deniehy did - as 'Australians' - it was not until the late nineteenth century that an attempt was made to invent a distinct national identity in Australia. In these years, a small but influential republican movement attached itself largely to the left wing of the labour movement.(47) In Sydney, Louisa and Henry Lawson, who were both in touch with the fluid, minority political culture of the radical, urban intelligentsia, championed a new vision of Australian identity, riding on the back of largely derivative socialist theory. Together with George Black, one of the founding members of the ALP, they projected Australian nationalism as antithetical to the old, class ridden, and socially divisive model of British capitalism.(48) The Lawsons' nationalism was spurred on by the occasion of the Queen's Jubilee in 1887 and the Centenary of Settlement in 1888. The image of an Australian republic was usually presented (especially by journals such as the Sydney Bulletin) as one detached from British traditions.

Louisa and Henry Lawson published their small monthly journal 'The Republican' from the back rooms of a Phillip Street cottage in 1887. Louisa's contributions included poems praising Australia as the 'beloved home giver' for the immigrants who came to her shores, while Henry called for a new appreciation of Australian history:

If this is Australia, and not a mere outlying suburb of England; if we really are the nucleus of a nation and not a mere handful of expatriated people dependent on an English Colonial Secretary for guidance and tuition, it behoves us to educate our children to a knowledge of the country they call their own.(49)

The Lawsons were among the first in what was to become a long line of Australian artists and authors who championed a unique republican nationalism. The list is impressive, Adelaide Ironside, the Australian painter of the mid nineteenth century, the poet Charles Harpur, Louisa and Henry Lawson, Donald Horne, Patrick White, Les Murray and Arthur Boyd. In a young, isolated country, the connection between art and nationalism was bound to be close. As Australia's artists became more independent of British models, republicanism was a convenient refuge for those who wished to signify their separation from the cultural mecca of London. To have remained loyal to Britain would have constituted a form of psychological dependence which would somehow shackle creative endeavour (assuming of course that the primary aim of art was to project a national identity). One of the key characteristics of the Labor tradition of republicanism has therefore been the association between republicanism and cultural independence - in other words - the slaying of the cultural cringe. This was P.R. Stephensen's message in 1936:

It seems to me that while Australia remains in the British Empire, and while the British Empire is controlled from London and while Australia accepts mentally or politically a subordinate or subsidiary status within that empire, it will be quite impossible for Australians to develop a culture here with distinct national features.(50)

Stephensen's perception was picked up by republicans such as Donald Horne in the 1960s and also in the 1970s by the poet Les Murray, who spoke at a republican rally in 1977:

The prospect of living ones whole life in a timid late colonial society is a mediocre and galling one and Australians don't have to endure such a prospect. If the republic is about anything, it is about the dignity and potential of human beings in this country. It is about rejecting slurs. It is about casting off the psychological impediments to action. It is about confirming and strengthening the confidence of every Australian.(51)

We might now understand the historical legacy which has inspired the Keating government's republicanism in the 1990s. It is one which perceives the republic as the boot which will finally stamp out the memory of the cultural cringe. Keating has spoken frequently of the manner in which the republic will be the catalyst for a renaissance of Australian cultural endeavour.(52)

There are of course, other, more unsavoury aspects of the nineteenth century labour republicanism. The republic of the Lawsons and the Sydney Bulletin especially, was overtly racist and sexist. Indeed, the raison d'etre of the republic was based on a narrow, isolationist, and exclusive image of Australia as a white man's shed. In particular, it was motivated by a hatred of Chinese immigration and was completely dismissive of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.(53) Perhaps this explains why the current republicans have not been too keen to quote the founding fathers of their cause. There is no heroic pantheon of republican antecedents.

Aside from the nationalism which is so central to the Labor tradition of republicanism, there were still other elements, in particular, the emphasis on social equality and labour reform. In the late nineteenth century, the democratic components of Labor's republicanism were still prominent. This vision of democracy, largely one of the left, was different from the conservative traditions of Australian republicanism which had placed so much emphasis on English constitutionalism. With the republic as the symbol of the embryo nation, labour reformers of the 1880s sought to connect the maintenance of the monarchical connection in Australia with the persistence of social inequality.(54) For the majority of those involved in radical reform during these years, republicanism was simply a natural bedfellow of socialism. It was difficult to adhere to socialist doctrines and not be a republican - at least theoretically. Anti-monarchical sentiment was a common feature of radical working class politics in Australia, just as it was in England, and it was not always accompanied by a desire to campaign actively for the immediate introduction of a republic. In 1892, the Bulletin offered an amusing and familiar depiction of the royal family.

The Royal family exists to play baccarat and lay foundation stones, and make dreary speeches at dreary institutes... to yawn vacuously over addresses from bumpkin corporations and to be fat and stupid and unutterably dreary.(55)

In the 1890s, this was a typical view of the monarchy in the labour press. For a short while, between 1887 and 1891, republicanism became a prominent theme in the political platforms of newspapers representing the struggles of the working class. In Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Charters Towers, Newcastle, Bathurst and Wagga, it was possible to find papers which were sympathetic to republican federation.(56) But as trade unions began to develop a national structure and with the formation of the Australian Labor Party in 1891, republicanism played a less significant role. By the time of federation in 1901, the dream of a republic was one which few inside the labour movement wished to prioritise. Throughout most of the twentieth-century, the Labor Party was content to shelve the republic as an inevitable but relatively unimportant reform.(57) When it was finally resuscitated in 1991, it was a republic focussed on the need for an Australian head of state and a 'recasting' of Australian identity.(58) Labor's republic of the 1990s had retained the emphasis on national identity but down played the connection between social democracy and republicanism that had existed in 1890s. The crucial question is why?

First, it is important to realise that republicanism was usually an addendum to the more practical and achievable reform goals of the labour movement.(59) Second, it was often understood, that what mattered more than the mere 'form' of government was the 'essential' or 'true' democratic fabric of Australian society. The Brisbane Boomerang explained this position in 1890:

Unless republicanism is thoroughly progressive and democratic practically as well as nominally, we might as well remain exactly as we are. Because we are discontent with King Log we do not want to place ourselves in the hands of President Stork... The republic we want is a land of free men whereon the government rests on the people, and is by them with them and for them. No other form of republicanism will suit us not even though it does a few who follow the will-o-the wisp of a mere name.(60)

This was an understanding of the republic, not far removed from the conservative traditions of republicanism. The difference being that the labour movement sought to enshrine a social democratic form of government with government as the guarantor of equality while the conservatives were content with the laissez-faire capitalist model operating within the framework of Imperial loyalty.

By the early 1890s, as the first members of the ALP began to take their seats in colonial parliaments, there was a broad consensus that although Labor politicians were republicans in theory, they were not about to risk their new found legitimacy in parliament by campaigning for a republic which was both inevitable and distant - the majority of the population were not ready to support republican federation.(61) Having accepted the existing political institutions as the best means through which to achieve reform, as well as taking their oaths of loyalty to the Crown, Labor members soon discovered that the English monarch presented no obstacle to Labor's reforms. In addition, in a global climate of pending imperial conflict, the British connection represented a security blanket - White Australia's safeguard. Ironically, the very crimson thread which republicans such as Lawson and Black had sought to replace with a distinctly Australian character and identity, was also the most obvious means of protecting the most precious aspect of their new nation - White Australia.

The once champion of the racist republic - the Bulletin - was almost affectionate towards the British monarchy by 1901:

The British monarchy in its purely business aspect is practically unobjectionable. So long as it is understood that the British monarch holds his or her position by the will of the nation and for the convenience of the nation, there is no reason for complaint against the monarchical system.(62)

The Bulletin, like many other sections of the labour movement, had realised that the British monarchy reigned, but did not rule. The Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, under the Crown, was a crucial turning point in Labor's attitude towards the republic. The republic was now detached from Labor's socialist and democratic program of reform. It was simply a nationalist dream that would have to wait. Entrenched as a social democratic party within a federal, constitutional monarchy, the centre and right of the party were always reluctant to be portrayed as disloyal. In fact, the Labor Party was often the leading promoter of allegiance to Britain and the Crown - especially during the first half century of federation.(63) It was the left wing of the party and the trade union movement which kept the republican flame burning and even then it was only occasional flashes of anti-royalist sentiment that surfaced.(64)

Thus, we should not be surprised to discover that the republicanism of the Australian Republican Movement and the Keating Government were avowedly minimalist. This is perfectly consistent with the decision that the Labor Party made at the turn of the last century. The republic is not about democracy it is about national identity, a new head of state (one of us instead of one of them). Democracy is that which can be achieved through the pragmatic vehicle of parliamentary legislation, the republic is merely the nationalist rump of that agenda.

The Commonwealth of Australia

The central purpose of this paper has been to suggest that there are several useful insights to be gained from Australia's republican history for protagonists in the contemporary republican debate.

For many Australian conservatives, there is a republican tradition which they have yet to tap. This is the tradition of Parkes, Deakin, and Higinbotham. The tradition of Australian liberalism which seeks to acknowledge Australian aspirations to national independence carries a profound respect for Australia's parliamentary traditions of fair, open, and balanced government and promotes an active yet moderate approach to constitutional reform. The conservative tradition of Australian republicanism is one centred on representative democracy not on the monarchy. Perhaps, in the latter half of the twentieth century, Australia's conservative politicians have invested too much of their democratic heritage in the British monarchy. At the very least, this is how they have, since the time of Menzies, allowed themselves to be represented.

In the nineteenth century, and even the first half of the twentieth century, allegiance to the British Crown made practical sense for Australian conservatives. Yet it would be unlikely that men such as Parkes and Deakin would agree that the British monarch should continue to act as Australia's Head of State into the twenty-first century. Rather, they would be more likely to see an Australian Head of State as a natural, evolutionary step for the Commonwealth - in keeping with the spirit of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the Statute of Westminster of 1931 and the Australia Act of 1986.

In 1996, perhaps the more lasting focus of a conservative defence of the Australian constitution does not lie in protecting the monarch but in ensuring that Australia's parliamentary traditions remain intact. It might also involve the development of party positions on a wide range of constitutional reforms, especially on associated issues such as federalism, and representative democracy. This would only be in keeping with their own 'republican' tradition - concentrating on the substance of the constitution rather than the shadow of a name.

The dominant Labor tradition of Australian republicanism is one which also has something to gain by reappraising its past. Since Federation in 1901, and particularly since the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975, the notion of a republic has been boxed into a nationalist corner, focussed on the pinhead of state, and detached from Labor's broader agenda of reform. For reasons of perceived political expedience the republic and democracy have become mutually exclusive.

The first Labor visions of an Australian republic were not only attached to Australian identity but also to the ideals of social justice, one vote one value, citizens' rights, and equal access to resources such as land and capital.

The original Labor vision may not have been tolerant but nor was it politically confined. In the 1990s both Conservatives and Labor have focussed the issue of an Australian republic through the filter of identity and heritage. This is but one part of our shared republican past. The more substantial and potentially more invigorating republicanism, is that which seeks to move the republican debate beyond the familiar framework of monarch or president, to encompass the essence of 'respublica' and the commonwealth - government for the common good. This is the focus of the people's republic.


  1. SMH January 26 1994. p. 10 & March 30 1993 p. 1 & p. 14 Australian Financial Review March 6 1992 (Editorial) West Australian February 22 1993 (Editorial).
  2. See eg McKenna, M. A History of the Inevitable Republic, in Stephenson, M. and Turner, C. (eds.) Australia Republic or Monarchy? Legal and Constitutional Issues. University of Queensland Press, 1994 pp. 50 - 71.
  3. Slessor, K. Selected Poems. Angus & Robertson, 1978, pp.104-105 (Out of Time).
  4. See eg D. McNicoll in Bulletin, October 27 1992. 'Republicans Are Pedalling Too Fast'.
  5. Silvester, E.K. (ed.) NSW Constitution Bill, the Speeches of the Legislative Council of NSW. Thomas Daniel, Sydney, 1853; Queensland Parliamentary Debates Vol. 70, July 18 1893. pp. 231- 235; NSW Parliamentary Debates Vol. 61, November 23 1892. p. 2092, p. 2169, pp. 2494 - 2499 & pp. 2517-2520 and Vol. 66, May 30 1893. p.7626 & Vol.81, November 7 1895. p.2452.
  6. Gilchrist, A. (ed.) John Dunmore Lang - Chiefly Autobiographical. Vol.2, Jedgarm, Melbourne, 1951. p.474.
  7. See Gipps to Stanley April 29 1846 Historical Records of Australia. Series 1, Vol. 25, F. Watson (ed), Library Committee of Commonwealth Parliament, 1925. p. 31.
  8. See eg Lang, J.D. Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, Sydney, 1857. p.26.
  9. Australian July 16 1992. p.5; Manly Daily September 10 1991.
  10. NSW Parliamentary Debates Vol. 61, November 24 1892. p. 2159.
  11. NSW Parliamentary Debates (Council) Vol. 27, June 16 1887. p. 2111.
  12. Appleby, J. Republicanism in Old and New Contexts, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 43, January 1986. p.21.
  13. For examples of fear of the 'R' word see Clark, C.M.H, A History of Australia Vol. 1, Melbourne University Press, 1978. pp. 169-170; Ward, J.M., James Macarthur, Colonial Conservative 1798 - 1867, Sydney University Press, 1981. p. 35; Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.66, 1891. p.275; Commonwealth of Australia Parliamentary Debates, H of R, November 25 1985. pp. 3596-3597.
  14. Kwan, E., The Australian Flag, Ambiguous Symbol of Nationality in Melbourne and Sydney 1920-1921, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 26, October 1994. p.292. So far as Irish Australians are concerned their republican sentiments were rarely strong in Australia. Loyalty to the throne was one of the most important prerequisites of acceptance in the Australian community.
  15. The most vocal exponent of the republic equals social and institutional collapse thesis is Bruce Ruxton. See eg Ruxton on the launch of the ARM in McKenna, M., Tracking the Republic in Headon, D. et al, Crown or Country, Allen & Unwin 1994. p. 27.
  16. See eg. McKenna, Tracking the Republic, pp. 5-7.
  17. The most famous example is Robert Lowe's speech at Circular Quay in 1849. See Clark, M. A History of Australia, Vol. 3, Melbourne University Press 1979. p.418.
  18. See Parkes in Empire November 19 1853 & Boomerang June 9 1888. p.10 January 25 1890. p.6 & February 1 1890 (Editorial).
  19. Belchem, J., Republicanism, Popular Constitutionalism and the Radical Reform in Early Nineteenth Century England, Social History, Vol. 6 Pt. 1, 1981. pp. 1-32; p.6.
  20. ibid., p.10.
  21. Preece, A.A., in Stephenson, M.A. & Turner, C. (eds.), Australia: Republic or Monarchy, pp. 135-136.
  22. Pocock, J.G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Republican Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, pp. 361-365.
  23. See also Parkes in Empire, November 19 1853. For further details on the classical republican inheritance see Maddox, G. Republic or Democracy, Australian Journal of Political Science Vol. 28 1993 pp. 9-26 especially p.21.
  24. op. cit., Pocock. Also Warden, J., The Fettered Republic: The Anglo American Commonwealth and the Traditions of Australian Political Thought, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 28, 1993. pp. 84-85.
  25. Bagehot, W., The English Constitution, Oxford University Press, 1955. [First Published 1867]. p. xviii.
  26. Hirst, J., A Republican Manifesto, Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 106.
  27. Hirst, J., The Conservative Case for an Australian Republic, Quadrant, September 1991. pp. 9-11.
  28. See eg. Clark, M. Vol.III, p.418; People's Advocate, 17 August 1850; SMH, July 30 & 31 1851; Launceston Examiner, 21 July 1851.
  29. Lang, J.D., The Coming Event, D.L. Welch, Sydney 1850. pp. 30-31.
  30. Argus, October 6 1852.
  31. See Parkes editorial in his own paper, 'The Empire', November 19 1853.
  32. Gold Digger's Advocate April 1 1854.
  33. Age, August 13 1855.
  34. South Australian Parliamentary Debates, Thirteenth Parliament. Second Session (Council) September 15 1891. pp. 1132-1134; Baker, R.C. Australian Federation, Burden and Bonython, Adelaide 1891. Reprinted from Advertiser 15/4/1891; Also see Advertiser (Editorial) 29 March 1888 which suggested South Australia was already a republic; SMH, 21 May 1862 (Editorial).
  35. National Australasian Convention Debates Official Records of Proceedings and Debates, April 1891. Government Printer. p.551.
  36. ibid. p.323.
  37. La Nauze, J.A., 'The name of the Commonwealth of Australia', Historical Studies, Vol. 15 1971. p.71.
  38. Barton, G.B., Draft Constitution of the Commonwealth 1891. p.14. The term Commonwealth was also a product of the Convention Delegates' use of James Bryce's 'American Commonwealth'. [See La Nauze, p.71]. Also see the letter column SMH 3 April 1891. 'The Commonwealth of Australia'. The word 'is the exact equivalent of the Roman Respublica - otherwise our modern republic'.
  39. op.cit., Barton.
  40. See eg. Henderson, G. Menzies' Child, Allen & Unwin, 1994, p.322.
  41. Mark McKenna is currently researching and writing a book on the use of 'history' in Australian political debate.
  42. Keating, P., H.V. Evatt Lecture, 28 April 1993 (and press the following day).
  43. Australian Star, February 7 1890. (Editorial).
  44. Lang, J.D., Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, Sydney 1857. p.93.
  45. People's Advocate, 18 March 1854.
  46. Goulburn Herald, 20 October 1855.
  47. See eg. Murray-Smith, S., Labour and the Monarchy in Dutton, G. (ed.), Australia and the Monarchy, Sun Books 1964. p.155.
  48. McKenna, M., The Captive Republic, Cambridge University Press 1996 (forthcoming).
  49. Republican, April 1888. p.2.
  50. Stephensen, P.R., The Foundations of Culture in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1986 (first published in 1936), p.142.
  51. Donald Horne Papers MLMSS3535 add on 1871 Box 18.
  52. Keating, P.J., An Australian Republic, The Way Forward, Australian Government Publishing Service 1995. I am aware that the existence of the cultural cringe is a contentious issue - I merely wish to assert that the Keating Government perceived the cringe as a historical reality.
  53. See eg. Bulletin, July 2 1887. p.4 & March 24 1888. p.5.
  54. See eg. Bulletin, 9 April 1887.
  55. Bulletin, 16 January 1892. p.6.
  56. Eg in Sydney the Bulletin, and the Republican. In Brisbane the Boomerang. In Adelaide The Pioneer. In Charters Towers the Australian Republican. In Newcastle The Radical. In Bathurst The National Advocate. In Wagga, The Hummer.
  57. Murray-Smith, S., Labor and the Monarchy, in Dutton, G. (ed), Australia and the Monarchy, Sun Books, 1964 .pp. 166-167.
  58. Keating, P.J., An Australian Republic, The Way Forward. Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995.
  59. See eg. Australian Republican, 25 April 1891 & Republican February 1888. p.3.
  60. Boomerang 20 September 1890 p.5. Also see The Pioneer (Adelaide) 3 October 1891, for similar views on republicanism.
  61. See eg. Queensland Parliamentary Debates Vol. 70 1893. p.234 & John Norton on the weak kneed republicans of Macquarie Street, Truth, 26 July 1891.
  62. Bulletin, 2 February 1901.
  63. Murray-Smith, S., Labor and the Monarchy, p.166-167.
  64. Booker, M., A Republic of Australia. What Would it Mean. Left Book Club Co-operative Ltd, Sydney, 1992. p.15.

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