Australian Notes

Australian notes

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

Memo to Republicans: Australia is not a colony

The fundamental difference between Australia as a ‘colony’ and every other colony of an imperial power is that Britain sent its own citizens (however unwilling) to establish it. Never mind the reasons, the important point in any talk about Australia becoming a republic is that New South Wales was established rather like parents bringing a child into the world, genetically if you like, complete with initial dependency, social customs, religion and governance in all things, including the law. It became an outpost (remote part of an empire), rather than a colony (a place under control of a foreign power), different to Britain’s other colonies, such as India, or the colonies of Spain, Portugal, Holland and France, say. (Yes, an outpost, despite the Brits themselves referring to NSW as a colony, perhaps to distance themselves from the convicts who they sent here.)

There is no imperial yoke to shake off, no foreign culture to dismantle, no alien traditions to be cleansed. Australians are of the same social, legal and religious blood as our founders. Founding fathers… parents; they were British.

If we consider Australia in this metaphorical frame, it is easy to see how 230 years later (come January 26, 2018) the child is showing the restlessness of a teenager wishing to leave home. But teenagers don’t usually wish to change their name and deny their parentage (the flag), nor do teenagers wish to replace their parents and ancestors with replicas.

History may be in the past, but the present is formed by it. The values of this society have come from its ancestors. Modern Australia as a country is a product of Britain, a society now shared with the Aborigines who lived here before. Independence from the parents doesn’t require the repudiation of the genetic links or the traditions learnt at home.

Referring to the monarch as a foreign head of state is risible, ludicrous. Families now living in Australia with generations of ancestors in Britain do not regard Australia as ‘foreign’. (Secede maybe, republic not really.)


The recently mishandled crisis over politicians with dual citizenship showed that the teenager is still immature. To proceed with what was called the ‘black letter’ interpretation of the Constitution regarding the British and New Zealand members of Parliament was not only contrary to common sense, it was surely a failure of Australian legal intelligence. To ignore the context of the law is to make a mockery of it, and the context of the Constitution in this matter is quite obviously historic. The intent of the Constitution in this respect (Britain was not a foreign power then, either) was inconsistent with what the High Court in 2017 deemed it to be.

I’m not alone in this view; Chris Earl, for one, was venting it on The Spectator Australia’s Flat White just before Christmas (December 18, 2017), while discussing the matter in the context of the by-elections that were triggered by it:

The ‘citizen jury’ saw through the hilarity of a court ruling so divorced from reality that it betrayed the spirit of the constitution drafted more a than century ago by sage jurists including Sir John Quick, Sir Edmund Barton and Samuel Griffith who would become the first chief justice of the High Court when it was established soon after Federation in 1901.

Conveniently overlooked by the High Court in 2017 was that Australians born before 1949 were British subjects, as were those in New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and other Empire (Commonwealth countries). We were in the same pod. 

Indeed, it could be argued that this 2017 High Court decision was a de facto declaration of independence – by the High Court. Its decision disregards the historical relationship between Britain and Australia at the time of Federation, and prefers to think of Britain as having always been a foreign power. The irony, no doubt missed by the High Court, is that the Monarch remains in place as head of state and therefore now, only now, Australia really is closer to a colony than an outpost.

As my Pappy used to say, ‘sometimes, intelligent people do stupid things, clever people make mistakes, good people do bad things’.

This teenager is also very much an idealist, a romantic who has no time for pragmatism, practicalities or process. Historian and occasional Speccie columnist Troy Bramston pointed out in the Australian on January 3, 2018:

… how Australia goes about severing constitutional ties with Great Britain is fraught with difficulties. … If a majority voted yes to a hypothetical republic, a second vote would then be needed to determine a model. Several options for selecting the head of state could be put to the voters, including popular or parliamentary appointment. Then we would proceed to a third vote, a referendum. This is a mess.

Bramston says this as a realist, even while he favours an Australian Republic:

Meanwhile, monarchists will do all they can to wreck a republic with their canards about how we are already a ‘crowned republic’ and the governor-general is actually our head of state. Both notions are not supported by the Queen or the governor-general. They are intellectually dishonest.

On the other hand, Bramston is not a complete realist: he asks:

But who is going to make the case for a new model of government that unites republicans and persuades voters to make the change? That requires leadership.

I think he means imagination; imagination to devise a workable model, and to sell it. But the problem is – given the available options and the legal challenges, not to mention the public mood – how to imagine one if one doesn’t really exist. There is no compelling, popular model, because there is no compelling, popular  reason for one.

Australia has its own Parliament, makes its own laws, has its own legal system (a virtual replica of the British system), its own currency, its own defence forces and – like teenagers – its own sense of self.

You can leave home, but home is still there.

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