The Ghosts of Eureka are still haunting us. Terra Australis has come a long way since the rebellion of 1854, but that last crucial step to becoming a fully independent nation again, remains elusive.
Journalist and author Peter FitzSimons recounts how he once discussed the Eureka Rebellion with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and how Abbott expressed his misgivings about that seminal moment in Australia’s history: “Let’s not forget those guys raised arms against the Crown!”
I am unclear if this exchange was what prompted the author of ‘Eureka – The Unfinished Revolution’ to get involved with the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), but it illustrates what it is still up against in the current climate of political upheaval and polarised debate.
Not even the footy finals seems to have calmed things down as it normally does this time of year. We are a country in apparent disagreement about most things, headed for what may well be the most aggressive federal election fight since 1975, with the possibility of a landslide swing not unlike what the Liberal Coalition enjoyed then, except to Labor this time around.
Very careful to be non-partisan, FitzSimons and ARM CEO Michael Cooney are currently doing a series of ‘town hall’ meetings – in pubs, of course – around the country and I caught up with them in Perth last week. They are keen to make their cause a lot less divisive than what it was in the 1999 referendum when the ‘monarchists’ won by almost 10%. They also recognise that the challenge is to keep it simple, suggesting a two-stage process.
The first is a plebiscite to decide on the basic principle: ‘Do you believe Australia should have an Australian as Head of State?’ Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has committed his party to a plebiscite on this question during their first term in office.
The ARM’s focus is equally straightforward. “We are a one-trick pony”, FitzSimons says. Their own polling shows that 50% of Australians support their cause, 25% don’t. Their focus is on the 25% that are undecided.
“We just want people to accept the obvious“, FitzSimons contends, his signature red bandana proving to be less of a distraction than I expected (some say he was born with it). His style is direct and casual, but he is very careful to focus on the ridiculous notion of our Head of State being a foreigner, without ridiculing the Queen herself.
He tells the story of ‘his’ niece Esmeralda who he has extremely high hopes for, and makes the point that this little girl can become whatever she likes – an Oscar-winning actress, a Wimbledon champion or the doctor that finds the cure for cancer – except she can never be the Head of State of Australia. Why? Because she is not a member of the royal family of the United Kingdom!
Simple and effective messaging that befits a best selling story teller.
Michael Cooney adds that it is not even important what we end up calling our Head of State – might as well still be the Governor General to underline how this change makes absolutely no difference to how our country is governed.
Yet this may still be the biggest challenge that the ARM faces – maybe even more so than it was in 1999. Tony Abbott and some of his acolytes may still see us as a colony, but the major obstacle for many remains the notion of Australia becoming a republic. A republic implies a President, and a President implies a Trump. Or some such ‘strongman’ of un-tethered powers.
Nobody wants that, and nobody is suggesting that; certainly not the ARM.
In my own writings about democracy I barely mention the notion of an Australian Head of State. Instead I focus on many other changes to make our democracy work better. Having an Australian as Head of State will not change democracy.
But it will change how we feel about ourselves as a nation.
It will finally break the last shackles that symbolically binds us to our colonial past. But it won’t change how we live, how we defend the country, who we chose as our friends and what sports we engage in. The Ashes will still be as hotly contested and we will still win lots of gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.
In practical terms it means little, symbolically it means a lot.
The practicalities will, however, come into it for stage two of the ARM proposal: How to select a Head of State. FitzSimons is clear in his view it should be a person nominated by the Prime Minister, just as it happens now for the Governor General, except he or she doesn’t ask the Queen or the King for their consent – which incidentally has always been given, anyway.
The official ARM view, however, is that it doesn’t matter if the Head of State is elected or appointed. It is not a position of Government, but a figurehead for the nation with representative tasks and essentially ceremonial powers. It requires a change to the Constitution and therefore a referendum is required. If the principal question of us having an Australian Head of State has already been voted on in a plebiscite, the ARM hopes that stage two will be much less divisive.
And it may also help us finally lay to rest the enduring and most vexing issue of our modern history – indigenous reconciliation. As FitzSimons puts it: “let’s not forget that this country has been populated not just since 1788, but for over 60,000 years.” Having the last vestige of what the original inhabitants experienced as an invading force removed from our Constitution changes any formal documents of reconciliation from something granted by the invaders (‘the Crown’), to a treaty between equals.
Extinguishing the Ghosts of Eureka
The Eureka Rebellion of 1854 was the beginning of Australians claiming independence from the British Empire, culminating in Federation in 1901.
It is time for our indigenous country-women and men to have their own Eureka moment.
Only then can Australia again be the independent nation it once was.