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This week, Dr Benjamin Jones talks about his new book on the history of Australian republicanism and prospects for a future republic.
Can you tell us about the genesis of your republicanism?
Growing up in the 90s in Australia, republicanism was very much a hot button issue. When the referendum took place in 1999, I was 17 and frustrated that I was unable to vote. As a teenager, I felt the case for a republic for obvious – why would an independent democracy want a foreign monarch as head of state? I was also struck by the dishonestly of the monarchist campaign. The repeated false claim that a republic would see Australia kicked out of the Commonwealth Games irked me. Living in the Hills Shire (Sydney’s Bible belt) another strange, false but persistent claim was that a republic would somehow mean the end of parliament opening with Christian prayer. I concluded pretty early that the monarchists resorted to this sort of stuff because they cannot logically defend their stance. They are well-trained in casting doubt and fear over a potential republic but can never articulate how hereditary monarchy is a fair or reasonable system.
Why should Australia become a republic?
A foreign monarchy is incompatible with the twin principles of independence and democracy. Australia’s constitution was written for a dominion of empire. As such there was no contradiction in having the British monarch as head of state. Since then, the empire has gone and Australia became legally independent in 1986 (hence Britain is now a foreign nation, so-ruled by the High Court). The result is that Australia’s constitution is not self-sufficient. That is to say, it relies on another nation to provide and sustain its head of state. No great nation does this.
Perhaps more importantly, monarchy is the absolute antithesis of the values Australians cherish: democracy, meritocracy, and community. Australia has been a world-leading democracy through the introduction of the secret ballot, male and female suffrage, and compulsory voting. Australia is highly democratic but when it comes to the very top position; titular, granted, but still the position of greatest public honour, we use the least democratic form imaginable. If we mean it when we talk about a “fair-go” we would be well served with a republic model that allows any Australian child, not just the children of one British family, to dream of growing up and becoming our head of state.
Finally, I think the issue of honour is important here. Who do we publicly honour and why? If you look at the statues and street names in any major city, you will find British royals, past and present, honoured time and again. Is it just? Is it balanced? Perhaps some of the reluctance to a republic comes from fear of a national existential crisis. If we did not constantly honour the royals, who would we honour? I believe our democratic heritage points a way forward. I’ve been reading Clare Wright’s wonderful work on Australia’s world-leading and world- changing suffrage campaigners, You Daughters of Freedom, and it makes me wonder why they are not better remembered. If an Australian republic prompted us to reflect on how we bestow honour as a nation and to consider who has been over-represented and who has been ignored in terms of public memorial and recognition, then that alone would be a very worthy project.
Why are Australians so complacent about republicanism?
I don’t think we are. Like most policy issues, interest can rise and fall. In the 90s you could hardly call Australians complacent about republicanism and the issue is returning as a national priority with Labor promising and budgeting for a republican plebiscite in its first term. The polls from this year have indicated a majority support a republic. You certainly cannot presume that lack of government action equates to public complacency. Are Australians complacent about climate change or refugee rights because of the current government’s inaction on those issues? Of course not. There are many passionate campaigners on both issues and the republic also. Once the next plebiscite or referendum is announced, supporters and opponents will mobilise. As with the 90s campaign, a future one will be fiercely contested.
What is your response to Neville Meaney’s critique of the ‘thwarted nationalism’ argument, in which he claimed that the extent of independent nationalist sentiment in Australia has been exaggerated by partial historians?
I think Meaney was spot on. Australia was not a land of passionate republicans being cruelly suppressed by the British at Federation in 1901, or at Gallipoli in 1915, or when the Queen first visited in 1954. There have been republicans since the colonial era and Mark McKenna’s Captive Republic remains the authoritative work on that. The evidence, however, is overwhelming that for the first half of the twentieth century Australians were culturally British and very attached to the royal family, the very symbol of Britishness. But a lot has happened since then. The empire is gone, Australia has turned to Asia as Britain has turned to Europe, the anthem has been updated to reflect independence and the Australia Act legally separated the two nations. Republicanism in the twentieth century is not about breaking free from an oppressive Britain but simply recognising the political and cultural reality that Australia is a democratic, independent nation and its constitution and symbols should reflect that.
How has the reception of your latest book about republicanism, This Time: Australian’s Republican Past and Future, differed from the attention given to your 2013 co-edited publication Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia?
The response has been very encouraging especially compared to the launch of Project Republic. The atmosphere in 2013 was determined but not particularly hopeful. After 6 years of Labor and two republican prime ministers, the issue seemed as far away as it did under Howard. Many veterans of the 90s campaign like Malcolm Turnbull, John Hirst, John Warhurst, and Tom Keneally offered chapters but as a collective, we wondered if anyone was still listening. I believe a future Australian republic will owe a debt of thanks to those who did the heavy lifting in the decade after the failed referendum, those who kept attending meetings, kept fund raising and kept fighting when all seemed lost.
Fast forward to 2018 and there is a genuine feeling of hope and optimism. This Time was positively reviewed in the major dailies and I had far more interview requests than in 2013. The book was popular enough to warrant a small tour or libraries, book shops and universities. The interest and excitement around This Time reflects the health of the broader republican movement. I think the format of the book has also contributed to its popularity. While Project Republic was long and often reflective, This Time is a short call to arms that can be read in a sitting. It includes a brief history of republicanism in Australia, the case for change, a refutation of monarchist claims, and a vision of the future.
What is your preferred model for an Australian republic and why?
I think it is clear that Australians want to vote for their head of state in a new republic. That said, I also accept the concerns some minimalist republicans have. In the book, I outline the Jones-Pickering model designed by myself and ANU Professor, Paul Pickering. It is a hybrid model that takes advantage of our existing federalism. Each state and territory government nominate a person to be head of state (not necessarily from that place, just a worthy candidate). The Australian people then vote for one of those eight candidates. The strength of the hybrid model is that is an Australian head of state must pass twin hurdles. Nomination by parliament means the person does not need to be rich or famous (or ambitious). Rather they must be someone who contributes positively to the nation and is deemed a worthy candidate by a parliament. They must also be democratically endorsed through a popular vote. There are many other aspects and details outlined in the book. I would stress, however, that when the time comes, I will back the model most likely to win a referendum.
How do you separate your personal enthusiasm for a republic from the need, as an academic historian, to strive for impartial analysis of Australian political and constitutional history?
I have been teaching Australian history at universities for a decade now and have not found that having political opinions conflicts with ethical and inclusive teaching. Overwhelmingly, what I teach and research does not involve the question of Australia becoming a republic at all. When the republic does come up, the history is generally agreed upon by republicans and monarchists alike. In fact, John Warhurst and Malcolm Mackerras produced a very worthwhile book called Constitutional Politics, despite sitting on either side of the republic debate. The views of people like Howard and Keating and the general case for both sides is on the public record so I think it is entirely possible for a passionate republican or monarchist to teach and publish on political history with impartiality. Indeed, it is their duty.
My pinned Tweet at the moment reads that, “I’ve never bought into this idea that you stop being a citizen when you become an academic”. Academics are entitled to their opinions and are often the best placed to make policy suggestions. To channel Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. In the classroom, I would never use my academic position to proselytise my opinions on the republic. I’m certainly honest if my students ask (and it is on the public record anyway) but my job is to educate not indoctrinate. Similarly, in my academic work, such as Republicanism and Responsible Government, I produce original research in the hope of advancing knowledge in my discipline. My work is also peer-reviewed in academic journals in the usual way. This Time is a polemic in a trade press that I have advertised through mainstream newspapers and radio. It is a medium where I am expected to offer and defend my opinions. I suppose the short answer to your question is simply, by being professional and producing appropriate work for each audience I am lucky enough to encounter.
Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an Australian Research Council DECRA recipient at ANU. This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future was published by Redback in 2018. He is also the author of Atheism for Christians: Are there lessons for the religious world from the secular tradition? (Wipf & Stock 2016) and Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2014). He is the co-editor of Elections Matter: Ten Federal Elections That Shaped Australia (Monash UP, 2018) and Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia (Black Inc 2013). Benjamin was the lead researcher of the Alternative Australian Flag Survey.