A peaceable revolution: the republic we have to have
(First published in Project Republic, ed Benjamin Jones and Mark McKenna, 2013)
We seem to me a people more than ready to leave home. To take full imaginative possession of our selves. Time to draw the world’s longest national dress rehearsal to a close. Time, you’d have thought, to let our adolescence slide. To get on with it.
You have to leave home to find home. And a republic is the step, so long deferred, we have to take, as a people, out of our colonial past, into our fullest selves and our future. Into our own skin. Taking that step will, I’m sure, both prove and improve us. We’ll learn who we’re not, or not anymore; we’ll take full responsibility for the cost of the success of the Australian project on this continent (the violence, I mean, to land and people and perhaps our own spirits, with which this easygoing and prosperous society has been put together down here).
We may even learn, authoring a new, harder, more complex story of ourselves, to utter a public discourse of more grace and distinction.
We are a public over-ripe for a republic; we are a people over-ready to claim the rest of who we are. To step without quibble into the autonomy we already practise, but don’t fully own, in the world.
We are a people politically stalled, it seems to me, in a prolonged adolescence, a good but risk-averse people held back from the bolder, wiser, greater nation we might be by our clinging to the constitutional vestiges of Empire. We have lived on in our mother’s house too long, and the world has grown very big around us. To be big enough to tackle that world, to take part in the global governance of a planet in crisis, we need to cut the ties that bind us to an old idea of the world, of politics and governance, and step into our full adulthood as a people. We, the people – all of us – need to decide who governs us and how; we must govern ourselves, top to bottom, and find our voice, our vox populi, in the world.
Australia needs a republic, I believe, to grow us the rest of the way up. Only by fashioning a republic worthy of all of us here, the first dispossessed peoples and all the waves of people who’ve come here since and stayed, and who continue to come, will we take the step every nation needs to take into the fullness of itself – its past, its present and its future. This is a world, more than ever, that needs adults to lead it. This is our time to become Australia.
A republic (the res publica, the people’s space) is a polity the people speak forth in their own voice, out of themselves, for themselves. It is government, as Lincoln trimly put it at Gettysburg, of the people, by the people, for the people. A polity they choose and own and run on their own terms, having loosed themselves, by some expression of will – such as a war or a negotiation – from some tyranny or monarchy or dictatorship (malign or benign) or oligarchy or anarchy. A republic is your own place – an apartment, when to stay on in your childhood has lost its last semblance of cool. A republic is a place of your own. Where you do your own washing; where there’s no one else to blame, and a whole independent future to invent. A republic is a fully autonomous conception of yourself and the political system that gives that form and governs the people to whom it is answerable. No monarchs, no parents, in sight. A president, perhaps, elected directly by the people, or by the people they elect: a leader, a head of state, who’s one of us.
And a people would want a republic for the same reason a man well out of his teenage years, a woman in her thirties, say, would want a place of their own. It’s a question of dignity, of rightness, of freedom. At a certain point there’s something unbecoming, for all concerned, about living on in your mother’s house (assuming, that is, both of you are able bodied and self-sufficient). There comes a time to leave home, to finish one’s own becoming, to take full responsibility for one’s life and place in the world. The time is here for us; I think it’s been here for some time.
One stays at home too long out of fear or complacency, or both. Fear and complacency keep you where you started. And neither fear nor complacency seems an especially robust foundation for an authentic kind of life. For a person, or for a nation. After a certain point, staying put will diminish you – infantilise the young adult, confine her imagination, narrow his range, fix her point of view too far back and too close to home. It will put up familiar walls around your comfort zone.
I’m speaking metaphorically, but you see where I’m going. Everyone must come of age, and a republic is how a modern democracy in Australia’s position can do it.
Though I was once a historian, I’m writing this as an essayist and a poet. These are my convictions; this is what, through fifty years of living and reading and thinking for myself, I have come to know. These are my beliefs, though they are not mine alone. I have history in mind, and the whole of what I’ve lived and seen and read of human nature. I’ve been rereading The Aeneid lately, a story (I read first at school in Latin) of how a nation (well, a man, but the deal is clear: he’s a metaphor, a symbol of a nation) leaves its past to sail its dangerous way into its destiny; and Plato’s Republic. These thoughts of mine have been thought before. I write this essay as a citizen, too, and that’s a role, with not just its rights, but its responsibilities – to listen, to care, to act, to criticise, to resist and support, to vote not just for what I want but for what does us all and our children and the beings who do not get to vote, some good – I take seriously. Perhaps if we were our own sovereigns, more of us might.
I write not as a member of anyone’s tribe or party. I write as myself; I write as a grown-up. I’ve been out on my own a long time now. I love my mother, but I don’t want to live in her house or ask her for permission for my life.
I’m trading in metaphor here because metaphor is what poets trade in, and because metaphor opens up questions and offers understandings that get left out of narrower conversations. I’m trading in metaphor because the shape of a metaphor, as Jan Zwicky says, is the shape of wisdom. What you have to do to unpack what a metaphor asks you to contemplate, is what a man or woman has to do to grow wise.
And I’m trading in metaphor because we want a republic for reasons best understood and spoken of in metaphor – for reasons to do with our being and (self)knowledge, with our soul and our selfhood, with our transcendence of pragmatism, complacency and superficiality; reasons to do with our independence of mind and action, with our capacity to imagine ourselves more adequately, more vividly, more exactingly and yes, more beautifully. We want a republic for the road it will take us on, the reimagining of ourselves, as much as for whatever structures of governance we settle on at the end of that track. We want a republic for reasons to do with our spiritual maturity and our emotional intelligence.
And these are things (being and becoming and transformation) that literature – with its metaphors and myths and speech musics and multiplicities – speaks and teaches best. But walking out of our national adolescence and into our republican selves is a literary enterprise, too, quite as much as it is a political one: a practice of listening and telling, of reading ourselves and our past and our future with more maturity, of becoming larger and more complex, the way a reader does. Of rewriting ourselves.
‘The great virtues well up,’ writes the Italian essayist and politician Natalia Ginzburg, ‘from an instinct in which reason does not speak.’ We want a republic to help us discover and value and articulate the greater virtues of our nature; to help us imagine who we could become, enacting them.
The republic is an utterly reasonable proposition, but we need a republic for reasons beyond reason. The republic is an act of imagination that will help us come more fully true.
‘As far as the education of children is concerned,’ writes Natalia Ginzburg, ‘I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity …; not caution but courage …; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. Usually we do just the opposite.’
‘The little virtues,’ she goes on, ‘arise from … a defensive instinct; but in them reason speaks, holds forth, displays its arguments as the brilliant advocate of self-preservation. The great virtues well up from an instinct in which reason does not speak … And the best of us is in that silent instinct, not in our defensive instinct which harangues, holds forth and displays its arguments …’
We are the nation of the small virtues, it seems to me – virtues, as Ginzburg concedes, that have their virtues (‘they provide shelter from Fortune’s blows’) but that keep us in our boxes if we let them out of theirs. We have learned an excess of caution, shrewdness, parsimony, prudence, an aversion to risk from the difficulty of the landscape here, from the openness of our borders, from the unreliability of the weather, and of our colonial experience under it. We have let nature and colonial culture school us too long and too well in self-preservation and its arguments. We’re always seeing the next drought or the next fire coming, and this makes us great managers of risk; we live more in fear, though, than in hope or imagination; we’ve learned to lower our sights.
And look at us now: a parliament and a people obsessed with the security of our borders: with keeping what we have, with preserving our prosperity and way of life, with being cautious about who comes here, with insisting that even the desperately needy observe the little virtues (such as waiting their turn) in their refugee camps.
On a visit to Australia in December 2012, GE Chairman Jeff Immelt described us as ‘the unhappiest successful country in the world’. And just what is it we feel we have a right – given our prosperity and high employment and low rates of crime and high levels of safety and wellbeing – to be quite so unhappy about? We are not, perhaps, as disturbed as we could be about things that really ought to upset us, such as climate change and Aboriginal health and the way we treat asylum-seekers policy and the impoverishment of the arts communities and humanities faculties… Ours is the unhappiness of the risk averse; of the people who’ve stood on their own threshold too long. Lines from WH Auden’s 1940 poem ‘Leap Before You Look’ keep playing in my head as I contemplate the inflated ‘sense of danger’ Immelt drew to business leaders’ attention: the fears we over-indulge, the ‘by-laws’ that, like ‘any fool’, we keep, the fetish we have made of standing on the brink. ‘Look if you like,’ writes Auden in his great poem, ‘but you will have to leap.’ ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear,’ he says in closing. It’s a dream that manufactures the very things – unhappiness, disgruntlement, paralysis – we stand on the edge so determined not to avoid.
Making a republic would ask us, as it asks any people, to consult with the better angels of our nature; making a republic, it won’t be enough just to keep making the arguments for self-preservation, the minimisation of risk. Making a republic will ask us to recognise and value the best of who we are, to transcend our defensive instincts. I have a feeling the republic is the road to our larger selves; making ourselves a republic, we will grow ourselves up. We may even make ourselves great.
In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in late November 2012, after weeks of acrimony and bickering in federal politics, senior political reporter Lenore Taylor wrote: ‘Australians want a choice between grown-ups.’ They want, she went on, ‘politicians who solve problems in a civilised and constructive way’. We don’t see federal politicians doing that. Fewer than 30 per cent of us, according to a Griffith University survey Taylor was relying on, believe that our politicians work that way. That they are acting like grown-ups.
It reflects well on us that we want something better, that we aspire to a grown-up politics. But our dissatisfaction is like the teenager’s – wishing the olds would get their act together. In truth, our politics, if not our politicians, represent us. It is our own attitudes and limitations – the culture in which we, ourselves, participate – that are enacted by those we elect to govern us. If we have lost faith in our politics, we have lost faith – if we ever had it – in ourselves.
Time, I think, for the kind of discussion a republic would make us have, and have out, about the grown-up politics we want – the kind of ‘civilised and constructive discussion’ we want our politics to be by engaging in it in precisely that fashion. Time to rethink ourselves, and in rethinking to practise the kind of maturity of thought and conversation we say we want in our leaders. Time to stop blaming the politicians, to start to look at our own profound disengagement from a process that we, the people, don’t identify as our own. We, the people, need some skin in the game. It’s only when a thing counts that we turn up. Let the getting of our own republic force us to participate in the kind of grown-up politics we say we want. Healing the res publica, healing the body politic and taking responsibility, all of us, for the immaturity of the public discourse, we will be healing ourselves.
Many of the national stereotypes that mainstream media and popular culture indulge and too many of us seem to keep as articles of faith, and with which many people overseas identify us, are adolescent fantasies: we are the betting nation, the drinking nation, the barbecuers, the sports fanatics, the larrikins, the wise-crackers, the social inepts, the clowns … We know we are much more than that. Stereotypes are reductive, but there is truth in them, like myths, and there is prophetic power: to some extent, one becomes the stereotype one identifies with. Let’s remember the rest of who we are; let’s imagine ourselves some better myths of who we are; let’s start with a very grown-up act of imagination and will: a republic.
We are a rude people, I heard the historian Ken Inglis say once. And though I love my fellow Australians as much as Inglis or anyone does, my love, like his, includes criticism (as real love, and real patriotism, as opposed to chauvinism, should). And I think Inglis is right. We are rude the way teenagers can be rude: testing their parents’ authority; resentful that they don’t know who they are yet, but guessing at it and wishing they could leave childhood; unpractised yet in the respectfulness and perspicacity that life in the adult world will teach you, sometimes at your cost, to observe. We are as a people, if I may generalise wildly (and as I write I think of many, many individual exceptions), ineloquent, inarticulate, halting, and awkward about ritual. We lack grace, finesse. We are unfinished. In behaviour and speech, we are often coarse, inelegant. I am, myself; and I feel it sometimes in America and Europe, and always in older cultures, especially Indigenous communities; then I feel very young and gauche and wildly unschooled in the deeper human graces and rituals.
Our rudeness has an upside, of course: we are direct; we are skeptical; we are suspicious of empty courtesies and grandiosity; we trust ourselves (and others) in action more than we trust ourselves in speech; we are strong and silent. It is said we question authority, but that’s not my experience; we are, on the whole, a conforming, if sometimes impolite, people. We make great soldiers and administrators because we respect authority and love order; we’re trainable and tough, and we recognise a well-kept house when we see one.
We are ruder than we need to be because we’re only halfway there; we have lived on too long in the front room of our mother’s house, and the situation, is getting on everyone’s nerves.
We are not yet the people we could be because we are too well-drilled in the little virtues and much too sparing with the great ones.
A people big enough and old enough to have a seat on the UN Security Council; to be one of the healthiest and longest lived but also the second-fattest (per capita) on earth; to be among the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita on the planet; to spend billions of dollars on sport to make sure we punch above our weight on the circuits and in the circuses and arenas of the world; to make war in Afghanistan and peace in East Timor; to supply uranium to India and a fair bit of the iron and coal on which China, the world’s factory, its emerging superpower, is reinventing itself in the image of the fading West; to be home to one of the loveliest, most desirable and unaffordable cities (Sydney) on earth; to have reduced the life expectancy of Indigenous people from seventy-odd years before European settlement to something under fifty now, while increasing the life expectancy of everyone else; to make costly and complicated arrangements with countries in the region to ‘process’ refugees who seek asylum here, even to excise outlying islands from our territories in order to upset the people-smugglers’ business models; to have manufactured one of the world’s most stable economies and prosperous populations (per capita); to come in only twenty-second, nonetheless, in a list of forty-four countries measured recently for their proficiency in reading, mathematics and science; to have won thirteen Nobel Prizes (though only one, so far, in literature) – a nation that’s negotiated all this might be about ready, you’d have thought, to work out how to achieve its own full independence, to make itself a republic, to sever itself finally from the Empire that spawned it, in modern terms, 200 years ago. Presuming, of course, it cared enough.
And one might argue that since we’re doing all this already we don’t need a republic to be a nation. Fair enough. We are, indeed, citizens of the world; we participate in its wars and its problems and now and then we help solve some of them. But all the while we sit at home grumbling about the inadequacy of our prosperity, whining about the value of the Aussie dollar, waiting for the world to stop sending us refugees and global warming and bird flu and Eurovision and post-modernisn and terrorism, to stop cheating at sport and failing at finance; we sit in paradise as if it were the room downstairs in Mum and Dad’s house, listening to the olds stuffing things up upstairs and mocking them from the safety of the shelter they provide for us. Time to stop waiting for the time to be right. Time to walk upstairs.
It’d be a better look. A more authoritative filling of our boots.
While the coloniser’s monarch remains our monarch; while the Crown is the anchor, however notional, of our ship of state, we remain colonised by our past. Floating here in the Pacific, drifting north year on year, deep already in a new post-colonial century, we remain roped to England and tied to Empire, tethered, despite our better judgement, to a dilapidated imperial idea, to which the nation owes its birth (and its institutions and lingua franca) but not its life. And certainly not its future.
Until we pull down the Union Jack that flaps in the Australian mind like washing on our mother’s line; until we write the Crown out of the constitution; until we choose our own sovereign, ourselves; until we, the people, carry authority home to where we are; until we untether our political boat from England’s shore – a hemisphere and a century or more away from where we are – and row it into our own sclerophyll south Pacific story; until we are a republic of some sort, we remain a colonial entity, a subsidiary nation, less free in our thought, in our imagination, in our sense of our self, in our language, in our attitudes, than we like to think we are.
We’re living an old, narrow, inadequate and imported story of ourselves, and it’s time we wrote a new one. Its time we took full authority for our place in the world.
Authority comes from author. There is power, there is integrity, there’s increased vulnerability, there’s increased responsibility for the woman who picks up a pen and writes her story from scratch, out of everything she is, in her own multiple and original voice. Let’s bring the authorship of Australia all the way home; let’s make ourselves all the way up, all by ourselves; in the process, let’s discover and refashion our own complex and multiple voice. Let’s raise our vox populi and speak our own autonomy forth. Let’s stop exporting authority the way we export iron ore and coal – the way we try to outsource responsibility for global warming and other global problems, as if we were just children, spectators, tourists in a grown-ups’ world.
Let us become at last the authors of ourselves (rather than the ghost writers of someone else’s idea of ourselves). Writing our way out of the sway of a monarchy that launched the ships that claimed us from our older past; writing the monarchy out of the way we govern ourselves will grow us up into our full, imperfect selves.
Let’s leave the house of Empire and step into the res publica; let’s govern ourselves in our own voices. All the way up and all the way down. Nowhere else to turn for answers or excuses. Just ourselves in our imperfection, such as we are, nutting it out.
The republic is the threshold we have to walk over into our adulthood as a nation in the world, and into some adult solutions to the challenges we face at home and abroad.
In a republic, the oversubscribed rivers of Australia, the species on the edge of extinction, the mines and the holes they leave in Australia and the profits they leak offshore, the failings of our education system, the need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and to find sustainable ways to power our common wealth, the waves of people seeking refuge here, the gay folk wanting equal marriage rights, the parlous state of Indigenous health, … would be no one else’s issues to own and settle. They are already, of course, ours de facto. But my sense is that, in time, the psychological fact of our unmitigated political autonomy, of our profound solitude [removed Auden quote: think we can argue fair use of the earlier ones (for review/criticism of Immett’s ideas, but this one seems more here for aesthetic reasons?)]might wake us up, all of us, to our shared responsibility to demand adult solutions to these and other issues from the people, our own people, whom we appoint to represent us; to demand the maturity of ourselves, the civilised and intelligent conversation, we condemn our current leaders for so manifestly failing to have.
The Australian psyche is caught in a cognitive dissonance.
We are citizens of what is almost an oxymoron: a constitutional monarchy, whose monarch is someone else’s queen. De facto free, but de jure indentured; thinking ourselves independent, but knowing that our sovereignty is contingent, a dependent clause in someone else’s sentence, we flip and flop, in our public discourse and in our politics, between a larrikin casualness and a fawning, awkward formality, as if we weren’t quite comfortable – enacting and articulating governance, anyway – in our own skins. We have no tradition of powerful and elegant, resonantly simple political speech-making. We write – increasingly, I think – the most prolix and stilted legislation and government (and for that matter, professional and financial and commercial) communications in the English-speaking world.
All of this pomp and ill-kempt linguistic ceremony from the same people who think of themselves as frank and relaxed, and who often speak with each other – socially, anyway – with a lack of ceremony, which at its best is democratic and poetic, and at its worst just plain rude. We split off, in other words, in our speaking, and especially in our writing. Over-identifying with our matey, blokey selves, we speak and write too brashly, or, when put on our suits, we overcorrect, and write more like the Queen of England than the Queen of England, herself.
We bifurcate our language – too free and easy and ill-disciplined, very often, in the social space; too formal in the market place and the forum and the court – because we, ourselves, are bifurcated. Somewhat like a middle-aged adolescent, we write and talk (and I generalise, of course, but nonetheless) as larrikins, or we write as lackeys. Our politicians are inclined to childish petulance and shrill pomposity; and we hate in them what we know (but can’t admit) we fall prey to, ourselves. David Malouf once wished for more writing – among bureaucrats, bankers, politicians, lawyers, all of us who should know how to do it, but don’t – in the intelligent vernacular. But it’s only when you relax into your full autonomous adult self that you know how to pull that off.
And it may seem a strange thing to expect a republic to fix our writing, to elevate and tidy the conversation in which we transact our business and govern ourselves and tell ourselves who we are and ask ourselves to do better; it might seem Quixotic to hope for a republic so that we might learn to draft more civilised and civilising letters and legislation. But more than just a means of getting oneself an autonomous, accountable executive government, a republic is a process. It’s a way of taking and exercising authority; it is an act of national authorship, a writing of the story that only we can write.
Speaking and writing a republic into being, a nation learns that there are no one else’s, no Mother England’s, expectations to be met, in prose or in policy, but one’s own. Our writing is afflicted, like our larger sense of ourselves, by a mix of anxiety and complacency, which come from dithering too long on the threshold; and it’s my hope that, making a republic, stepping over the threshold into our selves, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, our language will grow up as we ourselves grow up.
The republic I want is articulate – at ease with its voice. Neither rude nor pompous. It reads and it listens well. The Australia I long for speaks (and writes) more eloquently than the Australia I know; its voice is unconforming, elegant and clear; and the republic may be the only road there.
[We can’t publish this poem without permission – the author is welcome to try to clear permission, but we don’t have the budget to do so]
The strangeness of the Australian position is often clearer to visitors or new arrivals than to those of us who’ve never known it otherwise. This came clear to me again one day in late November 2012, teaching, as I often do, the elements of style to business people.
Among a dozen students in my class that day, ten languages, apart from English, were spoken: Tamil, French, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Indonesian, Hindi, Dutch, Italian and Vietnamese. Australians come from many more places now than ever before. This is who we are now. The story of colonial Australia is remote to most of us, an old and unforthcoming mythology; the idea that this mature democracy, this sophisticated economy, this safe and cosmopolitan society wired to the world, has a parliament answerable, admittedly indirectly, to an English monarch strikes many such Australians as surreal, absurd, pedantic, quaint.
I guess many Australians, new and old, shrug off the oddness, the dissonance – the place seems to be working well enough notwithstanding. But there are consequences of not mending your house, there are dysfunctions that flow from the dissonance, and I’ve touched on some (the bad language and the grumbling and the undeserved unhappiness), and even the disengaged can’t help bumping into them in time. If it begins, after a time, to seem undignified to live on in your own mother’s house, how much stranger, how much more alienating, to move into the house of someone else’s mother. What on earth can the House of Windsor have to do with the life of Eugenia, for example, a new citizen of Australia, who comes here with wisdom and stories out of Belarus and Boston? Australia’s anachronistic constitutional dispensation, the foreign flag in the corner of our own flag, the cut-out queen in the parlour of our democracy speaks to Eugenia and others like her of a lack of political seriousness, even a want of integrity; it hints at doublespeak or a want of maturity. It’s politically and spiritually uncool. I sensed all this in the way she raised her eyebrows.
I think it’s broadly true that you get the kind of leaders and the kind of democracy you deserve: some people, like Eugenia, even leave their homelands to find leaders worthy of them; others fight (like Egyptians, like Indians, like Americans once upon a time) to unseat the leaders who do not represent them.
I think it is also true that you get (in life and in politics) the kind of independence you earn – earn by care and attention, imagination and courage. A compromised independence bespeaks a lack of care and courage.
Nija Dalal, a fine writer who studied with me years ago, grew up in Atlanta, where her parents moved, from India, looking to make a better life. Dalal spent some time in Australia, before moving on to Manchester to study. Here’s how she reflects, in a recent lyric essay, ‘A Long Way from Home’, on Australia’s political situation.
[INDENT]Eventually, I move, to Australia, a strange migration to a young country forged of sandstone and prison boats. Living there, I am thrice colonised. I am the Grand Tour of the British Empire.
It’s a country that never had a revolution, and I keep telling my new friends, ‘You should have one! It’s a party!’ They are not interested; they throw more pineapple on the Barbie. They have beaches and mining and too much land and too little water. They have their own cruel government doing ugly things to dark people. Australia, as every kangaroo knows, has its own evolutionary processes, and it simply cannot be bothered with getting rid of vestigial things right now.[CLOSE INDENT]
Our constitutional arrangements are, indeed, a vestige. An anachronism. And the fact that we can’t be bothered changing them speaks against us. It looks to people who do care about such things as if we can’t summon the energy to take ourselves seriously in the world.
Dalal is not, of course, seriously wishing us a revolution, in which to find ourselves, and she knows well the ugly and uneven battles fought here to wrest the land from the ‘dark people’ and to keep those people so long disenfranchised. But there’s a kind of risk we haven’t taken, she implies, which every nation should – an act of becoming. A deep questioning of our cultural and political identity; an essay in self-awareness. As long as we put off the republic, we are the Hobbit prevaricating on his threshold, refusing to have the adventure that will prove him.
A republic would be a peaceable kind of revolution to have, an orderly but necessary risk to run, one that might shake us out of colonial torpor and sit us down with the people Australia first dispossessed to design a government of the people, by the people, for the people – for all the people.
If the vestiges of the House of Windsor’s sovereignty look odd to a Russian-Australian, and negligent or pusillanimous to an Indian-American-Australian, it wouldn’t be surprising if they seemed offensive to an Indigenous Australian. I can’t see how deep reconciliation between Indigenous and settler peoples can go any farther, how justice can be in any sense done, while the land continues to belong to, and authority continues to lie with, the Crown – the same Crown in whose name the expropriation of a continent and the dispossession of 500 nations of Australians were achieved. If we can’t give enough of a damn to move on from the British Empire, to move on from our colonial beginnings, how much of a damn can the dispossessed imagine we give about them? Just how much closer can anyone think we’ll move toward true reconciliation while we hang on, even if only symbolically, to an order that justified its title to this profoundly occupied continent on the ground that there was no one (civilised) here?
The colonial vestiges Dalal refers to are symptoms of denial. And they symbolise, among other things, an unreadiness to accept and make reparation for the theft, the dispossession, and the violence upon which this strong and prosperous, broadly tolerant society is founded. Twenty years ago, in the one fine political speech made in this country (the Redfern address), all this was spoken. It must be time now, and surely we are grown up enough, to make a republic built, among other things, on an acknowledgement of these truths; it must be time to shape an Australian polity that rejects the vestiges of colonialism and invites Indigenous people fully into the governance of a land they held sacred and kept good for so many thousands of years we may as well call it forever.
So, the republic I want is reconciled with its past, and it lives in its present, and it imagines its future; it is post-colonial, multiple, inclusive of first Australians and all the immigrant voices and wisdoms that make us who we are. Quite possibly, a republic is the road we have to take toward overcoming the fears (and guilt) we still seem to harbour about those we dispossessed and those who, in our imaginations, want to come across the seas and dispossess us of the fortune our forebears worked so hard to secure for us.
The republic I want is worthy of a landscape governed, taken care of, loved and held sacred for thousands of years before Europe discovered it; I want a plain-spoken but elegant republic that catches in its institutions and instruments of governance the lyrics of this place on earth, a republic rich with the sclerophyll music that inheres in these landscapes and their people – all of their people. The republic I imagine is generous and intelligent and wise and tough-minded and tender-hearted, and for this it needs the voices of the first peoples, and those, in all their accents and languages, who have come after. It doesn’t need a Crown; it doesn’t want a king. Unless we want to talk about the philosopher kings Plato favoured, or the poet presidents …
But above all, I want us, the people, all of us, to be sovereign over ourselves. And I want a republic that is neither fearful nor narrow, but smart and courageous. I want a republic that enshrines and practises and encourages the great virtues of our Australian nature (human and more than merely human), not just the little ones.
Time for an imaginative leap, I think. Farther into ourselves, deeper into the world. Time for this unhappy successful nation to found its success and its contentment, on surer, truer grounds, closer to its self, farther from home. Time for the peaceable revolution.