One of the great challenges for a revitalised republican debate is the task of coming to terms with the legacy of Australia’s British past, along with the doubt, discord and disillusion that attended Australia’s disentanglement from the British embrace.

Pondering this historical phenomenon is not some exercise in wistful nostalgia, hankering for the simplicity of old. Some contend that anyone writing about Australian Britishness carries a hidden agenda, that they are secretly trying to rebuild the old imperial structure. But this sort of cheap, superficial and conspiratorial jibe is a foolish and futile response to an important problem facing
the country.

A genuine republican debate can only be resuscitated if its proponents acknowledge not only the powerful hold Britishness once had on Australians, but also understand how quickly it collapsed under the weight of changing domestic and international circumstances. The pressure of external events in the 1960s, most notably Britain’s desire to seek its future in Europe, along with the great success of Australian multiculturalism from the 1970s, rendered the old idea of British Australia obsolete.

Nonetheless, even Gough Whitlam, though cutting a merry swathe through what he called the country’s ‘colonial relics’, recognised a republic would be a bridge too far.

This paradox in Australia’s predicament found its ultimate expression in the words of former prime minister John Howard, who at the 1998 Constitutional Convention observed that although ‘the developments of the past 40 years are both the main reason that this issue is now under debate’, they did not necessarily offer ‘a conclusive argument for change’.

Howard was signalling that despite the gradual severing of ties with Britain since the 1960s, such changes did not amount to a compelling argument for replacing the Queen as Australia’s head of state. But there was an opening in his comments: a quiet concession that the arguments for change were gathering momentum.

How do republicans get this issue, perched as it is on the periphery of the Australian psyche, back onto the agenda, when many believe it’s too hard, too fraught and too risky, and should be punted well and truly into touch?

Australian public interest in and affection for the monarchy shows no sign of wilting. But this is a focus of fascination, not a profession of lifelong fealty. Although for some older Australians — and many in the 20-35 age group — it still provides a connection to some sense of tradition and grandeur, it is a different form of identification from that of 60 years ago. For the most part, it carries no hint of the occasional fawning obsequiousness of the 1950s.

Yet in their parochial short-termism, the media depict periodic outbursts of royal mania, whether in response to a wedding in Westminster Abbey, a royal visit to Australia or last year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, as a bulwark against the republic.

Republicans must pitch their message above this ephemera. But an important first step is to address the shortcomings of some previous republican rhetoric. As Nick Bryant argues, ‘Australia has a national vocabulary that is no longer fit for purpose, and a frame of thinking that is starting to look like a derelict shell.’

Such a rhetorical reset will be difficult. In his republican lecture of 2010, Professor Patrick McGorry spoke of the country’s need to face its ‘tryst with destiny’, because ‘Australia’s adolescence has lasted more than 100 years since Federation.’ McGorry added: ‘It is time for Australia to pass the test of maturity and finally emerge from its prolonged adolescence into the full flower of independent adulthood as the Republic of Australia.’ Another oracle cum self-crowned philosopher king argued that the creation of a republic would send ‘a signal that Australia was no longer a nation mewling and puking in the nursing arms of its colonial mother’.

But such expressions, as if admonishing the country itself, won’t convert anyone to the republican cause. Indeed, it should be a requirement for all republicans to swear that they will henceforth avoid reaching for the nearest biological or anatomical metaphor. The debate need not be permanently riddled with this strain of rhetorical arthritis.

The real problem with these comments is that they allow for little independence of thought and action on the part of previous generations. Not only do they ignore the fact that since the founding of the Commonwealth Australia has been able to act as a sovereign, independent country with no constraints on its ability to act in the world, they also downplay the great transformative changes of the past 40 years: the move from a White Australia to a ‘multicultural’ community; from fearing Asia to seeking comprehensive engagement with it; from keeping the indigenous peoples outside the civic space of the nation to recognising their primary place in it; from having one of the most protected economies in the Western world to one of the most
internationalised.

That is not to suggest a seamless transition between the old and new Australia, but to make the point that the nation’s capacity for change is greater than the rhetoric of Wayne Goss and other pontificating philosophers would suggest. The republic can be part of that great story of Australian adaptability, but its advocates must not lecture the people or paint the issue as a cute pantomime about pathways to ‘maturity’.

As Kim Beazley put it in his Australia Day speech of 1999: ‘Not a skerrick of our republican fervour need be anti-British.’ Any sentiment of that sort, he went on, ‘is in my view a statement of an Australia that has matured far less than we have’.

Similarly Noel Pearson, speaking in early 2010, remarked that a ‘principled and inclusive argument for a republic must win over many of those who have opposed a republic perceived as a break with our British heritage’. He added that the ‘true meaning of symbolic reconciliation is not to repudiate our British heritage but to bring the two foundation stones of our country — our indigenous heritage and our British heritage — together’.

There is reason to hope that Pearson’s and Beazley’s prescriptions have had an effect. Australians, particularly the younger generation, simply don’t feel the nagging compulsion to trash a Brit. It means that any idea Australians will be spurred to action by tales of Churchill’s fiasco at Gallipoli, British duplicity over the fall of Singapore or even Harold Larwood’s use of leg theory in the 1932-33 Bodyline cricket series, has to go. A revitalised republican debate will celebrate above all else Australians’ affection for the country and their enthusiasm for its wellbeing, thereby crafting a new, more inclusive narrative for a future Commonwealth.

James Curran is Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College Dublin for 2013. This piece is adapted from his 2012 National Republican Lecture.