The Australian Republic, and Identifying Australian Identity
Ask a foreigner about their general idea of the average Australian, and you will receive a variety of bastardised stereotypes. Perhaps it would be some sort of kangaroo-riding, bronzed surfer with flowing golden locks. Perhaps it would be a bikini-clad Lara Bingle, a beauty asking “where the bloody hell are ya?” with jingoistic fervour. Or perhaps the imaginary Australian is the true blue, bonza, dinky-di beer-swilling, blue-singleted blokey bloke. In any case, it’s a shallow, barrel-scraping reflection on the people of a nation that we all know to be much more nuanced. But with the knowledge that those absurd caricatures are a complete misrepresentation, what then, constitutes an Australian?
Jieh-Yung Lo wants to ask every Australian that same question. Already quite involved with engaging the community in his role as the Deputy Mayor of the City of Monash, Lo was recently made a National Committee Member of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). He is playing a leading role in the group’s Our Identity campaign: a grassroots campaign which looks to question the public on their identity as Australians – they way they see themselves, and the way they want to be seen.
“It’s about engaging the community,” says Lo. “It’s about asking the community, ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ What’s our place in the world? And in the Asia-Pacific region?”
Of course, the question of what it means to be an Australian is a personal one. For Lo, born in Australia to Chinese parents, it’s the ever-changing face of a multicultural Australia that forms an important part of his motivation to fight for an Australian Republic.
“When I think about Australia, I think about the diversity. It’s a land of opportunity; it’s a great multicultural society… I don’t see the ties with the UK. Certainly, there’s a historical tie, and let’s acknowledge that. It’s important because it’s a part of our history. But I think we’ve evolved and we’ve moved beyond that. We are an independent nation, with an independent identity, in a region that is very diverse in itself as well. So when I think about what it means to be Australian, it’s about that multicultural facet, that diversity, that inclusion. I’m very proud of it. I think we should be celebrating that.”
The movement towards an Australian Republic is by no means a modern development. Both the Australasian Anti-Transportation League of the 1840s and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 were significant anti-British movements, with the implication that succession from the British Empire was a viable goal. The short- lived Australian Republican Association was also formed in 1887, in dissent to the perceived unfairness of British rule at that time. One attendee of the ARA meetings was so incensed by the movement that he was motivated to write his first poem, entitled, “A Song of the Republic”. That poet happened to be Henry Lawson, a man who would eventually became a paradigm of Australian identity.
More recently, the Republican movement reached an apex in 1999, with the Australian public finally having the opportunity to address the idea through a referendum. However, as the question posed not only proposed a republic but also the leadership model, many voters erred on the side of caution. 54.87% of voters voted ‘No’ on the proposal, and for many, the issue had now been put to bed. But has anything changed since 1999? For Lo, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
“From a political perspective, Australia’s growing out of its shell, and becoming more active on the global stage,” he says.
“At the moment, our Head of State is the Queen of England. But will the Queen of England go out of her way to promote Australian products overseas? No. We want an Australian Head of State that does that. We want someone to go out there and promote Australia. Promote our identity, promote our products, promote our opportunities.”
“What I’m asking the Australian people to think about is our future, to think about what we’re going to be like in fifty to one hundred years. Do we want to be a major player in the world? Do we want to be an influential nation in our region? Of course we do. So I think having an Australian Republic and an Australian Head of State is not just a changing facet in Australia, but also overseas as well.”
“I think we’re very unique in the world. We have very unique values and a unique identity, and I think by having an Australian Republic, we will cap that off.”
Australia is a nation that has always suffered an identity crisis. From a time when hundreds of autonomous and culturally definable groups of indigenous Australians covered nearly every part of the continent and backwards into the fog of pre-history, to its conversion into a shady, imperial outpost. From its status a melting pot of Protestants and Catholics operating in the distant shadow of the British-Irish conflict, and again into an emigration destination for people of all nationalities and cultures worldwide. Perhaps, at this point in time, the only definable characteristic of the Australian people is the severe difficulty in defining them. Surely then, a discussion about an Australian Republic must in itself be a vital part of Australian identity. To have enough self-reflection to continuously re-evaluate and re-assess ‘Australian-ness’ is demonstrative of a kind of social and ideological freedom that is not granted to so many other people on this planet. Too many nations suffer from the constraints imposed on them by their national leaders – North Korea would be the most blunt and prolific example of this – or through the impasse that may stem from a deep cultural heritage – consider for example the seeming unwillingness of the American people to concede their constitutional right to bear arms due to a fiercely-held reverence for liberty; a constitutional right that is virtually irrelevant in a modern society.
However, a push towards an Australian Republic is only one avenue through which the Australian people can generate a sense of fundamental, communal identity. The leaders we elect, and the policies they put forward, certainly have an impact on how the rest of the world perceives Australians. The current situation regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, with bipartisan support for measures that skirt and violate human rights law and our responsibilities as a member of the global community, is a considerable blemish on our national character. But of course, our international profile does not rest in the hands of our leaders alone. Australian backpackers have a burgeoning reputation for being boisterous and offensive, and regular tourist haunts such as Bali and Thailand, despite reaping the financial benefits of tourism, also suffer under the force of the Western cultural imperialism that these tourists bring with them.
There is a strong case at hand to open a public discussion on Australia’s role and identity as a community, both internally and in a global context. But it would be wrong to consider it a progression towards a definable conclusion. Instead, we need to remember to maintain that self-reflection, to continue to evolve and be willing to redefine the parameters that bind us together as a people, besides the simple fact that we all reside on one very large rock. Regardless of our political stances or cultural backgrounds, our leadership and representation, the idea of a Republic, and the appropriateness of a British Head of State, is a central aspect of that discussion. There is absolutely no reason that the discussion and the self-reflection regarding these issues cannot begin now – and continue well into the future.
Currently touring the country for the first time since its inception, the National Republican Lecture will be held on Monash University’s Caulfield Campus, Building H, Lecture Theatre 1.16, on Wednesday June 5 at 6pm. The event will see prominent author and media personality Peter FitzSimons speak on behalf of the Australian Republican Movement. Entry is free.