Wattle Day Address – 1 September 2006
@ Lachlan’s Restaurant – Old Government House Parramatta
by Clr David Borger – Lord Mayor of Parramatta
Ladies and Gentleman, patriots and fellow republicans…
It’s appropriate for many reasons that we celebrate Wattle Day here in Parramatta … and also consider today how we can win success next time we go to the barricades to fight for a Republic.
Wattle is the right symbol for that endeavour – especially as it blooms around us so optimistically today.
It’s green and gold colours are intrinsic to our landscape and to our own native identity – far more so than the inherited imperial colours: the red, blue and white of the Union Jack.
Wattle may be an undeniably Australian identity but like us it comes in many species. There are 954 recognised species of Acacia in Australia, just as there are hundreds of national backgrounds in the blood of Australians.
Of course you have to be a better expert than me to pick out the different species of these Acacia. As for the Australian people …. in a few more generations not even the experts will be able to identify the original nations flowing in veins of modern Australians.
In our culture and in our blood we hold the stories of a remarkable number of countries – and the many subtly different species of our national flower remind us of that special mix which makes us Australian.
Wattle too made up the very walls of the new settlement. Settlers used wattle and daub to construct the first buildings of the new Australia. You see it still in the old walls of the first Government House just here next to us today. You see it in the walls of John Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm, Australia’s oldest surviving building, just near here in Harris Park.
Wattles too are hardy plants, pioneering plants, and often the first to appear after bushfires and devastation … yet another reason why they are an apt symbol for Australian republicans! As we know, republicans also have to be hardy plants, very patient and able to survive a few first defeats.
And this gets us to the Referendum of 1999 and why – of all places – Parramatta failed to deliver a Republic. I think – for the bigger battle – there are some lessons to be learnt here.
Parramatta has one of the most mixed populations in Australia – there are many, many species of Australian wattle in my home! And I might say we all sit together in the vase fairly harmoniously!!
There are citizens here with national backgrounds from the Philippines to the Sudan, from China to South America, from Lebanon to Tonga. You’d think the old imperial links to Britain and to monarchy would have little attraction to them.
What does a Queen of Australia in Buckingham Palace mean to them?
And yet in the Federal seat of Parramatta, 48.5 % of citizens voted for a Republic while 51.5% voted against it. That’s actually quite close – a difference of only some 2,500 votes – but why didn’t all those citizens with such little connection to a British past help swing it the other way?
The reason is that few felt that the debate had anything to do with their future, that there was anything at stake for them. The debate was as irrelevant to them as the Queen of England.
When faced with a referendum suggesting constitutional change – and with even that deliberately minimalist model of change, an appointed President – these citizens from many cultures fell back on the same conservative habits held by Australians for the last one hundred years since Federation. They voted it down.
Australians in the century before Federation – in our first full century – haven’t always been so cautious. As Kim Beazley has noted, if Australians were as conservative in the first century as we became in the second century, we probably wouldn’t have even federated into a Commonwealth.
True to the more adventurous spirit of those early Australians, the citizens of Parramatta were also much less cautious, much more ready to risk all to change the status quo.
Parramatta in fact was home to the first acts of defiance which made us a nation.
Its citizens may not have thrown out the Queen of Britain in the first Referendum … but nearly 200 years earlier the officers of regiments here formed the Rum Rebellion, marched on Sydney and overthrew Governor Bligh.
And as they grappled with leadership above them, these British rebels were confident at least in the illusion that the Aboriginal people would yield their country without rebellion. It was however another rebel from Parramatta country which proved them wrong. The Darug leader Pemulwuy resisted the displacement of his people with guerrilla warfare.
Pemulwuy was eventually shot in 1802 and his head was chopped off, just around the corner from here in Church Street. It was sent in a jar back to England, back to the “home country”!
Then the so-called Battle of Vinegar Hill followed two years later … when the Irish convicts staged here the first rebellion in the colony’s history. These convicts, Irish and Catholic, had no love for their British and Protestant overlords. They were Parramatta’s first natural rebels to our links with Britain. Their resistance at the Castle Hill Stockade was overcome, but their Irish descendents – from Keating to Keneally – were to play their role 200 years later in trying to make Australia a Republic …. even if that role now is a little less violent.
But what we modern day Republicans haven’t done, whether Irish or otherwise, is to take all the other non-British nationalities with us.
That rebel spirit in the early citizens of Parramatta has been lost. So too has that democratic, innovative spirit of 19th Century Australia generally. I’m talking about the spirit which produced early voting rights for women, secret ballots and fair, groundbreaking systems of social security and industrial relations.
Why is it so hard now to revive that democratic fervour in the name of constitutional change? In Parramatta it’s even hard to take down the Queen’s picture! This was my experience when as a councillor I entered the Chamber for my first Council meeting in the mid-90s. The picture of the Queen was there and it is still there. There is, on balance, simply more in political capital to lose in taking her picture down, than there is to gain by quietly ignoring her.
The lesson is that next time we go to the barricades it must be a grassroots campaign which builds connections (and not just to the usual Irish rebels!) to each ethnic community.
Republicans must be at every ethnic festival, every national day and national flag raising, every religious ceremony, every ethnic food tasting, every cultural and community event across the country.
And when the winning celebrations are being planned, that final party, it shouldn’t be a posh affair on the steps of the Opera House, but a celebration in the community halls and backyards across the nation.
In the same way that the next Republican campaign must be inclusive and grassroots, so inevitably must our leadership accept that the preferred model of a republic is the one of direct election.
An Australian Republic must be the republic Australians want. It won’t – perhaps sadly – come after a quick rush to the barricades. It will come only after a long campaign led across the country by active Republicans as diverse as the Australian population itself.
Then one day the wattle will bloom all at once – in all its many varieties – across the Australian Republic.