The Republicans are Gathering

by Glenn Davies

July 7, 2011 will see the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Australian Republican Movement. The middle of 1991 saw a great deal of republican activity. There was the ARM formation, the motion at the ALP Hobart Centenary Conference to ‘bring republicanism forward’, and the grassroots activity of Peter Consandine and the Republican Party of Australia, writes history editor Glenn Davies.

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In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian Republican Movement, it needs to be acknowledged that although the ARM has certainly been the largest of Australia’s republican groups there have been other groups and activists striving for the same outcome.

 The Australian Republican Movement did not come up with the idea of a republic in a vacuum. There have always been individual advocates and small groups that have proselytised on the idea of a republic. From the 1956 Olympics until the early 1980s there was the Australian Republican Party, then in 1982 Peter Consandine founded the Republican Party of Australia.

The history of Australian republicanism is not the history of a movement.  At his launch of Our Republic, Australian Republican Movement spokesman and novelist Thomas Keneally stated:

“The republic was a river running underground for most of Australia’s history but now it runs by full daylight and the sea is in sight … [it is] a great torrent bearing us into the future.”

 Keneally’s analogy suggested there had been an Australian republican movement totally interconnected into one great momentum through Australian history.  The reality is that it had been a series of billabongs, sprinkled along the republican waterway; a waterway that, at times, had dried up completely.

 The Australian Republican Party was the first organised republican association in the twentieth century. The initial impetus for formation of the Australian Republican Party came from the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games when a group of people became annoyed at hearing ‘God Save the Queen’ played every time an Australian mounted the dais. The Melbourne Olympic Games saw a swag of medals collected by Australia on its own soil.  This new sense of national pride saw a corresponding rise in nationalism. The emphasis during the Olympic Games was on Australian medals, not in British Empire achievements. A nation obsessed with sporting prowess and achievement, Australians were hungry for sporting accolades. Australian medals were seen as Australian successes. The then President of the Australian Republican Party, Ross Mullins, stated that the aspects of the Olympic Games that impressed the founders of the Australian Republican Party were competition and international friendship. As a result the Australian Republican Party emphasised that it was neither anti-British nor anti-American. This was a republicanism grounded not in political reform but in a sense of national identity. Rather than political separation these republicans appeared to be initially calling for a distinct national identity in the context of sport.

 The Australian Republican Party admitted it was unlikely to win political representation in the foreseeable future, and placed more emphasis upon maintaining the issue of republicanism in the minds of the public. The foundation date of the Australian Republican Party is in doubt, but by 1959 it was claiming as the primary plank of its platform the establishment of an independent republic. During the 1960s the Australian Republican Party made nationalist statements defining an Australian, for instance, as:

 “a man who centres his ideals in Australia and consciously devotes his life to making Australia prosper.”

 Although the party did field candidates in several elections in the early 1960s, it fell victim to an ideological split in 1968. In 1970, Margaret Jones wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

 “as far as republicanism has raised its head it has been an individual, intellectual sort of phenomenon, rather than a political one.”

 Glenn Davies at Republican Party of Australian conference in West End, Brisbane, 1991

The republicans described themselves as a conservative party, with an average age of 35. It appears the Australian Republican Party and their supporters were individualists without the ability to organise people on a mass scale.  When the Australian Republican Party called to “reverse the trend” in 1982 back to a moral and humane society based on a small business economy, small government, equality, a non-racist and classless system, republican government, and a strong family unit, they were reflecting their membership of the middle class.

 Peter Consandine, with his colleagues in the Republican Party of Australia, had worked since the early 1980s to create an Australian republic. In 1982, Consandine stood as a Constitutional Republican for the seat of Lowe. In 1988, I had completed my history honours thesis at James Cook University on the Charters Towers based Australasian Republican Movement of the early 1890s. The bicentennial year had brought up a great deal of national discussion on identity and independence. In 1988, the Coalition of Republican Organisations had developed and distributed an Australian Republicanism Education Kit for Australian High Schools. This kit alerted me to the kits producer, Peter Consandine and his Republican Party of Australia. Then on 18 May 1991, only a few weeks after I had returned from graduate study in political science at Illinois State University, I delivered a paper called “Political Freedom” at the 5th Annual National Convention of the Republican Party of Australia, West End, Brisbane.  This was only 7 weeks before the launch of the Australian Republican Movement. At the Convention Consandine said he believed:

 “the abolition of monarchy, the present constitution, the federal and state governments, and the existing court system was possible within the next ten years.”

 In their place the Republican Party of Australia proposed the country be divided into 50 regions, each with its own 10-person legislative assembly and two delegates in one National Parliament. Their policy was for a 2 tier system of government — effectively a merging of State government with Local government so that National government could work in tandem with Regional government.

 The Australian Republican Movement has steadfastly kept an apolitical advocacy approach, whereas the Republican Party of Australia has actively sought political election for its members. In August 1991, Peter Consandine coordinated a ‘People’s Republican Rally’ in Sydney in an effort to bring together the many small republican groups contained within the Coalition of Republican Organisations. The Coalition of Republican Organisations contained 11 groups, including the Australian Republican Council, the Queensland Australian Republican Party, the National Republican Alliance, the Regional Co-operative Government Movement, the New Australian Flag Push, the Campaign for Australian Constitutional Change, and the Republican Society of Australia. The purpose of the meeting was to choose candidates to contest the next Senate elections. The Republican Party of Australia had benefitted from the formation of the Australian Republican Movement, with an increase in members joining. By 1992, they had well over the 500 members required by the Australian Electoral Commission to register a political party.

 Peter Consandine’s 1991 ‘People’s Republican Rally’ idea was used during the 2000s in a series of ‘Republican Gatherings’. The first two ‘Republican Gatherings’ were held in Canberra, the third in Brisbane, and the fourth in Sydney. The fifth ‘Republican Gathering’ occurred on the 2009 Queen’s Birthday weekend in Melbourne, when Australia’s leading republican groups joined forces for a renewed push to cut the nation’s ties to the monarchy. The republican groups decided they should unite in an active coalition to urge the Government to conduct a national plebiscite to give the Australian people a say in the future republic of Australia. The meeting was convened by Women for an Australian Republic and included the Australian Republican Movement, Real Republic Limited, the Copernican Republicans, the Foundation for Constitutional Renewal, Patriots for the Australian Republic, Republic Now!, and the Republican Party of Australia. This ‘Republican Gathering’ united previously opposed groups under the old name Coalition of Australian Republicans with a common commitment to the sovereignty of the Australian people and showed the determination of the broader republican movement to unite to give support to the Australian people’s determination to be central to any change to their Constitution.

 The Coalition of Australian Republicans agreed on the following principles:

  1. The Australian people must own the process leading to a republic – including the selection of the republican model to be put to the required referendum.
  2. One or more non-binding plebiscites should be part of the process of moving towards the final referendum.
  3. We should not wait until the death or abdication of the Queen but should determine our own timetable to discuss our own future
  4. Our elected representatives, whether state or federal, should swear allegiance to Australia and her people – not the British crown.

 On a broader scale, Common Cause was formed in early 2005 as an Alliance of the four Commonwealth Republican Movements: the Australian Republican Movement (ARM); Citizens for a Canadian Republic (CCR); the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand; and Republic in the UK. Sharing a Commonwealth heritage, the four republican organisations joined forces to pursue their common cause — to bring about four new Commonwealth republics across the globe. Common Cause provides a framework for the member organisations to share information, resources and ideas to bring about their common goal.

Peter Consandine and the Republican Party of Australia survived into the 1990s although its efforts were increasingly overshadowed by the high-profile Australian Republican Movement. In 2011 the Republican Party of Australia is still led by Peter Consandine and continues to work at a grass-roots level and endeavour to have republican members elected to government. In 1991, Peter Consandine attempted to garner electoral support from the Coalition of Republican Organisations. In 1999, the divisions between the republican organisations over whether a president should be elected or appointed helped to defeat the republican campaign at the referendum in 1999. Now the various strands of republican thinking and their groups are working together in coalition — all pulling in the same direction for the same common cause.

* reprinted with permission courtesy of The Independent Monthly

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