It’s often said that Australia needs to become a republic because of our lagging reputation in Asia. Many republicans lament that our institutional attachment to the British Monarchy puzzles northern neighbours, implying an old-world ‘Anglophile’ attachment that tugs on our standing in the region.
“With the economic and political balance now shifting to our part of the world,” writes Wayne Swan in Project Republic, “the idea of an Australian head of state who resides in London seems anachronistic in the extreme”. Swan, to be fair, wrote these words in 2013 – a climactic time for the Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper.
But recently business leaders like Cameron Clyne – former NAB CEO – have revived the Asian future argument at expense of the Crown. “You do wonder the degree to which our trading partners look at that symbol,” said Clyne recently, “and question our real commitment to economic integration with Asia.”
This thinking, although sharply focused on economics, is not new. In the 1980s and 1990s, Paul Keating cited integration with Asia, alongside reconciliation and equality, as one of the key drivers of the republican push. It was also a key discussion item at the 1998 Constitutional Convention.
But adding to today’s republican arguments are changing demographics – that the “the south-east corner of Australia is already Eurasian,” says George Megalogenis, which many republicans take as a green light for Australia to ‘come of age’ and commence shedding its Anglophile heritage. “Megalogenis suggests that rather than using demographic divides for domestic political gain,” the ABC eagerly summarises, “Australia’s foreign policy needs to shift away from its Anglo European roots and engage more positively with the mother countries of foreign-born Australians.”
More unsettling is the view that, due to such factors, it’s not just the Crown but the system of representative politics that lacks legitimacy. “If parliament is a reflection of the face of modern Australia,” wrote Jieh-Yung Lo in a recent edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, “there should be at least 104 MPs from culturally diverse backgrounds.”
So it seems the Australian Crown is being cramped at two ends – economics at one and demographics at the other. And both ends bake in the old but misguided assumption of a bewildered Asia, incapable of understanding the Union Jack in the corner of the Australian flag.
As someone born not in Australia but Papua New Guinea, I have always found these arguments in sum, and by themselves, puzzling. The assumptions these points attribute to Australians and people across the region fall well-short of any sophistication, let alone an appreciation of history or Australia’s regional achievements.
Even prior to federation demographic changes in the colonies challenged institutions and provoked questions of identity. In mid-1850s Victoria, on the precipice of the gold rush, nearly a quarter of the rapidly growing population was Chinese-born. While not hugely revelatory, it does show that the first major influx of Asian immigration didn’t just occur with the Colombo Plan, as many would like to think, or following Whitlam’s over-applauded outreach to China.
What sort of pressure did this place on institutions at the time? In 1861, as part of an anti-Chinese riot at Lambing Flat, 2000 miners rampaged through terrified Chinese gold mining camps and settlements. The mob was responding to the rejection of an anti-Chinese immigration bill in the New South Wales parliament. But police and military detachments were rapidly deployed, crushing the belligerents and restoring law and order.
It is examples like this – positive protection under a British rule of law – that no doubt sent a powerful and unique message across the region. Matched with the appeal of the colonies as a place of opportunity and upward mobility, it is an enduring but under-acknowledged element of Australian ‘soft power’ in the nineteenth century.
Indeed, early examples like this contrast markedly from some of the messages being sent to the region today. For example, the Adani Carmichael coal mine project has spent eight years in the approvals process, fighting more than 10 legal challenges and sits waiting with a 22,000-page environmental impact statement. One senses it is issues like this that should sharpen the focus of Australian business leaders – not plotting the case for a republic.
The best way to look at Australia’s achievements in Asia is through the Howard prime ministership, which serves as a symbolic exercise in an Australia confident in tradition but also of its place in the world. Howard was excoriated for familiar elements republicans hold in their arsenal – not taking Asia seriously, denying destiny, for clasping too tightly to the US alliance, and becoming antagonistic toward China. His 1995 reply to Keating’s republican proposal was, according to the late journalist Alan Ramsey, “that dreadful. It was facile, contrived, pedestrian and disingenuous… It exposed him more brutally than ever as a leader locked into the past, as a politician of indecision, of no courage, no guile, no ideas, no true understanding of his own country in the 1990s and no feel for the future.”
Of course, Howard’s regional legacy went on to show otherwise – signing a Free Trade Agreement with China; securing stability and independence with East Timor; growing counter-terrorism ties with Indonesia; renewing diplomatic links with North Korea; bringing Australia into the East Asia Summit; and overseeing the greatest influx of Asian migrants in Australian history. Ultimately, however, Howard’s achievements are echoes of previous Asian-focused engagement on both sides of politics – Barton (Japan); Lyons (Indonesia, China and Japan); Evatt (multilateralism); Casey (diplomatic relations); McEwen (Japan); and Hasluck (colonial administration). No achievements required a departure “from Anglo European roots”, nor a seismic conversion to a republic.
The Crown is not a symbol of confusion in Asia. It stands as an example of tradition and stability that is well-understood in a region where these concepts have not just footing but appeal as indeed they do in most of the planet. At the 1998 Constitutional Convention the late Kim Bonython said that “I always thought that reverence for one’s ancestors was a cornerstone of Asian philosophy.” Ironically, if only republicans be more like Asia.
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