Peter FitzSimons delivers the 2017 Thea Astley Lecture

Delivered at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival on 5 August 2017

 

We are met at an enormously exciting time for the Australian Republic Movement. In the past week, we have had an enormous breakthrough, with the announcement by Bill Shorten that, if elected, his government will hold a referendum in his first term with the simple question "Do you think Australia should be a republic and have an Australian as our head of state?"

This is much the same question as we have in our platform, with the only suggestion I make being that it should be amended and lengthened to say, "Do you think Australia should have an Australian as our head of state, or are you a little Englander?" (Jokes, just jokes!)

The response has been fantastic. We have been swamped with membership applications, donations and offers of support. We are on our way. That said, we remain, as I said in my own speech last Saturday night, ruthlessly bipartisan, and so we will remain, but it is an enormous breakthrough. What we most want – and respectfully call for – is for the Prime Minister to match the commitment of Bill Shorten.

The past two years have been tumultuous and exciting, and I feel this cause with a great passion, that I nevertheless try to keep tidy. Following my wife's exhortations, I have tried to remain calm, reasonable and measured, even in the face of opponents who maintain there is no problem because being Queen of Australia makes Her Majesty an "Australian". But here at the mighty Byron Bay Writers Festival let me say what I truly think.

The current situation is ridiculous and embarrassing to our nation – it is the last bastion of the cultural cringe, the embarrassing idea that Australia can't run its own show and needs to timidly attach itself to the political infrastructure of another nation, for fear of otherwise going to hell in a handcart. This from the people who – from all the lands on earth we come – managed to prosper and grow in an oft barren wilderness, led the world in democratic reform, who stormed the beaches and then cliffs of Gallipoli, invented penicillin, dominated dozens of world sporting stages, and flourished in the creative arts?

We are better than that!

At the ARM we stand for one thing: that is, that Australia can do better in the 21st century than find our head of state from one family of English aristocrats living in a palace in London. Despite the imprecations of my friend Tony Abbott this week that it is, and I quote, "un-Australian," to desire to be a republic – because gawd knows nothing says "Australia" so much to my former rugby coach as our best and brightest being summoned to the royal presence to bow to members of an English family, who are there by birthright alone – at the ARM we think that 250 years after Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, it might be time that we at last became a truly independent sovereign nation.

Look, Mum, no hands!

And I say that with the greatest respect for our first peoples.

When we do become a republic, it will be a signal to the world and to ourselves, that we're not a nation with a history of 116 years, or 225 years, or 250 years. Our people, we, have been here for 65,000 years, the oldest civilisation on earth!

No more of the First Peoples being "strangers in their own land". The whole construct of the Australian republic would be that we are so much more than a transplanted Anglo colony, and we all can be proud of our history back to antiquity. To quote my former biographical subject Kim Beazley, "we came here in different boats, but we're all in the same boat now."

Constitution can be improved
So you can call us "un-Australian" if you must, but we say to the "constitutionalists," who act as if the Australian constitution was on the 1th tablet brought down from the mount by Moses, that it is possible, just possible, that the constitution could be improved a tad, and that is never so apparent as right now!

We reckon that at a time we are ruthlessly eliminating elected representatives because, in fealty to the constitution, we cannot have dual citizens, cannot have those of fractured focus in our parliament, cannot have those less than 100 per cent Australian running the nation's affairs, it might be time to look again at that part of the constitution which insists that our head of state be 100 per cent English!

We reckon there is something seriously weird, and embarrassing, about demanding that our parliamentarians be top to toe, back-to-front, ridgy-didge, dinky-di, true blue and smell of gum-leaves just before we make them swear allegiance to someone who is 100 per cent foreign!

We reckon it's time to update that document when, quite contrary to the democratic dictum of the need for a separation of church and state, it still insists that for perpetuity Australia install as head of state, one who is also the head of the Church of England!

And again, I say that with great respect to Her Majesty.

Like Bill Shorten, I am not "Elizabethan", I am Australian – "I know no other land," the Opposition Leader noted, quoting Henry Lawson – but I certainly admire her, and genuinely wish her well. Long may she reign over them.

Britain needs reign. We don't reign.

So what do we propose to replace the current system with, what kind of model do we have for our republic?

At the Australian Republican Movement we are like a toy plane convention at St Mary's Cathedral – we are a broad church with lots of great models that will fly.

The point is not to choose one or other of these models now, and say the Australian Republic Movement chooses one and not the other, the point is to trust Australian democracy, to trust the wisdom of the people, to first ask do you want to be a republic, and then have a national conversation of what kind of republic we want to be, before going to the polls once more.

Personally – and I mean personally, because the ARM has no preferred model – I am a minimalist.

At the moment the system for selecting the governor-general is very simple. The prime minister, the democratically elected leader of the Australian people, makes his or her choice, and then writes a letter to Her Majesty The Queen, seeking from the hereditary head of Great Britain – occupying the most entrenched position of elitism in the world – her approval for this decision. I propose a single change, the minimalist model, with no bells, no whistles and no postage stamp.

Everything stays the same, starting with the title of "governor-general" and including the convention that the prime minister chooses that person; including their reserve powers, and including the writing of the letter seeking permission.

But, and here is the rub, instead of sending that letter external mail to the British Queen, the prime minister sends it internal mail to a joint sitting of the Parliament of the people, to seek a two-thirds majority. If the PM fails to achieve that majority the position devolves to the Chief Justice of the High Court to oversee the workings of the Constitution, until a majority is achieved.

Others within the Australian Republican Movement – and I cite particularly the likes of David Marr, Peter Beattie and our National Director Michael Cooney – prefer a direct election model like Ireland has, while still others say let's have no governor-general at all, let our head of state be our prime minister.

This will be an important national conversation to have, and this time, with the spectre of the horror of what happened in 1999 before us, we won't turn on each other, we will respect Australian democracy.

There are many Nervous Nellies and Neddy Naysayers saying "we can't, we won't, we shouldn't, it'll be a disaster, it'll be chaos, it'll be unstable."

This is no surprise. Throughout history such people have been there.

When you think that when America was separating from Great Britain, they had tens of thousands of Americans who fought with the Brits, we can consider ourselves lucky that our Nervous Nellies and Neddy Naysayers confine themselves to columns starting with "I'm a republican, but …" making bitter talkback calls, and penning angry letters to the editor at the very idea that Australia could actually separate from "the mother country" as the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy call it.

And rather than disrespecting our history, Australia becoming a republic would actually be a wonderful blooming of our history, a quintessentially Australian story of an underdog struggle, against long odds, against the long-established and well-entrenched top order, steaming in from the Randwick end, coming good in the final overs to triumph as the British Crown gracefully withdraws to the far pavilions whence they came, and Australian crowd rises and roars.

Independence day coming soon
And I make this as a serious observation, in this week when the Ashes are now back on, the cricketers and their administrators are now once more all good friends, and jolly good company. When that first ball is bowled in the First Ashes Test, an enormous chunk of Australia will be watching, and as the Australian fast bowler steams in towards the blinking English opener, there will be this visceral surge, this atavistic surge, coming from deep within us, coming from many generations back – "KILL HIM!, TAKE HIS HEAD OFF!" It's there. It's real. It's stronger than we are.

And yet many of those people – particularly blokes – who feel it most strongly, because it's somehow a chance to show just how strong we've become, pull back from the idea of a republic, rage at the very idea that their own children could be as worthy of being the Australian head of state as the children of a family in England.

Why?

I frankly have no clue. But as we move towards this campaign for the next referendum, it will be for us to work out how to channel the passion of the first ball of the Ashes into also believing that we can also come up with a system of government every bit as strong as theirs, while entirely independent of them.

Yes, the monarchy has been a significant part of our history, but that part no more has to define us than it has to confine us, to prevent us from moving forward, moving away from the monarchy in the 21st century.

As little as four years from now, Australia could have the greatest day of its rich history, the day we become independent – possibly giving us our own "Independence Day" to circumvent the growing controversy and disquiet over Australia Day – a day when we all come together, as one, inclusively.

When that great day comes, those who are republicans can be pleased. Those who have been members of our movement, who've rolled up their sleeves, pitched in, and helped make it happen, can be proud.

I am proud to lead this movement, and humbly ask your help.

I am honoured to give the Thea Astley Lecture.

I thank you.