John Bell's 2015 National Republican Lecture

The ARM is grateful to John Bell, AO, for permission to reproduce his National Republican Lecture, delivered on 13 November 2015 in Sydney.

John Bell is one of the nation’s most illustrious theatre personalities. Award-winning actor, acclaimed director, risk-taking impressario and torch-bearing educationalist, Bell has been a key figure in shaping the nation’s theatrical identity as we know it over the past 50 years. He is the founding Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company.

The text of the speech follows, and a video is available here. We thank Kevin Horgan for his generosity in recording and hosting the video footage.

For me it’s all about identity. Who are we? How do we see ourselves? How do we want the rest of the world to see us? Now some people are going to protest: “Stop banging on about the Australian Identity – we don’t need to keep talking about it – we know who we are!” But do we? It seems that every new crisis sparks debate about our self-image and our collective values. We proudly sing: “For those who’ve come across the seas we've boundless plains to share” While pushing back the boats and locking up children in detention centres.

I think we've little consensus about who we are. When in doubt, we thrash about and abuse people who disagree with us as “un-Australian”, but where is our collective voice on climate change, renewable energy? Refugee intake? Marriage equality? Animal rights? Live exports? Equitable funding for schools, TAFES and universities?

On many issues we are a divided nation and yet a sense of who we are and what our values are has rarely been more urgent, as we grapple with Islamaphobia, paranoia about terrorism and police surveillance powers and the rise of over a dozen right-wing extremist groups such as the United Patriots’ Front, Squadron 88, the Australian Defence League and the Party for Freedom, who recently held a ‘Torpedo the Boats’ rally.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald in July this year stated “If we’re to have an effective strategy to counter violent extremism, we need to get a consensus answers to the questions of what it means to be Australian and how we define our values”. That same edition of the Herald reported “British laws came into force this month (i.e. July 2015) that place a duty on various authorities to promote British values in schools, universities, prisons and public spaces…Prime Minister David Cameron said ‘It’s a matter of identity’”.

In attempting to define a National Identity we must be aware that it is a constantly changing and evolving thing. That’s true of any country, and whatever we think of the Australian Identity today, it little resembles the Australia of 60 years ago. My childhood memories include the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy, dread of the Yellow Peril (which meant virtually anybody to our North), the bitter sectarian strife between Protestants and Catholics, (my father always felt his career in the Bank had been stymied by the Masons), a total ignorance of and indifference to aboriginal people and their culture, intense homophobia, a beery philistinism that mocked people who lived “a life of the mind” or dared to call themselves artists.

Our national icons were sporting heroes, men like Don Bradman, Ken Rosewall and Frank Sedgeman. There weren’t many female sporting champions and women were almost invisible in influential positions in medicine, science, the law, politics and the corporate world. A woman’s place was very firmly in the home.

Despite our proclaimed virtues of mateship and “a fair go”, we were suspicious of foreigners and initially unwelcoming to successive waves of immigrants – the Greeks, the Italians, the Vietnamese and more recently, people from the Middle East. Those in authority coined compassionate names for groups of newcomers in an attempt to appeal to our humanity. Early newcomers we sneered at “migrants”; and Refugees soon became despised “reffos”. The positively emotive term “New Australians” soon became a pejorative: “Some New Australians have moved in – there goes the neighbourhood”.

You’d hope that compassionate names like “boat people” and even more so, “asylum seekers” might appeal to our better natures, but these too quickly became terms of abuse, to be equated with dole bludgers, queue jumpers and even terrorists. Our attitude to aboriginal people was equally primitive:If you visit the Australian National Museum in Canberra, you'll see a short piece of black-and-white film recording an Australia Day celebration in Sydney in 1938. To a crowd of onlookers on the beach, a group of Aboriginal dancers perform a short corroboree. A long boat pulls in on the sand and out steps Arthur Phillip with a troop of redcoats. With fixed bayonets, and to the menacing beat of the drum, they drive the Aborigines off the beach, to the applause of the crowd. That is how we celebrated Australia Day 77 years ago, as an act of British conquest.

So you can see we have made some progress over the last 70 years or so. We’ve seen the recognition of aboriginal land rights, the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality, acknowledgement of the stolen generations, and inquiries into domestic violence and institutionalised child abuse. Women have started to break through various glass ceilings, and our multicultural experiment is, by and large, a remarkable success story. There are many ways of defining and proclaiming a national identity. One way is through powerful symbols such as our flag, our national anthem and our Head of State…Whatever your opinion of the Obama administration, the fact that Americans elected a black President says a lot about the USA as a nation that sees itself as democratic, racially inclusive and looking to the future.

So you can understand the confusion of visitors from overseas when they are told that we, living at the bottom of the world, have as our Head of State the Queen of England. It’s about identity. We should have a Head of State who is one of us – an Australian. I am not anti-British and have no gripe with the Royal Family doing their thing at home. I am quite happy to be an Anglophile, in fact it’s hard not to be, given my upbringing and education. I was weaned on Winnie the Pooh, progressed to Biggles and the Brontes, and graduated to Keats, Shelly, Milton and most of all Shakespeare who has been my lifelong inspiration and as we say in the theatre the gentleman who pays the rent. I have a great admiration for many aspects of English culture and institutions and what Germaine Greer describes as Britain’s “tolerance, pluralism, the talent for viable compromise and a profound commitment to that most wasteful of social organisations, democracy”.

I feel strongly that we should study and acknowledge our British heritage and what it has done for Australia – as long as we look at it fair and square, take the bad along with the good, acknowledge the massacres and degradation of our indigenous people, and the imposition of a British system of class and privilege at odds with our egalitarian instincts. I also have respect for the Queen. She seems to be a woman of personal integrity and she runs a very successful business. If the English want her as their Head of State, that’s fine by me. But then a lot of Brits don’t want the Queen or the royal family. They don’t want a monarchy.

A recent Guardian survey found English support of the monarchy to be sitting at about 75%, largely due to the hoopla surrounding the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A much larger slump in the support of the monarchy is expected with the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of Charles. Britain is changing. According to a Policy Exchange Report published in May this year, it is estimated that by 2050, one third of Britain’s population will be made up of ethnic minorities, the largest groups being Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African and Black Caribbean. Since 2001 the white population of Britain has grown by 1.4% whereas the Black African population has grown by 106.3% and all other ethnicities by 164.4% this is a very different England to that of “Goodbye Mr Chips”.

As the monarchy becomes increasingly non-representative of Great Britain, what does that mean vis-a-vis the monarchy and Australia? Australia is changing too. The 2011 census showed that more than 75% of Australians identified with an ancestry other than Australian. 43% have at least one parent born overseas. 30% of Australians were born overseas. 8.5% were born in non-English-speaking countries. 2% are indigenous. Australians come from over 200 birthplaces and speak over 200 languages. Only 61% are Christian (split into 70 denominations). 18% profess to be Anglican, 33% of Australians profess no religion at all. Australia has almost twice as many atheists as Anglicans. So it seems something of an anomaly that our Head of State is also Head of the Church of England.

How does that title, that office, relate to the vast majority of the Australian population? There are a number of reasons why I believe the English monarch should not be our Head of State. Many of them will be familiar to you: She is a foreigner. She lives 10,000 miles away and visits us only occasionally. Her visits abroad are to further British interests and trade, not Australian interests and trade. She pays no tax into Australian revenue. She is also the Head of State for 16 other countries. The British Commonwealth of Nations is made up of 53 states, of which 32 are already republics. Her interests have to coincide with Britain’s ahead of ours, especially as long as Britain is a member of the E.E.U. When she barracks in the Grand Final or goes to Wimbledon, Lords or the Olympic Games, she'll be barracking for England, not Australia. We have created an egalitarian society which has no place for arcane English honorifics such as Knights, Dames, Dukes and Viscounts.

Tony Abbot’s reintroduction of Imperial Honours, capped by his bestowing a Knighthood on the Duke of Edinburgh crystallises the time warp into which Australian monarchists have locked themselves. Many of us feel it is profoundly undemocratic to have a hereditary monarch anyway…someone whose status and considerable influence is based not on character or ability but a mere accident of birth.

As Prime Minister Bob Hawke put it in his Bicentenary speech of 1988 “Our very diversity is an ever-growing source of the richness, vitality and strength of our community. In Australia there is no hierarchy of descent; there must be no privilege of origin. “How can a democratic, egalitarian, multi-cultural and secular society reconcile itself to a Head of State who is, perforce, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and a member of the House of Windsor?

We have to become a lot more secure in our national identity before we can convince the rest of the world that we have one. We have a hard time selling our Identity. Look in bookshops throughout Britain and the USA; you’ll be hard put to find anything by an Australian author, look in their art galleries and you’ll search mostly in vain for an Australian painting. Many of our successful actors head off to L.A. and make a career of playing Americans – no one would know they’re Australian. A successful Australian play has to be translated and re-set in America to have a chance on Broadway (David Williamson’s “The Club” is but one example). A successful Australian TV series may be picked up by a US network only to be re-written and remade by Americans in an American context. That’s what happened to “Rake”, “Kath and Kim” and “A Moody Christmas”, among others. Any Australian origin or creative input is un-acknowledged. We are simply airbrushed out of the picture. Putting our cultural identity to one side, there are also commercial interests.

Back in 1995 Senator Chris Schacht warned that remaining colonial vestiges were damaging Australia’s image in foreign affairs and hurting Australian business in South-East Asian countries who have colonial histories themselves and know only too well the implications of foreign ties. Since the earliest days of white settlement we have been trying to define our identity, to codify our values and system of government. According to Tom Keneally in Our Republic, republican sentiments were aired among the First Fleeters, especially by the Irish convicts, political rebels, the miners of the Gold Rush and then by the Union movement. The Bulletin claimed there would be greater emphasis on human rights within a republic, an escalation of patriotism and virtue.

In 1884 the Bulletin claimed to stand for “humanity in the laws, more freedom in the Parliaments, and more healthy independence in the Press” and spoke out against the “noxious principle” of hereditary institutions. Another paper, the Radical, founded in Newcastle in 1887, exhibited hostility towards the English aristocracy; and another, called The Republican, began in July that year. It called for independence to free Australia from “abject grovelling” and “sacrifice of all our interest, hopes and manhood to English avarice, culpability and pride…If you must be loyal, let it be to Australia first and Australia last.” In 1892 the Wagga Wagga Hammer declared “Everyone knows that nine out of every ten Australian workers are republicans.” That was 123 years ago. What happened?

Cultural diversity has been with us from the start: there were 21 different cultures aboard the First Fleet in 1788. But all Australians were deemed British citizens until 1949. Only after the 1959 census were we officially permitted to call ourselves Australians. “God Save the Queen” was our national anthem until 1984. In 1930 we got our first Governor General who was an Australian. There is still a Union Jack in the corner of our flag…I dare say you've noticed it.

We experienced a mass transference of allegiance to the USA in World War II when the British abandoned Singapore and we were saved by the Americans. We paid the price of course, by being lured into wars in Korea and Vietnam. That’s not to say we broke our ties with Britain or diminished in our loyalty to the Crown but as David Malouf points out, in his essay Made in England for the Quarterly, what the threat of Japanese invasion did was “bring Australia – the land itself – fully alive at last in our consciousness. As a part of the earth of which we were now the custodians. As soil to be defended and preserved because we were deeply connected to it.

Australia has a history of struggling with its national identity, growing up as part of the British Empire, but on the other side of the world from its “mother country”, and sitting on the edge of Asia. Remaining “British” put a strain on our resourcefulness and our imagination. The late 1980s witnessed the rise of the New Right with Geoffrey Blainey as a leading spokesman on immigration issues. Their stand was against high levels of Asian immigration and a return to assimilation “partly reminiscent of the glories of English colonial ideology”! (Whatever they were)

Identity is not the same as ideology, or assimilation or cohesiveness; it’s knowing who we are in all our diversity and in 2015 in an ethnically diverse Australia, the British monarchy is a symbol of divisiveness, a symbol and mainstay of a privileged establishment, of a dominant ethnic group, the Anglo-Saxons. In the words of political scientist John Warhurst: “One nation cannot owe allegiance to the Head of State of another nation without placing itself in an inferior position vis-a-vis that other nation.” As I said earlier, we can never be sure of our national identity because it’s not a fixed thing. It keeps shifting, evolving, and we have to keep redefining it, describing Australia to our fellow countrymen. That’s what artists are for.

It has taken a long time for us to untangle ourselves from norms that were regarded as “the right way, the British way”. Attempts at identity began early, with colonial artists recording the native flora and fauna (so exotic and at times absurd to English eyes) and the native people. But they took a long time to get it right, to shake off the conventions and techniques of European art – the light was wrong, the paintings stiff and awkward. It took Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton to capture the essence of the Australian light and colours, opening the way for Sid Nolan to depict the eerie red desert of the Pilbara, Drysdale’s melancholy, lonely lives in the outback, the calm serenity of Boyd’s Shoalhaven, the scrubby tactile landscapes of Fred Williams and the joyous, almost mystical upside-down visions of William Robinson. They have all forced us to see the country through their eyes. They show us what we look like.

It took us a while too to find our Australian voice, beginning with our bush balladeers, through Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson to Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe and Les Murray. Novelists began to tell their stories and our story too: Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Ruth Park, Christina Stead, Tom Keneally, Patrick White and David Malouf. They show us how we speak, how we act. Alongside these iconic names we’ve seen a huge increase over the last twenty years or so, in the number of artists (painters, poets, singers, dancers and writers as well as sporting champions) from among our Asian, Middle-Eastern, eastern European and indigenous Australians. When I was growing up I never saw a blackfella on the football field. Indigenous art is now big business in art galleries, and companies such as Bangarra have redefined the language of modern dance. The TV series Redfern Now was a major breakthrough in showcasing indigenous writing and directorial talent. We recently sent Malaysian-born Guy Sebastian to represent Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The Arts scene in Australia forty years ago was very much a white man’s business. Our cultural identity has, thankfully, undergone a seismic shift. My own career over the last 45 years has been dedicated to advancing an Australian theatre, both through the creation of new works and re-focussing the world’s classics so that we comprehend them on our own terms. I decided back then that both of these campaigns were necessary if theatre was to be in any way meaningful in this country. Back in the 1950s and 60s a new Australian play or film was a rare and remarkable event. Our theatrical fare consisted of the latest West End or Broadway hits and reverential production of mainly English classics, performed in a way that, as closely as possible mimicked English productions. An Australian accent was rarely heard on stage outside of vaudeville or the music hall. We all copied English role models. I know, because I did it myself.

Throughout the 1970s and early 80s the Nimrod Theatre, of which I was co-founder, premiered plays by David Williamson, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Stephen Sewell, Louis Nowra, Robyn Archer, Alison Lyssa and many others. We also experimented with an Australian way of approaching Shakespeare and other classics, stripping away English and European conventions, and playing them with Australian voices and modern dress, focussing on issues that seemed most pertinent to contemporary Australian audiences.

I have spent the last 25 years expanding that commitment through the Bell Shakespeare Company, to demonstrate that these great works are not the exclusive property of any one nation, but belong to us as well, to see and express ourselves in and through them. The live theatre is a very potent signifier of our Australian identity. So are our television and film industries.

An Australian Head of State would understand all this. He or she would live among us, come to performances and gallery openings, get to know and talk to the poets, the painters, the musicians and be able to discuss their work and aspirations, be a part of our cultural vibrancy. He or she would visit country towns and be familiar with the volunteer services, the Girl Guides and the CWA.

Our national identity will be sealed by having a Head of State who is one of us, who lives amongst us and gets to know us. He or she will be an outstanding and accomplished citizen, someone we are proud to see representing us on the world stage, someone who puts our interests first. Fulfilling a largely ceremonial role, our Head of State will be a moral authority, a moral touchstone, who embodies and articulates those things that make us proud to be Australian, someone who is not foisted on us, but someone we choose as our public face to the nation and to the world.

We have been fortunate to have had many such people among our state Governors and Governors General: Marie Bashir, William Deane, Doug Nicholls, Quentin Bryce, Peter Cosgrove, Paul Hasluck, Zelman Cowen, Ninian Stephen, Roma Mitchell, James Gobbo, David de Krester, John Landy, to name but a few. We will have no shortage of contenders, when the time comes.

If we were to vote in a referendum in favour of an Australian republic with our own Head of State, what would it need to accomplish it? Not much, according to Paul Keating in his address to the House of Reps in 1995. Keating suggested there would be no need to change any of the constitutional principles or practices. If we wish, we can call our self the Commonwealth of Australia rather than a Republic, but we’ll still have a President, who will perform essentially the same functions as a Governor General, acting on the advice of the government of the day.

Keating suggested the President should be appointed by a two thirds majority in a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament, accepting the guidance of an advisory committee. The President should be appointed for a five year term, would be restricted to one term only and could be dismissed by Parliament if necessary. This model was opposed by the Democrats’ Cheryl Kernot and those who wanted to see the President elected by plebiscite. It was their vote that dashed the 1999 Referendum. But I agree strongly with those who argue against a plebiscite because it would inevitably make the President’s role a political one, as in the U.S.

Our President has to be above party politics, with certain reserve powers, but be bi-partisan in all public matters whatever his or her personal convictions. An adjustment to our constitution would have to clearly define the powers of the Australian President, no longer leaving significant decisions, such as the 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam government to convention and tradition. How long can we continue to accept the power of a non-elected person to dismiss an elected government? The Queen’s role is limited to appointing the Governor General which she does on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. The Queen does not exercise any power in Australia. The Governor-General does, but his reserve powers are ambivalent and ill-defined, therefore open to abuse.

Every Australian should be able to aspire to become our Head of State and we should know that the office will be filled by a citizen of high standing who has made an outstanding contribution to Australia. Cutting the apron strings of Great Britain would be a painless process. Even the royal family seem to be a little nonplussed as to why it’s taking us so long. The Queen has indicated she understands the move towards a republic, and back in 1994 Prince Charles said the debate about a republic was “the sign of a mature and self-confident nation” he actually asked the Prime Minister of the day “What are you dallying about for?”. The Duke of Edinburgh apparently put it more bluntly, as is his wont: “Don’t those Australians know what’s good for them?”

We could choose to still be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. But we are no longer a political or cultural appendage to another country. We are simply and unambiguously Australian; and we are a sovereign nation in all respects bar one. So what is holding us back? The present system is based on little more than tradition, sentimentality, the status quo, reactionary forces and inertia. We seem to have become a lot more conservative over the last 60 years or so.

We used to be feistier. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and stand for Federal Parliament. We defied Billy Hughes over conscription and Bob Menzies when he tried to outlaw the Communist Party. Our common sense and belief in fair play triumphed over conservative paranoia. But in more recent times we’ve been awfully slow to move on issues like climate change, renewable energies, domestic violence, child abuse, indigenous health and deaths in custody as well as marriage equality. It’s depressing to see so many people writing to the papers “I feel ashamed to be an Australian”.

In preparing this speech I have done a bit of canvassing of opinion, and have felt deflated by the general apathy and disinterest among the people I’ve talked to, especially young people, who have given no consideration to the idea of an Australian republic, but happily lap up the latest tid-bits from the impeccable House of Windsor P.R. machine – the romantic melodrama of Princess Di, stories of lively Prince Harry and his girlfriends, fairy-tale weddings, William and Kate and royal babies – the infinite fodder of our popular magazines. In the face of all this nostalgia and pop-mythology, those of us who want an Australian republic are going to have to work for it and pursue a grass-roots campaign that ensures when the next referendum comes, we’re ready for it.

We must ask ourselves what sort of country do we want to be? How do we see ourselves in 50 years’ time? Surely the image of this egalitarian democratic culturally diverse nation with an Anglo-Saxon hereditary monarch who lies 10,000 miles away as its Head of State will become increasingly absurd and surreal as the century progresses.

But we may see glimmers of hope in the accession of a new Prime Minister who has a history of strong Republican sympathies. We are aware that he has to go carefully as he cruises around the shark tank that is Federal Parliament. But recent events have shown him to be a strategist and a man of patience. We can only urge him to hang in there and to take heart from the rallying cry of one of our early republican stirrers, Henry Lawson:

“Sons of the South, awake, arise;

Sons of the South, choose true:

The old dead tree or the young tree green,

The land that belongs to the lord and Queen

Or the land that belongs to you.”