That great Australian author John O’Grady was bloody well right. We Australians really are a weird mob. On the one hand, since the days of the convicts we have had an innate desire to beat the Poms at everything, starting with the Ashes, ’cos it proves we are better, hardier and stronger than they are.
On the other hand, we persist with a system of government whereby the only person good enough to be the Australian Head of State must come from a particular family of English aristocrats, living in a palace in London – even while reserving the primary place on our flag for their flag.
As if that isn’t odd enough, we pride ourselves on being the anti-snobs – good, gritty, down-to-earth folk whose primary value is egalitarianism, exulting in the notion that we are all equal beneath the Southern Cross. Yet we insist that if you are the first-born of that particular family of aristocrats, and wear a sparkly hat, you must be better than any one of us.
A weird mob, I say!
In the 1890s, our people were hardy enough and strong enough to overcome the worst depression and worst drought of the century, and to accomplish the colossal task of forming a Federation. In the 1940s, our troops were the first to stop the German Army in the Second World War, beating the brutes senseless at Tobruk, before returning to our own neck of the woods to be the first to stop the Japanese Army at Milne Bay, and then Kokoda. But right now, well into the twenty-first century, we still have a huge chunk of the population who insist that taking the garden shears to the last of our ties to England and making the snip is a task completely beyond us.
And it goes on . . .
We fancy ourselves as go-it-alone types, believing that in our natural state we are independent, can-do characters. But 250 years after Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, we still have not mustered the wherewithal to have our own free-standing government – of Australians, for Australians, overseen by an Australian.
We’ve produced people smart enough to invent the likes of penicillin and wi-fi, but we have other people – even highly regarded ones – who insist that we are a ‘crowned republic’, which to me sounds like a ‘red-meat vegetarian’ or a ‘religious atheist’ – completely nonsensical.
How to explain all this, these two central but opposed strands of our national character? The obsequious Uriah Heep, on the one hand, always seeking favour from our superiors, and Dennis Lillee on the other, steaming in from the Randwick end to knock their bloody blocks off as we roar for more?
Enter This Time, Benjamin T. Jones’ wonderful book in which he takes us back through the evolution of these twin identities. This Time traces the history of our earliest colonial republicans, the search for Australian identity in the twentieth century, and the saga of the 1999 referendum. Jones describes not just our republican past, but what our republican future might look like – complete with a proposed preamble and republican model. Whether you agree or disagree with the particulars, this book is a discussion-starter. What should our republic look like?
In the end, it will be for we, the people, to decide which part of our national character is the dominant one. If the Australian Republic Movement has anything to do with it – and we do! – we will soon have a referendum on that very subject. This book makes our case stronger.
As the decades have rolled on, our dependence on England has waned and the sense of our own, entirely separate identity has surged. We just need that one last push to get there, to be finally free-standing beneath the Southern Cross!
While reserving the right to do my own book on the evolution of the Australian identity, I warmly commend Dr Jones on his book and – unlike me when it comes to another Australian author – I hope it sells its socks off!
Peter FitzSimons AM
Chair, Australian Republican Movement
26 October 2017