Monday 31 March 2014

The republican debate in late nineteenth century Australia

Tony Abbott’s anachronistic reintroduction of the imperial honours system last week has reignited the republican debate in Australia. David Morris, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, has gone so far as to declare that the prime minister's announcement has ‘given us a big shot in the arm’. While Morris admits ‘we won't get a republic while Tony Abbott is prime minister… he may help us get there’; and points out that ARM membership has grown steadily since Abbott swore allegiance to the Queen when he became Prime Minister in 2013.

One of the biggest challenges facing the republican movement is the consistently strong support for Queen Elizabeth and the continuing fascination with the ‘celebrity monarchy’ appeal of William, Kate and baby George. Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull and other republicans are confident that there are far more Elizabethans than monarchists in Australia and that once the Queen dies the republic will become a reality.

Yet regardless of one’s position on the republican debate, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the tenacious persistence of the monarchy in Australia. There is nothing inevitable about the path leading towards a republic, as this excerpt from the Goulburn Evening Penny Post makes clear. Although this opinion piece was written in 1888, its arguments in favour of a republic are remarkably similar to those used today, over 125 years later. Perhaps most sobering for contemporary opponents of constitutional monarchy is the Post’s belief in the persuasive power of these arguments as well as its optimism in 1888 that an Australian republic was just around the corner.

Goulburn Evening Penny Post 26 May 1888

‘…[T]he mysterious influence, the occult restraining power, designated in euphonious phrase by Lord Carrington as loyalty to her gracious Majesty's throne and person, is waning rapidly. As it dies away the oppressing influence of republicanism grows….

Quite recently it was perilous to mention the British throne in any other terms than those of unqualified adoration…. We ourselves have been roundly condemned for hinting that the Queen was only a woman and subject to all the infirmities and disabilities of fallible mortals. Times have changed, and any criticism, so long as it did not trench on coarseness, would pass muster to-day. This is not mere carelessness, though even that would prove that the general sentiment was undergoing an alteration, but may be traced to the development of a fixed idea that we have outgrown the time of colonial office apron strings and that our course lies in an altogether different direction.

Her Majesty may be all that she is said to be, may be anxious to concede all that a democratic people really requires, may be the soul of honour and the quintessence of charity, may, in short, have no thought or care apart from the welfare of the millions in many lands over whom an accident has called her to exercise the rights of sovereignty…but whether she is a paragon of excellence or not matters very little to Australians. The increasing objection is not to the person but to the system  - not to Victoria but to Monarchy….

[A]nd when we reckon up the changed utterances in the press, and note the obvious reversal in public thought generally, we are quite justified in believing that loyalty is waning very rapidly in this colony. It is not so much a strong antagonism to the present system of government as a belief that there is a better system. So freedom grows. The Australian national spirit cannot develop healthily so long as we are subject to Downing-street. In peaceful times the cramping process is not readily apparent; but when a crisis arrives and serious questions involving vast issues come to the front the hampering influences of the Colonial Office are very perceptible….

These matters, apart from their immediate influence, naturally tend to make Australians ask themselves whether, all things considered, they would not gain rather than lose by politely and in a friendly manner substituting the national flag for the British standard on Government House. No ill will against England or English interests actuates them in propounding this and similar questions. As children grow towards maturity they unconsciously withdraw from the go-carts of maternal care. Their respect and affection undergo no organic change; but circumstances alter cases, and independence both of thought and action is inherent in true manhood….

In the nonchalant attitude displayed by the masses here towards the English throne is the germ of the true Australian national party, and it must grow into form and power. We are not yet a republic, but a very slight ruffling of our feelings would precipitate the crisis and transform us into one. All the elements, in a crude state, are with us, and the rest will follow in due time.’

The Goulburn Penny Post was accessed via Trove (

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