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A very racist republic

While there is a strong nationalistic republican tradition in early Australian history, it would seem curious that there is little reference to this by contemporary official republicans who nevertheless loudly appeal to patriotic  sentiments.

The reason is simple: many of the early patriotic republicans embraced embarrassing doctrines. Late nineteenth century republicanism was dominated by the leading Australian journal at the time, The Bulletin. In 1888, 40,000 people attended an anti-Chinese demonstration in the Sydney domain.

 The Bulletin  said that “ Australia had to choose between independence and infection, between the Australian republic and the Chinese leper" .  The Bulletin wanted an Australian form of ethnic cleansing: the expulsion of all Asians. Little is said within the present republican movement of these antecedents. Certainly not  from Robert Hughes, the Australian born critic of Time magazine, who at a rally in 1996 tried to draw some tenuous link between our constitution and racism.

He clearly overlooked nineteenth century Australian republicanism.  

The Bulletin attacked Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, when Royal Assent was refused to the Queensland Sugar Works Guarantee Amending Bill, which banned coloured labour.

On 22 June 1901, the year of federation, The Bulletin observed: “If Judas Chamberlain can find a black, or brown or yellow race.... That has as high a standard of civilisation and intelligence as the whites, that was progressive ... as brave, as sturdy, as good nation-building material, and that can intermarry with the whites without the mixed progeny showing signs of deterioration, that race is welcome.”

The Bulletin's racism was to linger well beyond its republicanism. It is only within living memory that it suppressed the motto on its front page masthead: "Australia for the White Man".

It is true that there were attempts by the Labor movement in the 1880s to link the maintenance of monarchical institutions with the persistence of social inequality in Australia. But by the end of the next decade, when Labor politicians began taking their seats in the colonial parliaments - not to mention their oaths of allegiance - it became apparent that reform could best be encouraged through the existing institutions.

It was generally agreed that the monarch was no obstacle to reform. The Brisbane based Boomerang, for instance, explained in 1890 that:

“Unless republicanism is thoroughly progressive and democratic practically, as well as nominally, we might as well remain exactly as we arc, Because we are discontented with King Log we do not want to place ourselves in the hands of President Stork ... The republic we want is a land of free men whereon the government rests on the people, and is by them with them and for them. No other form of republicanism will suit us not even though it does a few who follow the will-o-the-wisp of a mere name.” 

Mark McKenna concludes that the Labor movement realised that Australia's monarchical institutions were as amenable to social democratic government guaranteeing equality as they were to the laissez-faire capitalist policies of the conservatives.

 It became equally apparent to that most nationalistically republican of journals, The Bulletin, that abolition of the monarchy was no longer a practical necessity.

 It conceded that the monarchy was practically unobjectionable so long as it was understood that the British monarch  held his or her position by the will of the nation and for the convenience of the nation.


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