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A Prime Minister with visions: Paul Keating


The ALP platform, disgruntled artists and the Australian Republican Movement - even together - were not enough to make republicanism a real political force.

Everything was to change when Paul Keating overthrew Bob Hawke in the Labor caucus.  Keating's prime ministership was based on his “big picture” image as a leader seeking national re-invigoration and new defin­itions of Australian identity.

He was never without an opportunity to speak on these issues: even when announcing the Australian of the Year in 1995, Keating managed to reduce Arthur Boyd's entire artistic oeuvre to an attempt to distil the essence of Australia on canvas!  

As Alan Atkinson says, politicians - especially Keating _ are often confused about what they mean by Australian identity. Sometimes they mean our profile in the world; sometimes what they think about themselves. "If he feels more excited and dis­tinctive as a leader among leaders, it ought to follow (in his view) that we should feel more significant as Australians."

It is the prime minister's task, Atkinson says, to build our profile in the world. It is not Australians' task to colour themselves to match his profile.  For a government that had been almost a decade in power and was about to go to the polls at a time of high unemployment and economic recession, the republic provided Keating with a means of reinvigorating the government and distinguishing his prime ministership from that of his predecessor.  

He used it, too, to paint the Liberals as un-Australian and to distract Labor supporters from his free market policies and also to drive a wedge into the liberal Party. Sufficient numbers of liberal politicians succumbed to this tactic.

 Keating's drive for a republic was encouraged by Paul Kelly, then editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch's flagship newspaper, The Australian . From the time of Keating's appointment as prime minister, The Australian maintained a consistently pro-republican line, regularly leading editorials with sympathetic headlines such as "Our republic a historical opportunity".

Keating planned to change the flag and the constiution before the centenary of federation. But he was defeated in 1996 but not before his rival, John Howard had decided to neutralise the issue in the election by adopting a policy of calling a constitutional convention to consider the matter. 

 The trail set by The Australian was to be followed even more vigorously in more recent years by The Sydney Morning Herald. Once Sydney's conservative newspaper, the Herald, relieved of the     patrician stewardship of the Fairfax family, has given itself over to a series of small “l” liberal causes. Newspaper editors around the country have followed. Now, an editor or journalist who is not a republican is a rare bird indeed.   

This sudden rush of republicanism among the political establishment and the elites was remarkable, given that only eight years ago the mere suggestion that republicanism would play a central role in Australian politics would have been thought absurd.

 The convergence of a Labor prime minister wearing a streak of republican nationalism like a badge of honour, the London media's intrusion into private lives of the Royal Family and the birth of the ARM, have assisted the growth of republicanism. But this was still essentially a vague idea of removing the Crown, not for a specific constitutional model.

 For the ARM, Keating and the Australian, there has been a common desire to address what they see as a need for a singularly Australian concept of national identity that would not be shared with Britain, nor presumably with Canada or even New Zealand.The is little evidence that Australians  are  interested in going down this path.

In February 1999 the Bulletin Morgan Poll on the three most important things the "federal government should be doing something about" ranked "the republic vs the monarchy and flag issues" at 4 per cent, up from I per cent. Employment (53 per cent), health (37 per cent) and education (35 per cent) were the leading issues.

And this was after years of massive media promotion of republican issues, as well as the government created and funded Republic Advisory Committee and the Constitutional Convention of 1998.

 Historians and political scientists have discussed narrow republicanism for years. But this discussion has remained limited to the elite, found mainly in academia and the opinion pages of the broadsheet press. While the rhetoric is about a republic as a vehicle for 'inclusion', there are few signs that Australian women  or Australian Aboriginals are about to lead the republican charge.

The republican debate in Australia has narrowed to a point where the agitators now concede that the aims of the official republicanism are actually embraced by the existing constitution. The Republic Advisory Committee even admitted that it may be appropriate to regard Australia as a "crowned republic". There has also been a partial concession made in the nationalist republican debate now that the  "cultural cringe" has absolutely no relevance.


 A politicans’  republic is now claimed to be only about how to express the Australian identity. It is no longer whether the Australian identity is distinct from a British one. Everybody knows that it is, and probably always was.

As Mark McKenna writes, the republican debate is therefore no longer about whether we are British or Australian - it is about "how we wish to be Australian". Official ARM republicans would do well to remember the wisdom that prevailed a century ago when our present constitution was adopted.

Sir Henry Parkes said that our constitutional system would "not come to meet with wild ravings of some person who may call out 'Republicanism', without the slightest knowledge of what he is talking about.

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