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Long Live Shame

Building a republic must become a common project writes Christopher Scanlon

Like many Australians, I voted in favour of the republic on 6 November. Oddly, however, I wasn’t enthusiastic about voting ‘Yes’ and was neither surprised nor especially disappointed when it was defeated. The source of my apathy was that while I believe the proponents of the ‘Yes’ case got the procedural questions of the republic right (that is, how to choose the president), they mostly forgot the bigger picture of what a republic is all about. In a nutshell, most of those advocating the ‘Yes’ case seemed to be republican in name only.

At its most basic level, the republican model of government holds that a community should govern itself. The community is the highest court of appeal, not a distant monarch or deity. As such, its success depends upon citizens taking an active role in public debate. To do so, they must feel that their participation matters.

This was precisely where the ‘Yes’ case failed. Debate, such as it was, was reduced to simplistic sloganeering, a seemingly endless parade of celebrities repeating a sentiment that, if opinion polls are any indicator, the majority of Australians agree with anyway – i.e. that an Australian should be the head of state.

No doubt presenting the ‘Yes’ case in such simple terms was a tactical move, designed to allow for easy media consumption. But in confining debate thus, the republican cause ceased to be republican in anything but the shallowest sense. Absent was any sense of what it might mean to be a citizen in an Australian republic or indeed what sort of nation Australia should be as we enter the twenty-first century. This failure to engage was reflected in the voting patterns, which indicate, quite unequivocally, that the referendum divided Australians between those who feel their involvement in the life of the nation slipping away and those who are seen, rightly or wrongly, as being the ones wrenching it from them: a division that is expressed geographically in a gap between regional and rural Australia on one end of the spectrum and the city centres on the other. In the current issue of Arena Magazine Doug White explores the meaning of the referendum result further, interpreting it as a victory for those excluded from mainstream political processes, and, implictly, a vote in favour of more radical political change.

What was missing from the ‘Yes’ case was any sense of what Benedict Anderson recently referred to as the nation as a ‘common project’. Anderson’s understanding of the nation as a ‘common project’ suggests an idea of the active involvement of different groups in an ongoing process of dialogue and negotiation, through which the nation is continuously enacted and re-enacted, made and re-made. It is this shared involvement in the project of the nation that is held in common by its members.

Anderson contrasts this conception of the nation with another quite different idea: the nation as an ‘inheritance’, an unchanging ‘thing’ from the past to be preserved and protected. Where the nation is conceived as an inheritance, Anderson argues, the will to preserve it takes over as the prime expression of nationalism, often creating divisions and, all too often, violence among rival claimants. By contrast, the idea of the nation as a common project allows for diverse, even unexpected expressions of nationalism. Anderson suggests, for example, that shame at the actions of one’s nation can be an indication of a deep nationalist sentiment – the reason being that members of a common project are morally culpable for anything done in its name, even if they personally had no hand in it. In Anderson’s words:

No one can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling ‘ashamed’ if her state or government commits crimes, including those against her fellow citizens. Although she has done nothing individually that is bad, as a member of the common project, she will feel morally implicated in everything done in that project’s name.

In ‘official’ pronouncements of Australian nationalism and definitions of the national interest, shame is a scarce resource. Look no further than Paul Keating’s recent apologetics for the Indonesian Government. Keating argued that John Howard had single-handedly created the conditions for militia violence in Timor, by sending a letter to then President Habibie pressuring him to deliver greater autonomy to East Timor. So upset by the letter was Habibie, according to Keating, that he announced the referendum on independence prematurely, without consideration for the likely violent consequences. Keating claimed that Howard’s letter was motivated by populist opportunism, and in pressuring Indonesia thus, he had put the Timorese people and Australia’s ‘national interest’ at risk.

But whose interests are we talking about here? Certainly not the Timorese who, after years of oppression at the hands of Indonesian military forces, voted overwhelmingly for independence. Neither was Keating expressing the interests of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who over the years and months have worked and rallied in support of the Timorese cause, whose membership in the ‘common project’ of Australia has left them ashamed and angry at the role successive Australian governments have played in arming and training the Indonesian military forces whose links with militia forces are now beyond dispute.

The four thousand people who packed Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in celebration of East Timor’s newly won independence, as described by Louise Byrne in the current issue of Arena Magazine, are a living embodiment of this common project, their differences in belief and politics overshadowed by their disgust at Australia’s record in Timor.

By contrast, Keating’s remarks demonstrate an unwillingness to be involved. His comments reflect nothing more than a desire to protect his own place in history, even if that means preserving the shameful legacy he and others have bequeathed to the nation. Moreover, the feebleness of Keating’s analysis suggests that it was borne out of desperation – an attempt to play down the contribution of two decades of Australian aid, training and support to Indonesian military forces in fuelling the current situation in East Timor, thereby absolving himself and his Government of any moral culpability.

The flip-side of Keating’s recalcitrance over Timor is his successor’s continuing inability to offer a genuine apology to the stolen generation. John Howard famously dismisses calls for an apology as the product of ‘a black arm-band view of history’. Considering Anderson’s view, however, the ‘black arm-band view of history’ that Howard holds with such contempt, suggests a deep commitment to Australia.

Howard’s unwillingness to enter into a more complex engagement with Australia’s past (and thus its present and future) stems from a shallow involvement with the nation. Howard’s view does not allow for questioning, or indeed shame at the dispossession and oppression of indigenous people, since this would tarnish and thus devalue the inheritance. All that can be permitted are a few carefully selected ornaments from Australia’s past to give the appearance of involvement: Menzies’ desk, ‘The Don’, or an Akubra at the weekend. Anything more substantive than this eternal parade of the national furniture is ruled out as un-Australian.

There are, however, other more productive ways of engaging with Australia’s past. Graeme Byrne’s careful deconstruction of the national mythology surrounding the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme in the current issue of Arena Magazine suggests one example. Byrne’s analysis de-stabilises several of the cultural meanings associated with the Snowy, highlighting the exclusions of history, politics and culture upon which they are built. In complicating the Snowy Scheme’s place in Australia’s national mythology, Byrne’s analysis shows the darker side of the Scheme, particularly the shameful history of industrial and environmental exploitation. Far from destroying the place of the Scheme in national mythology, however, Byrne’s more complex interpretation suggests how it might be reinvented as an example of an alternative model of national development and nation-building in which both pride and shame have equal place.

What does all this have to do with the republic? Simply this: if an Australian republic is to be worthwhile, and seen as such, it must address the hard questions that come with deep engagement with Australia as a common project. Republicans cannot afford a surface encounter with the nation, limited to media-friendly slogans. The republic debate needs to encompass and address more difficult issues, from the dispossession of indigenous people to the reconstitution of local community by processes of globalisation. If it does not, the debate over the head of state will appear to most Australians, quite rightly, as a minor and largely irrelevant quibble between rival claimants to the national estate – the only difference between them being that one wants to instal a president where at present there is a queen.