Remember hoping for an Australian Republic?

The third in Tinteán‘s series of reviews of the works of Tom Keneally

Book Review by Bob Glass

Tom Keneally, Our Republic, William Heinemann, Port Melbourne, Australia, 1993

ISBN: 0855615095, 9780855615093

RRP: No longer in print but second-hand copies available online.

Our Republic is a book with three interrelated elements:

  1. Keneally’s account of the establishment of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), of which he was the initial Chairman, and its development up to November 1993 when he was succeeded as Chairman by Malcolm Turnbull;
  2. Reporting on ‘Things (Keneally) discovered… which turn a lot of the propositions about Australia and its long passion for the monarchy on their heads’ (p.ix);
  3. Fragments of Keneally’s own personal history, which incorporate various interesting observations about Australians and their attitudes.

This review deals with each of these elements in turn. The first is relatively straight- forward. The story of Keneally’s involvement in the setting-up of the ARM, the basis for the book’s title, doesn’t start until page 74 where Keneally tells of himself and his wife being invited in September 1989  to lunch at the home of Neville Wran and his wife Jill Hickson who was Keating’s literary agent (p.72). Wran wanted an Australian republic to happen ‘before I bloody well die’ (p.77). and proposed to establish a small group of ‘visible and markedly Australian people who would enunciate the Republican credo’ (p.79) and wanted Keneally to chair the group (p.80). Keneally was initially reluctant (p.80) but ‘gave in’ (p. 84). A good fifty pages are then devoted to the details of the process of getting the organisation up and publicly visible, formally launching it on 7 July 1991, and then (a) dealing with the opposition to the idea from those such as Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard who thought the move to a republic would be a disaster, and (b) explaining the republican idea to people in various countries confused by the details of Australia’s attachment to the British crown.

In many ways the most interesting sections of Our Republic are those where Keneally assembles a range of material to challenge ‘almost religious tendency’ of those (such as Bruce Ruxton, Bronwyn Bishop, and John Howard opposed in the 1990s to the idea of Australia becoming a republic, ‘to attribute all Australian bounties and benefits to the Monarch’ (p.50), to overstate the influence of the monarchical connection on Australia’s good governance (p.57) and to suggest that severing this link would undermine Australian society. Early on, Keneally uses his Uncle Johnny’s letters home from France, ‘innocent of Monarchist effusions’ (p.8) to cast doubt on the notion that soldiers in first AIF exhibited ‘blind fervour towards the Crown’ (p.13), a feature confirmed by Bill Gammage’s extensive analysis of AIF soldiers’ letters in his PhD thesis at the ANU, published as  The  Broken Years in 1974.

in Chapter 9, having assembled ‘a small Republican library’ (p.155), Keneally documents in some detail what might be regarded as historical antecedents to ideas being advocated by the ARM. On page 155 he writes that

The assumption is often made that Australia has always been monolithically and happily monarchist until now, and that the Republican Movement and others have crudely raised other disruptive possibilities at a later date and for no good reason and, above all, on no historical base.

The balance of Chapter 9 demonstrates this to be untrue – it was not only the rebels of Eureka who promoted Republicanism – represented by the Monarchists as ‘the one tiny tear in Australian loyalism’ (p.157). Keneally shows that the republican thrust started with the speeches and writings of two sons of Irish convicts, Charles Harpur and Dan Deniehy (p. 157). Two men, in particular, Deniehy and the turbulent Presbyterian minister (John Dunmore) Lang, ’saw the equities of civic life as deriving not from the Monarch but from the democratic tendencies of ordinary people’ (pp.157-158). Lang wrote extensively about the desirability Australia becoming a republic (pp159-168), as did Henry Lawson, his mother Louisa who founded a monthly newspaper The Republican in 1887,(p.169), Joseph Furphy and William Lane ‘who urged their listeners and readers…to embrace the new Australian identity’ (p. 171).  In Keneally’s view, after what seems to be ‘Loyalist hiatus’, (p.172) this ‘Republican voice’ in Australian thinking surfaces again in an article by Geoffrey Dutton in 1963 and in Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country.

A continuing theme throughout the book is Keneally’s highlighting of the tendency of some Australians to overstate or mis-state the influence of the British monarch on the good governance of Australia. An example from Keneally’s time as leader of the ARM, is J.B. Paul writing in Quadrant magazine that ‘Australia’s emergence as a fully independent nation was fostered under the Crown which is a no less fitting symbol of the development.’(pp.57-58), whereas Keneally argues(p. 58) that ‘The only thing British kings and queens could be credited within Australia would seem to be the passive virtue of not attempting through their own influence to inhibit Australian impulses’, which we all know brought to Australia the right to vote for women, the eight-hour day. Similarly, Keneally criticises John Howard’s view that the Monarchy had given Australia stability, observing that the ‘political stability of Australia is due in large part to the political creativeness of Australians’, demonstrated for example by the negotiations leading to the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia which Keneally covers extensively in Chapter 12, drawing in particular on John Quick and Robert Garran’s famous 1901 tome, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth.

The third element of The Republic is a collection of fragments of Keneally’s personal history. The most extensive fragment covers the complications for Keneally in managing his role in the ARM were that he (a) needed to continue working on his ‘normal’ career as a writer and (b) wished to negotiate time to take up an invitation from the University of California to play a major role in its graduate writing program. Thus during the lead up to the ARM ‘launch’ he was working on a screenplay of his novel Towards Asmara, set in Eritrea, ‘writing many drafts’ of the novel Flying Hero Class  (published in 1991), writing a travel book on the American Southwest, based on a two-month journey (he) had made there in 1990 (p.91), and working on the novel Woman of the Inner Sea (published in 1992). Almost simultaneously with the Neville Wran lunch, the University of California began pursuing Keneally insistently, and he went there in October 1991 after extensive negotiations between the University, Keneally and the ARM (pp106, 107, 183). Elsewhere Keneally deals with aspects of his own life to demonstrate, for example, ‘Australia’s ridiculous and inherited sectarian follies’ (p.24)

Sprinkled throughout The Republic is a range of observations about the nature of Australian society, for example, the continuing importance of the myths of equality (p.41), despite it not having any constitutional underpinning (p.44), and the role of class, which ‘certainly matters in Australia’, (though) ‘it rarely sticks, becomes perpetual, or preoccupies the population’(p.43) (though, on reflection, I now realise that there was a class divide in my home town, similar to that reported by Keneally’s parents). He also has harsh words about the Keating government’s pursuit of the economic fundamentalism being preached by the OECD (pp197-99), which at the time Keneally wrote it (he finished the book on 28 August 1992 (p.241), would have been regarded by most economists as heresy, but which now has many more adherents.

Although more than 25 years old, I think this book is still worth reading, even if only to remind us of the challenges faced by those who wish to challenge received wisdom. Moreover, for me it filled in some significant gaps in my knowledge – for example, John Dunmore Lang’s writings about the republic: like Keneally, I always thought of Lang as a ‘dour fulminator’ (p.161).

Robert Glass

Bob is an economist and historian who has written several theatre histories.