Al Grassby, The Australian Republic, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1993, xviii + 316 pp., $ 24.95 (paperback)

Braham Dabscheck, University of New South Wales

In recent times there has been increasing talk of Australia becoming a republic, of how the first day of a new mil1ennium can be used as a vehicle for expunging references to the British (or is it English?) monarch from the Australian Constitution. With some exceptions the protagonists for and against an Australian Republic seem to be lining up on party political lines Labor versus non-Labor. There may be more to the notion of a republic than being bored with genuflecting and fawning before a monarch and family whose major functions seem to be to provide the mass media with an excuse not to pursue news stories and demonstrate the antithesis of family values.

The Macquarie dictionary provides three definitions of the word republic. The first is a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them. Second, a body of persons viewed as a commonwealth. And third, a state, especially a democratic state, in which the head of government is an elected or nominated president, not a hereditary monarch. The heredity ‘Australian’ monarch, of course, is not even Australian, but the head of a German family which took up residence in England.

To the extent that we wanted to ignore references to the monarchy in our Constitution, and that representatives of the monarch in the form of governors and governor-generals are the (titular ?) heads of state and federal governments, it could be argued that Australia, being a commonwealth, already constitutes a republic. This, however, is not the position adopted by Al Grassby in The Australian Republic. While he makes references to the (Macquarie dictionary’s) first definition of republicanism as an ideal, his major concern is to rid Australia of an overseas hereditary monarch.

The Australian Republic is written in the style of a polemic and traces 50,000 (Aboriginal) and 205 (settlement by others) years of Australian history in less than 300 pages. Grassby’s approach is to provide a broad sweep of Australian history. He writes, as it were, from the underside by drawing attention to the dastardly deeds perpetuated by colonial rulers from afar on Aborigines, convicts, currency lads and lasses and generations of Australian service men and women, and how (non-Labor) ‘Australian’ leaders have falling over themselves kowtowing to the needs of their English/British masters. Prime Ministers Billy Hughes and Robert Menzies are seen as the worst examples of ‘selling out’ Australia. In discussing republicanism Grassby writes in the tradition of Labor as the party of initiative and non-Labor the party/ies of resistance. His heroes are aborigines, the convicts of Vinegar Hill, the diggers of the Eureka Stockade, Ned Kelly, the republicans and nationalists of the 1880’s, the anti. conscriptionists of World War I, and the Labor Prime Ministers Watson, Fisher, Scullin, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, and all those who have opposed bigotry and racism.

Because of the polemical nature of The Australian Republic and its broad brush approach to Australian history some readers will find fault with Grassby’s accounts of the past and his penchant for generalisation. Consider the following examples. First, Grassby sees republicanism putting an end to a hereditary monarch – as being important for Australia establishing itself as an independent nation. Interestingly, in praising Curtin for standing up to Churchill during World War II he passes no comment on Australia turning to the United States of America and inviting General Macarthur to take supreme command of all armed forces in Australia (p. 211). Second, only two brief mentions are made to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and opposition thereto (pp. 230 and 234). Amongst other things this opposition was about Australia ending its subservience to and foreign policy domination by the United States of America. Third, in the early 1990’s Bob Hawke displayed much alacrity in committing Australia to the Gulf War, even before it seemed the United States had time to make a formal request.

In The Australian Republic Grassby provides a trenchant criticism of Australia’s subservience to things English/British written from an anti-monarchist perspective. It is not clear, however, that in ridding itself of an overseas hereditary monarch that Australia will embrace the first notion of republicanism provided above per the Macquarie dictionary. As successive Hawke and Keating Labor governments have found themselves developing corporations it is an open question if Australia will ever be ‘a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote’. As Australia increasingly finds itself worshipping at the sign of the cross – not Christendom but the forces of supply and demand – is it little wonder that there are moves afoot to stop bowing and scraping before an overseas family.