A Postmodern Republic for a (West meets East) Post-colonial State

"Whatever the shape the Federal Republic pf Australia takes, there will be something unstructured, if not deconstructed about it. I imagine it as already impressionistic, figurative, eclectic, bebop. I'm only just game enough to say it might be the world's first post-modern republic, and I mean that in the nicest possible way."

The Republican push was launched by Paul Keating with his usual penchant for taking risks. He ignored the old adage in Australia that there are no votes in republicanism. Once an Australian republic was firmly on the national political agenda Keating did not take a backward step, promoting it as an essential feature of his 'big picture' view of Australia during the 1996 election campaign. Keating's determination to push the republican issue on Australian voters was daring in some senses, yet it was also constrained by the republic he envisioned as well as the pragmatic politics necessary to achieve constitutional change in Australia.

Such constraints did not hinder the free association of ideas as to the form a likely Australian republic might take. The following much quoted thoughts of Don Watson, Keating's speech writer, are an unusually radical sounding vision in the context of the Australian political debate:

Whatever the shape the Federal Republic of Australia takes, there will be something unstructured, if not deconstructed about it. I imagine it as already, impressionistic, figurative, eclectic, bebop. I'm only just game enough to say it might be the world's first post-modern republic, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

I mean a republic that exalts the nation less than the way of life. Whose principal value is tolerance rather than conformity, difference rather than uniformity. Whose outlook is unambiguously Australian, yet is more worldly and international than republics like the US, France, Germany or Ireland.

How radical is this vision and to what extent did it capture the style and intent of Keating's agenda for change?

Imagining a modern republic

At one level, Watson's imagined republic is worldly, yet his examples are exclusively 'western'. The Asian republics do not figure, which is slightly incongruous with the other defining feature of Keating's 'big picture'; the reappraisal of Australia's place in Asia. At another level, Watson's (ironic) gesture towards post-modernism does not resonate with Keating. His vision is modernist. It is limited to a symbolic break with the British monarchy which will announce the arrival of an independent Australian nation, confidently internationalising its economy and engaging with its geographical region. Keating's republicanism is more an olde-worlde battle between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons and his musical preferences are definitely classical not bebop.

Keating's political risk taking, nevertheless, created spaces for many hitherto marginalised voices. An Australian republic was imagined which enfranchised individuals and communities which did not emanate from the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture in non-Aboriginal Australia (Gunew, 1993). This resonated, in turn, with the voices of those demanding reconciliation with Aboriginal people. The sounds from the margins gave added impetus to the task of exploring Australia's national identity and its place in the world, intensifying the debate between those who argued that Australia had become a post-colonial society and those who argue that this was still to happen (Frow and Morris, 1993; Turner 1993; Mishra and Hodge, 1993; Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin, 1989). Among the dissonance one note was clear to all. If Australia was to be a post-colonial republic, much more than simply an end to Constitutional Monarchy was required, no matter how important this essential step was on the path to republicanism.

Post-colonial republicanism was very different from corporate republicanism, which merely sought to bring the expression of Australia's politics into line with the internationalisation of the Australian economy and the re-routing of trade from Europe to Asia. These dissonant voices, one from the 'big end of town' and the other from the margins, were difficult to orchestrate. Keating, as maestro, tried to conduct the debate by pointing his baton to his preferred option - that of a minimalist political change - the parliamentary election of an Australian head of state. The choice pleased the corporate republicans, but was grating to the ear of those who sought a more radical post-colonial change.

Re-imagining the 1950s as a settler colony

The sound of these radical tones from the wings of the political stage was too much for the Liberal Party led by John Howard. He sought to drown out these sound from the margins with a big brass band leading a grand parade back to an imagined 1950s, a time when Menzies was forever in power, the Queen was 'loved 'til one died'. The nuclear family was the pillar of the nation and the High Court protected unquestionably British property rights.

Here was the future Prime Minister who said he liked Bob Dylan, but never listened to the words. In trying to create a new consensus Howard stood behind the Western canon, saluted the colonial flag and reminisces fondly about the glory days of the settler past and the ANZAC tradition. At the same time as Howard sounded the same bugle call for the turn to Asia in Australian trade, he was circling the wagons against multicultural, republican Australia.

If Keating's political vision was risky, Howard's is now unstable. Whereas Keating sought to modernise Australian politics and bring it into line with economic globalisation, Howard seeks to replace community with rampant individualism. He relies upon a 1950s settler mentality to recolonise Australia and silence marginal voices. The problem for Howard is that he cannot police those calling for social justice by evoking the same patriotic image of empire as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did - patriotic correctness as Robert Hughes calls it. Howard shouts instead against the 'black armband' view of history and 'political correctness', yet his imagined Australia of the 1950s is so different from the contemporary lived experience of many Australians and utterly incompatible with the push aimed at internationalising the Australian economy. The cacophony created by the government is so loud because its conceptualisation of Australia is so incongruous with the continual and growing support for a republic by the people.

An Asian republic?

Keating's globalising vision with its push into Asia carried with it a paradoxical effect of accentuated particularism, as previous political certainties fragmented (Hall, 1993). Space was made for radical nationalism and a reappraisal of Australia's colonial past. Equally room was created for a backward looking nationalism around Howard's version of the superiority of Australia's Anglo-Saxon heritage. This, in turn, gave impetus to Pauline Hanson's populist nationalism and her attack on 'political correctness'.

Other, post-colonial spaces were opened allowing for a very different kind of imagining, one that celebrates and protects diversity in the Australian community. This imagining draws on the lessons of post-colonial experiences of Europe, the United States and Asia. It asks whether Australia can learn from Asia in creating its republic. Australia is imagined not merely as a western colonial settler society, but as a nation with a historical trajectory increasingly like its Asian 'other'. Asia is no longer an inferior collection of exotic eastern experiences. It is a series of post-colonial entities fashioning symbolic and lived destinies. Approached in this manner, 'Asia' provides valuable lessons for the Australian republican push.

An Australian republic along these lines means listening to post-colonial voices in Asia, as Ang and Stratton urge, and evaluating their post-colonial histories (Ang and Stratton, 1996). It also means distinguishing between different voices, and reflecting critically on those largely elite voices which promote Asian experience as superior. The most important examples of this, such as Singapore's People's Action Party, stress political stability on the basis of wholesome eastern, family and personal loyalty networks and ethics, in contrast to corrupt, individualistic, western traditions. 'Asian values' become an ideology which encourages communal solidarity over individual human rights and order over democracy and economic growth over welfare (Chau, 1995). Too often corporate republicanism in Australia listens to the elite voices of Asia.

Hong Kong - post-colonialism in a postmodern era

A critical, comparative perspective on post-colonialism in Asia would need to interrogate an appraisal of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China. Here the modernist notion of handing over embodies multiple inflections which cannot be captured by colonial experiences. Britain's handover is so removed from the western colonial past that Hong Kong's post-colonialism is enmeshed with a postmodern expression of global economic and political power. The handover's reality was an international media event of enormous rain sodden proportions, featuring saturation coverage of saturated troops changing the guards. The coverage revealing that the most ardent supporters of the handover were the Hong Kong capitalists. Capitalism is seen to embrace communism. 'One country two systems' realises there is only one system anyway.

The Hong Kong experience of post-colonialism is, while in the postmodern era, not postmodern in its celebration of diversity. Difference and democratic politics are problematic to the new political leadership and the old economic elite. The power of the capitalist dynasties (one system) is lauded as is the superiority of Beijing's political order (the other system) over Britain's colonial rule. There is no post-colonial model here for Australia's radical republican push to learn from. Hong Kong's experiences have symbolic importance instead. Australian audiences saw an inkling of how important an Australian Republic breaking from Britain would be. Its symbolism is invested with hyperreal resonances which will implode Howard's hankering after recreating Menzies' Australia .

Post-colonial experience in Asia take many forms, as do western republican models. The discourse of Australia's historical trajectory has been constructed as a western, settler society. It can be re-examined and rewritten in terms of post-colonial theory, especially in view of Asia's experiences. At this moment Australia is conceptualised as both a post-colonial society and a colony because of the discredited relics of the Empire which are codified constitutionally. For the indigenous 'other' reconciliation is but one step towards post-colonialism. Australia's distinctiveness as a post-colonial narrative is its geographical location in Asia. The opportunity in that location is to build a postmodern republic from the experiences of both east and west. This is an Australia which celebrates difference and openness, and resists the forced political enclosure over indigenous dispossession and stolen children which currently haunts the Australian psyche.

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