The republic, citizenship and the politics of culture

Inta Allegritti, University of Newcastle

Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts Australian Citizenship, Melbourne University Press, 2004 (288 pp). ISBN 0-52285-094-4 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Mark McKenna and Wayne Hudson Australian Republicanism: A Reader, Melbourne University Press, 2003 (304 pp). ISBN 0-52285-070-7 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Australia is a comparatively young nation. Situated in South East-Asia, the new federation constructed itself as both White and British and maintained this identity for over 70 years. When it became evident that British interests no longer coincided with our own, we pursued independent trade with our northern neighbours, and later also with the United States. Our national identity changed as we embarked on an immigration program in 1945 that transformed Australia from an Anglo-Celtic nation with a small Indigenous population to a society with the highest proportion of overseas-born persons in the western world (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2003, p. 16).

After it came to office in 1983, the Hawke Labor government began to describe Australia as a multicultural nation. While there was no immediate reaction to this development, by mid-1980s the Right began to criticise multiculturalism. As Prime Minister in the early 1990s, Paul Keating pursued an ambitious project of national renewal that stressed the importance of multiculturalism (and reconciliation) to Australia’s national identity (McKenna 1996, pp. 251–254). He supported the Australian Republican Movement’s move for an Australian republic and on 7 June 1995 announced his plan to introduce the republic by 2001 (Stratton 1998, p. 175). The creation of a republic, Keating (1995, pp. 3–4) argued, would ‘deliver a heightened sense of unity’, it would ‘enliven our national spirit’ and resolve the issue of our national identity. For many Australians, the republic was a multicultural republic.

But the republic did not eventuate. The Keating Labor government was defeated by the Liberal-National Party coalition and on 2 March 1996 John Howard became Prime Minister. Howard is a constitutional monarchist opposed to a republic in any form, substantive or symbolic. Although he publicly supported the Constitutional Convention in 1998, he sabotaged the republic quite successfully by omitting the people’s preferred model from the convention. The Polls held during the convention showed 66 per cent support for popularly elected model (Newspoll, Australian, 10 February 1998), that is a President elected by the people rather than the parliament, but this option was excluded. In a referendum on 6 November 1999, the Australian people rejected the republic outright.

The events of 11 September 2001 intensified the nation’s paranoid nationalism.

By the mid-1990s a populism based on traditional beliefs including White Australia emerged and came to constitute one of the biggest ideological challenges to confront the nation. It was accompanied by what Ghassan Hage calls a ‘paranoid nationalism obsessed with border politics and with ‘worrying’ as the dominant way of ‘expressing one’s attachment to the nation’ (2003, p. 47). For Hage, paranoid nationalism is the result of ‘the decline of hope’ and ‘endangers the very idea of a national society’ (2003, p. 47). It is based on ‘a fear of loss of Europeanness or Whiteness and of the lifestyle and privileges that are seen to emanate directly from that’ (Hage 2003, p. 49).

In August 2001, John Howard manipulated the Tampa incident for his own electoral advantage. Some government ministers even claimed that asylum seekers threw their children overboard in the attempt to secure passage to Australia and showed photographs to support their story. Although a Senate investigating committee proved that the ‘children overboard’ claims were untrue, the incident provided support for the government. The events of 11 September 2001 further intensified the nation’s paranoid nationalism. Refugees and asylum seekers are now regarded as ‘a sinister transnational threat to national security—even though none of the 11 September terrorists were actually refugees or asylum seekers’ (Bauman 2004, p. 54).

It is rather curious, then, in view of the recent ‘demise’ of the republic, to come across a book on Australian republicanism. Or is it? Mark McKenna and Wayne Hudson have complied a reader, Australian Republicanism, to reminds us that republicanism offers an alternative vision of Australia. They remind us that Australia has a republican tradition, that there have been a number of ‘republican episodes’ in our short political history, and that our republican thinkers include John Dunmore Land, Charles Harpur, Daniel Deniehy, Geoffrey Dutton, and Donald Horne. Although the history of Australian republicanism makes for interesting reading, there is one problem with this republican tale. It is not exactly new. At least two thirds of the book first appeared in Mark McKenna’s (1996) earlier work The Captive Republic: A History of Republicanism in Australia 1788-1996. A revised chapter on Keating and the republic and two new chapters dealing with the 1998 Constitutional Convention and the 1999 Republican Referendum constitute only new chapters. It is quite possible, then, that quite a few Australians have heard the republican tale before.

What is new in the McKenna and Hudson book is the way that the Australian republic is now conceived. Previously, ‘the republic’ had been articulated as separation from the British monarchy. It had not been considered in republican political philosophy as a system of self-government based on active and public-spirited citizenship requiring participation in political life (Pettit 1997). The reason for this minimalism was the conservatism of the Australian electorate and the general unpopularity of referendums. Accordingly, the Australian Republican Movement and Paul Keating argued that the move to a republic should involve as little constitutional change as possible. Today, thinking on the republic has changed. McKenna and Hudson (p. 8) point out that ‘the Australian republic may need to be conceived in positive terms as a reform of our political system to enhance our commitment to the empowerment of citizens’.

Placing citizenship at the centre of political reform is certainly a republican initiative, but what exactly is meant by ‘the empowerment of citizens’? It refers to granting political, social, and economic power to all Australians, particularly those still disempowered, which include youth, the unemployed, the aged, women and Indigenous Australians (p. 8). In other words, the empowerment ideal aims to extend power to those Australians who may have formal citizenship status, but who lack actual citizenship rights and acceptance by the dominant cultural community (Hage 1998, p. 50).

Galligan and Roberts offer two competing concepts of Australian citizenship.

McKenna and Hudson’s concept of empowerment of citizens also includes broadening the Australian citizenship ideal to incorporate a global dimension. Republican citizenship, then, would redefine Australians as more inclusive and as more outward looking. We would be redefined as global citizens with responsibilities to citizens in other parts of the world. An Australian republic would ‘commit Australians to engage with other countries and with problems around us, including security problems, ecological problems, and problems of the management of demographic change, not least refugees’ (p. 8).

The argument that the empowerment of citizens constitutes the basis of the next republican movement is certainly persuasively republican, but is it sufficiently persuasive to motivate Australians into political reform? This question takes us to the topic of Australian citizenship, on which there has been renewed interest in the last decade or so. A recent example of work in this field is Brian Galligan’s and Winsome Roberts’ Australian Citizenship.

Galligan and Roberts offer two competing concepts of Australian citizenship. The first is the official version defined in terms of the individual’s legal status and links to liberal political institutions. This civic ideal originates in the writings of John Locke and has recently been expanded to include celebration of our cultural diversity (p. 3). Liberal citizenship is usually associated with individual rights such as freedom, equality, privacy, and private property (Pateman 1995, p. 101). It is underpinned by the doctrine of equal human worth which is challenged by ‘the disparity between rich and poor’ and the lack of social and cultural recognition accorded to many (Phillips 1999, p. 79).

The second concept of Australian citizenship is ‘membership of a political community with a distinct culture and specific history that shapes their personal and social development from childhood’ (p .4). This definition appears quite republican because it stresses the importance of the citizens’ shared history. But there are other emphases: the role of national culture, the importance of heritage, and cultivating loyalty and patriotism (p. 3). Galligan and Roberts define national culture as Australian culture or ‘Australianness’ and definitely ‘not a multicultural one’ (p. 8). So here we have the first hint that they oppose multiculturalism. Not surprisingly, then, they present multiculturalism as devaluing Australia’s core culture. For Galligan and Roberts, citizenship is about being Australian (p. 4). ‘Most native-born Australians’ would not identify with the civil ideal of citizenship, they argue, because ‘Australians think of themselves as Australians, rather than citizens, but in a way that blends their particular national identity with democratic values’ (p. 7).

There is a problem with assuming that ‘most native-born Australians’ are an homogeneous group who hold similar opinions. Indigenous Australians are native-born, but they hold different views from the rest of Australia. They are still waiting to be included as equal citizens in the Australian political community. Thus, as McKenna and Hudson argue, contemporary republicanism needs to take on board the Aboriginal question and to include ‘the prior occupation and custodianship of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution’ (p. 275).

Some native-born Australians are also second generation Australians. Many understand themselves to have hyphenated identities: they are, for example, Italo-Australians, Chinese-Australians, or Lebanese-Australians and they operate quite comfortably with a bi-cultural ethnic identity. The shift to a bi-cultural identity within one generation has been explained by Ellie Vasta (1995, p. 62) as a resistance to assimilation and a response to the positive influence of multiculturalism.

Galligan and Roberts do not share this view. They contend that ‘Australia has not become a multicultural society in any strong sense of the term; rather, migrating people have become Australianised’ (p. 79). They use statistics compiled by Charles Price to expand on their argument and suggest that ‘there is a strong propensity for descendants of migrants, especially those of third and subsequent generations, to marry outside their parents’ ethnic group. The result is extensive ethnic intermixture, with many of these Australians having three or more ancestries’ (p. 79).

The argument that multiculturalism challenges our core culture is often heard.

But figures by Charles Price (1993, p. 7) on ethnic intermarriage in Australia also show significant second-generation in-group marriage. Half or more of second generation brides of Greek, Italian, Lebanese, and Turkish origin marry within their own ethnic community, as do about one-third of Yugoslav and Portuguese, and about one quarter of Chinese and Maltese. Half or more of second-generation grooms of Greek origin do the same, as do almost half of grooms from Italian and Lebanese origin and more than a quarter of Maltese and almost one quarter of Chinese grooms.

Galligan and Roberts (p. 79) argue that the ‘integration of migrants across generations’ breaks down ‘cultural distinctiveness’, but the same evidence suggests that ‘cultural distinctiveness’ is maintained by in-group marriage amongst certain cultural groups. Two distinct processes, then, are at work in Australia, reflecting the complexity of cultural diversity in a multicultural society.

The argument that multiculturalism challenges our core culture is often heard, so it needs to be fleshed out. Although Galligan and Roberts do not describe Australia’s core culture in ethnic terms, Miriam Dixson (1999) does: it is Anglo-Celtic. Our national identity is based on ‘an old, complex ethnic model’—in our case, the Anglo Celtic core culture—which ‘can still continue to sustain social coherence over transitional years’ (1999, p. 3).

Dixson (1999) recognises the impact of cultural diversity on Australia. She contends that the nation is in a state of ‘transition’ and ‘consolidation’ and the Anglo-Celtic core must continue to function as a ‘holding’ centre for ‘an emerging and newly diverse Australia’ (1999, p. 7). And while it is not the only ‘holding’ centre, Dixon (1999, p. 8) points out, the others being the bureaucracy, the media, and advertising, it is an important feature of our present national cohesion and stability.

Dixson argues that Australia’s intellectual ‘obsession’ with national identity arises from the relationship between the ‘core culture’ and the ethnic groups that have been here since the 1970s. Part of the ‘obsessiveness’ is ‘a displaced grief that is forbidden to mourn and has nowhere to go’ (1999, p. 42). While most Australians can express their loss in other areas of life, the cultural loss many people experience is often ignored. There is little public discussion about the grief some Australians feel about the passing of the nation they once knew and loved. Embracing multiculturalism has jettisoned the process of mourning that mainstream Australians need to undergo before they can develop a forward-looking identity (1999, p. 43). Dixson suggests that if the Australian people ‘allowed themselves, or were allowed, to mourn their loss more openly, they would register the unfolding new cohesive activity more effectively’ (1999, p. 44). Instead of a public debate about the nation’s cultural transformation and our future as a confident multicultural nation we are currently confronted by denial and a retreat back into the idea of a White Australia.

Galligan and Roberts’s argument that multiculturalism challenges our core culture is assimilationist. It perpetuates the idea that Australia is made up of a national culture often referred to as the ‘core’ Anglo-Celtic culture and a ‘periphery’ of other ethnic cultures. The problem with assimilation is that it implies that the dominance of the core culture is a ‘natural’ fact, rather that a set of historical contingencies arising from colonisation and global capitalism. From this perspective, the dominant culture is a normal, familiar, and constant element in people’s lives, while new cultures are open to transformation. Cultural differences are only tolerated by the dominant culture because of the perception that these differences can be changed.

Pluralism is an alternative way to think about cultural diversity and nationhood.

Pluralism is an alternative way to think about cultural diversity and nationhood. It accepts cultural diversity as an historical and regular feature of modern life. Pluralism leads to a greater acceptance of the cosmopolitan nature of modern nation states and lends itself to a civic idea of nationhood. Australia has been progressing towards civic pluralism, suggests Mary Kalantzis (2000, p. 99), a fact not recognised by the media, and other dominant institutions that still present images of the nation fashioned on Anglo-Celtic culture.

Galligan and Roberts do not present any original observations about Australian citizenship, and their arguments regress towards an analysis of national identity. Unfortunately they merely succeed in retracing the footsteps of our founding fathers, who attempted to define Australian citizenship prior to Federation, but failed because national identity dominated political thinking. A historical problem with Australian citizenship is that ideas of nationhood have often subsumed it. Too often in Australia’s political evolution, national identity has been privileged over citizenship, such that the broader conception of citizenship as membership of, and active participation in, a common political community has been obscured.

These works show that there remain tensions in Australian political culture, tensions between political equality and cultural democracy, between multiculturalism and monoculturalism, and between an ethnic idea of nationhood and the civic ideal. Resolving our national identity is a major challenge. Because a nation is a moral community, we are all implicated in this ‘unfinished business’. Perhaps we can take the republican approach and deliberate our national identity in an ethical-political way. But this is difficult to do because, as Robert Manne argues, today there are ‘two nations inhabiting separate moral universes’ in Australia (1998, p. 7).

One moral community clings to its colonial heritage. It believes in the myth of White Australia that denied Aborigines citizenship and national inclusion. It is linked to the dominant power structure of Australian society and has the economic resources, media influence, and institutional power to perpetuate the idea that Australia has a national identity and does not require a new one. Investing in paranoid nationalism is a feature of this community.

The other moral community offers a republican vision of Australia. It recognises that the ethnic ideal of nationhood is history, that our cultural diversity is an asset reflecting our uniqueness as a modern nation. This community walked in solidarity with the Indigenous Australians in their support for reconciliation. It opposes the Howard government’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers. Some of its members even risk prison sentences by providing homes for escapees from detention centres (Neumann 2004, p. 113) because to do otherwise would not be ethical or Australian. Their response as citizens of a global world is republican because it supports the freedom of others. Freedom is central to republican citizenship, as are social solidarity, political participation, and moral outrage. They are all aspects of citizen empowerment.

Perhaps it is just as well we have a republican tradition because it provides an attractive alternative to ‘Australian fundamentalism’ (Hage 2003, p. 69). We just need to remember to put republican ideals on the political agenda when we next vote on the republic.


Bauman, Z. 2004, Wasted Lives, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Dixson, M. 1999, The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity—1788 to the present, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Hage, G. 1998, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Hage, G. 2003, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner 2003, Face the Facts, Australian Government Printing Service, Sydney,

Kalantzis, M. 2000, ‘Multicultural Citizenship’, in Rethinking Australian Citizenship, eds W. Hudson & J. Kane, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 99–110.

Keating, P. 1995, An Australian Republic: The Way Forward, Australian Government Printing Service, Sydney.

Manne, R. 1998, Two Nations, Bookman Press, Melbourne.

McKenna, M. 1996, The Captive Republic: A History of Republicanism in Australia 1788-1996, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Neumann, K. 2004, Refuge Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Pateman, C. 1995, The Disorder of Women, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Pettit, P. 1997, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Clarendon Press.

Phillips, A. 1999, Which Equalities Matter, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Price, C. 1993, ‘Ethnic intermixture in Australia’, People and Place, vol. 1. no. 1, pp. 6–8.

Vasta, E. 1995, ‘Youth and ethnicity’, in Ethnic Minority Youth in Australia, eds C. Guerra & R. White, National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Hobart. pp. 55–68.

Dr. Inta Allegritti teaches political sociology and politics at the University of Newcastle. She writes and researches Australian citizenship and cultural diversity. On 26 March 2003 she gave the Corry Lecture at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, on the topic of ‘Exploring Intercultural Citizenship in Australia’. She is currently researching the impact of neo-liberalism on Australian citizenship.