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Advance Australia further

The hour has struck for us to reconsider our stand on a republic, writes Benjamin Jones.

It was a surreal experience sitting in Committee Room 1 at Parliament House watching Wayne Swan and Malcolm Turnbull join forces on Monday.

Three months out from a federal election, what cause could bring these political rivals together? The answer is an Australian republic.

<i>Illustration: Ian Sharpe</i>

Illustration: Ian Sharpe

The Deputy Prime Minister and the opposition communications spokesman both wrote forewords for Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia, edited by myself and Professor Mark McKenna. It was an act of bipartisanship reminiscent of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser joining forces in the 1990s to champion the republic.

This is an issue above party politics. Fighting for the republic is not easy but it is right. Project Republic was born out of a desire to restart the great national conversation that has been dormant for more than a decade. I was too young to vote in the 1999 referendum but studied the campaign as part of my honours and doctoral theses.

Looking at the period as a historian and sociologist, I was amazed that an argument so powerful, so logically sound and eminently reasonable could be defeated. To argue that an Australian citizen should be our head of state is to argue the obvious. To argue that hereditary title and privilege is fair and just in a modern democracy is lunacy.

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For the millions of young Australians who, like me, never got to have their say on the republic issue, I decided to begin work on a collection of republican essays.

It should not have been so easy. I was an academic nobody, audaciously contacting prominent Australians such as Mark McKenna, Thomas Keneally, Henry Reynolds, Julian Morrow, Larissa Behrendt, John Hirst, George Williams and others to solicit chapters. I had no reputation, no payment to offer and no guarantee of publication. But one after another they all said yes. With Mark on board as co-editor, we contacted Swan and Turnbull and again quickly received positive responses.

This issue still matters to people. People who love Australia deeply and are passionate about Australia's future can never be satisfied with a colonial constitution that disqualifies Australian children from ever becoming head of state. We can never be satisfied with a constitution that holds at its pinnacle a foreign monarch rather than the only legitimate source of power: the collective will of the people of Australia.

Some responded to the launch of Project Republic with indignation, claiming average Australians cared only about jobs and living costs. Fortunately they are wrong. What a cold and mean-spirited nation we would be if we were governed only by material self-interest.

Civic pride is the key to an Australian republic and that includes educating people about what our constitution actually says and why it should be updated to reflect the free and independent democracy that we are, not the subservient British dominion we were in 1901.

I remember walking into a newsagency at Chicago's O'Hare airport and noticing copies of the US constitution for sale. ''Do many people buy this?'' I asked. ''It is a best seller,'' came the reply. How many Australians have read, let alone understood, our constitution?

Professor Mick Dodson has expressed his frustration at the ''shocking'' level of ignorance in the broader community. How many Australians know that the constitution does not even mention the prime minister and cabinet or that the Queen has the right to disallow laws passed by our democratic government?

Working at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, I would frequently have visitors ask questions such as: ''Is the green room for government and the red room for opposition?'' An education campaign is needed, not only for the republic, but to encourage patriotism and good citizenship. How can you love something if you don't know anything about it?

There are many, including Turnbull, who say the time for a republic is at the end of the Queen's reign. If this is so, the time to set the wheels

in motion is now. It will take time to discuss what kind of model will best suit us. It will take time to explain why this change is a noble one and it will take time to re-engage the Australian people in the discussion.

What faces should appear on our national coins? What should be the wording of our preamble - if we choose to have one? Should be invite a prominent writer to compose verses or should, as George Williams proposes, we have a nationwide school competition and use the talents of our future leaders?

These are important considerations, but they are also fun! As we remind ourselves in the national anthem, we are a young nation and we are also free to give ourselves a constitution worthy of a great nation. The future Australian republic will look back and honour the people who fought for its creation. It will remember those who loved their country so much they actively fought for a better future.

Australia deserves a head of state who is Australian, loves Australia and is willing to serve only Australia. I urge all Australians to be on the right side of history. Be one who contributes positively to the debate, looking for a way forward, not reasons to shrink back.

As long as the constitution excludes our children from ever attaining its highest position of honour, it is broken. We can cower in the shadows of history waiting for someone else to help or we can rise to the challenge and set about the hard work of fixing it.

Let Project Republic begin!

  • Dr Benjamin T. Jones is a historian and Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University. Project Republic is published by Black Inc.