Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:07 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:07 | SYDNEY

The slow death of British Australia


Nick Bryant


1 June 2012 12:11

Constantly I am amazed at how 'the British way' retains its permeating influence in so many areas of Australian national life. 

As the Queen prepares to celebrate her diamond jubilee, it is worth remembering that much of this country marks her birthday every year with a public holiday, a courtesy not even observed in my homeland. There are still some 160,000 Britons who can cast a vote in Australian federal elections, a fancy franchise shared with other residents from the Commonwealth but with no other non-citizens. British colours still adorn the Australian flag ('Britain at night', scoffs Jerry Seinfeld) while Australia Day celebrates the moment of British colonisation. The Queen's profile continues to decorate the coinage, while her title is affixed to the hulls of Australian warships. When Dublin looked to dispose of its statue of Queen Victoria, Sydney gladly offered it a home.

The point is amply made. The death of British Australia has been surprisingly slow.

What makes this all the more historically anomalous is that the national story has continually been punctuated by colonial slights and imperial underhandedness. Had successive British governments put their minds to concocting a strategy designed to alienate their Australian cousins, they could not have done much better than Gallipoli, the Melbourne Agreement during the Great Depression, the great betrayal during World War II, the British nuclear tests in the outback and entry into the Common Market. But never in Australia's history has there been an overwhelming and pressing desire to ditch the monarchy.

'An Australian head of state can embody our modern aspirations,' proclaimed Paul Keating, in his most celebrated speech on the subject, An Australia Republic: the Way Forward, in June, 1995; 'our cultural diversity, our evolving relationships with Asia and the Pacific, our quest for reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians, our ambitions to create a society in which women have equal opportunity, equal representation and equal rights.'

Still powerful, however, is the idea expressed by Sir Robert Menzies in his much-lampooned 'I did but see her passing by' speech in 1963. The monarchy, he said, is 'an addition to our freedom, not a subtraction from it.' That has proved a resilient thought, and looks set to remain so with or without the presence of the Queen. Just witness the reaction last year to the Royal Wedding, where hotel wide-screens were switched from the footy to the nuptials.

How remarkable that a discussion about Australian in the Asian 21st century should touch upon a holdover from Australia in the British 18th century.

National identity and orientation is not a zero sum game, and one of Australia''s most attractive qualities is that it draws on so many influences. As its population has grown and become more diverse, it has become an aggregation of many different cultures, and the British influence has been diluted. Still, an extraordinary amount of cultural space is surrendered to the UK-made or UK-influenced. Just switch on ABC. It means the British monarchy is not as incongruous as it should be.
Last year saw an important demographic shift. For the first time in Australian history, immigrants from China outnumbered those from Britain. A Pom mini-exodus is also underway, which will probably be accelerated by the recent changes to LAHFA, the living away from home allowance, which have been met with howls of protest in the expat community. But the British footprint is still heavy, and Australia prefers to think of itself as a permanent fixture of of the Anglosphere, that relatively new term.

In some ways, the debate about the Republic is similar to the debate about Australia in Asia. It is not a pressing national priority. It is rarely discussed. It exposes a fear of the unknown and also a lack of national imagination. It goes to the country's historical and geographic mooring. Just as Republicans find it difficult to explain and agree on what a post-monarchical Australia would look like, Australian Asia-philes struggle as well with the vision thing.

Republicans are waiting for something to happen: the death of the Queen. The nitty gritty of the 'Australia in Asia' thing is also easily put off to some undetermined date when China becomes more of a rival to America.

Perhaps the timetables are linked. For Australia to become more Asian does it not have to become less British?

Photo by Flickr user Ginnos.