Imagine a Republic of Australia. Imagine a country that sets aside official, colonial-era ties with the old mother country, stepping out on its own. Imagine an Australia that embraces its multiculturalism and fully accepts its historical and geographic identity as part of Asia. An Australia no longer clinging to a long-past era, where it saw itself as an outpost on the far side of the world, constrained by the “tyranny of distance” from the United Kingdom. Imagine the Republic of Australia in an Asian Century.
An Australian republic would be far better positioned to engage with its neighbours, and its region more broadly, than Australia as it is today. The significance of the shift to a republic is not so much in the internal, political changes, but rather in its symbolism. The election of an Australian head of state would symbolically represent a cutting of ties – real or perceived – with its colonial past and the start of a new chapter in its history.
In terms of foreign policy, Australia would become a more credible diplomatic partner for states in its immediate region. While cultural and historical ties with the UK would undoubtedly remain, externally Australia would be seen as moving towards a more independent position and identity. Without an overt link to a colonial past, Australia would become slightly less awkward in its region. The founding of a republic is a logical step in adapting to the Asian Century and preparing for decades ahead.
Looking far into the past, the peoples of this continent have had longstanding ties with their northern neighbours. One notable example is the extensive trade contact that developed between Makassar’s merchants and communities of indigenous Australians along Australia’s north coast. Since the early 18th century, Macassans – from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia – travelled to Australian shores to harvest trepang, a kind of sea cucumber, among other resources from the sea. A strong relationship was built around this trade. As Dr Marshall Clark of the Australian National University notes, “Australia, if you go far back into our history, has very close links with Asia and the Indonesian archipelago in particular…the Australian continent was very much a part of Asia and had played a key role in a very big maritime trade”.
The period since the British arrived is very short in the history of the Australian continent. Alliances, relationships, cultural and other ties may come and go, but we’re stuck here. There’s no changing our geography.
The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper recognised this. Ross Garnaut’s report, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy, also recognised this back in 1989, highlighting the economic importance of greater Asian engagement.
In past decades many leaders and public figures have spoken of Australia’s close relationship with Asia, and its need to do more to pursue this identity. While Australia’s foreign policy is increasingly focused on those states in Asia and its immediate region, no significant steps have been made to address its awkwardness and outsider-status in Asia.
The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, regardless of its flaws, was a strong statement of Australia’s desire to accept its geographic location and better engage with Asian partners. It is unfortunate that the paper has now been quietly relegated to the archives, an action that clearly signals the low regard in which the current government holds its recommendations.
Despite sporadic campaigning for greater awareness of and participation in our immediate region, it appears that some Australian leaders still cling tightly to historical ties with Britain. Archaic notions of Australia as a ‘White Dominion’ should be consigned to the history books, but worryingly these ideas appear to hold some currency with the incumbent Prime Minister given his comments and actions since he took office.
Australia’s current asylum seeker policy is representative of this mentality. Australia still seems to view its northern border as something that must be staunchly defended against encroachment from Asia and beyond. Australia is now an incredibly diverse, multicultural nation. Post-White Australia, this country was initially much more open to migrants and refugees. Today, it seems that the xenophobia of the past has again returned.
The spectre of the ‘Yellow Peril’ threat, a danger creeping in from the North, colours the language of the asylum seeker debate. Former Prime Minister John Howard’s characterisation of asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ - and the ‘children overboard’ scandal - have instilled this issue with the language of fear and illegality. This attitude has not left us, and is still being used by politicians today.
This sort of thinking is a barrier to closer engagement with our neighbours. Australia must seek relationships that put both partners on equal footing instead of attempting to dictate terms that make it appear overbearing and even condescending. Indonesian President Joko Widodo – for example – has stated that he wants to see a more equal partnership with Australia and raised concerns that Australia treats Indonesia as the weaker actor bilaterally.
A major problem is that Australia is perceived as a part of the West, a lackey of the United States, an outpost of the United Kingdom. Perceptions matter. Australia may be located in Asia, but it is seen as belonging to another part of the world. It remains an outsider.
A Republic of Australia would help to change these perceptions. It would be a symbolic shift in the eyes of our neighbours. Free from official links to the British Monarchy and all its associations, the benefit to Australia’s foreign relations would be immense. Of course, this split would not solve all of Australia’s image problems. Those strong links to the US would remain. Nevertheless, it would be a step in the right direction. An Australian republic for the Asian Century.
Sebastian McLellan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.