Australian Republic: Disrupt the Constitution to enable social innovation

This article was published in The Age on 6/10/2015, and later appeared on sister Fairfax digital outlets. The author retains copyright.


Anthropologist John von Sturmer, speaking last month at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, made one of many salient observations: it would be a mistake to pursue a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples  before a successful referendum on the Australian republic. It would obfuscate meaningful reconciliation.

Australia does not see itself as a colony, but neither has it achieved full nationhood. We remain a legal dominion of our coloniser. As a dominion, constitutional Indigenous recognition is an act of state legitimation, not a healing act. More broadly, our national dependency creates a social constriction that should spur our new government into action.

Our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has talked a lot in recent days about his government being of the 21st century, fully embracing of disruption, innovation, and globalisation. He has also stressed that, although his convictions on the republican cause have not waned, a referendum is a third-order issue. This misconstrues the significance of the republican referendum.

Becoming a sovereign republic would embrace disruption and innovation, and generate momentum for positive reconstitution. Turnbull was speaking in a narrow economic sense when he used the language of disruption. However, the economy is not the only human wellspring of change and creativity.

Technology is a driving force in history. Throughout history, new ways of thinking have changed the status quo and new ways of doing have been the primary change agents. The printing press engendered the Renaissance, which led to the Industrial Revolution, which led to the intellectual construction of the modern nation-state: technology and ideation, the economic and the social, working in dialectic.

There is a worrying tendency in Australian politics to overlook the latent power of society. Our politicians portray government first as a manager of the economy, second as the underwriter of national security, and only third as a reluctant interloper in social matters. This could be because of liberal reservations about state intervention in society, or neoliberal privileging of the economy, or trepidation at the complexity of society – or a combination of these factors.

Regardless of motivation, the federal government especially tends to commodify social goods such as education and the arts and to justify its policies in fiscal terms, in the language of investment and capital. Thus, John Howard’s chief opposition to an apology to Indigenous peoples was that it might open the way to monetary compensation. The politics of native title is littered with appeals to private property rights over the claims of the original owners.

When politicians use economic language as a proxy for social policy, we underinvest in the potential of our nation. Despite its reservations, the state is intimately involved in social and cultural spheres. One need only point to the Family Court, the Council of the Arts, and the Royal Commission into Child Abuse to demonstrate how the judiciary and executive are structurally embedded in social issues. When the state acts in these spheres under the guise of economy, we are all impoverished.

This is not to call for more state action in society. Rather, for acknowledgement of the state’s real social stake and a considered reformulation of its position. In the first instance, do no harm. And, in the case of our constitution, an opportunity presents to remove barriers to healing.

Symbols and myths form the structure of a society, codifying shared values and delineating identities. In an economic sense, becoming a self-constituting republic is justifiably a third-order issue. But from a social standpoint, the constitution and its enshrining of our legal dominion is a symbolic touchstone.

If Turnbull wants his government to be seen as truly grappling with issues of the 21st century, he must prioritise our becoming a republic. Then he should commit to meaningful engagement with Indigenous people, to find out what forms of legal representation best support the shared values and culturally distinct identities that a cosmopolitan, self-constituted Australia should enshrine.

As Turnbull himself said, disruption is the key to progress. In Australia, progress can best be achieved through a holistic rubric of society and economy. If two referenda can remove the obstacles to a stronger and fairer society, then they are absolutely priorities of the highest order.

Our continued dominion is a case of legal protectionism. Government cannot and should not achieve all the work of culture; but it should liberalise the ability of society to do this invaluable work.

Definitions for what it is to be Australian, what constitutes Aboriginality and progress, and how best to organise our society and economy will change or at least shift as a result of removing the legal barriers to a self-defined nationhood.

Disruption is never easy, yet our Prime Minister has committed himself to tackling this phenomenon. We can only hope that he means disruption in its truest, historical sense.

 


Author’s commentary

When I hear our new Prime Minister of Australia talking about agility and technology and disruption, I can’t help but wish he meant these things in a wider sense than as business buzz words.

Recently in the West we have developed the problem of annexing to the market and economy the ideas of progress. The market will solve climate change. Economic sanctions will lead to detente with Iran.

The market is key in both these and indeed all social and political problems. But it is not paramount, though we might wish to see it that way for reasons of simplicity or to conserve preexisting social arrangements by claiming that changing them is irrelevant, a wasted effort.

This article aimed to offer one way that our PM could broaden his 21st Century vision for Australia beyond the economy, to the totality of our nation, worldview, and self-perception.

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