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Lucky country needs to make our own luck

Conventional thinking is that Australia is a complacent country, or, as Donald Horne famously quipped, “a lucky country.”  It’s why people often say we will never make the effort to become an independent republic, because, well, why bother?

Yet the lightning reaction to the Prime Minister’s decision to seek from the Queen a knighthood for her husband has Australians talking all over the country in recent times about our identity, our values and the fact that modern Australia has changed.  We have grown out of the cultural cringe and the monocultural arrogance of decades long gone.  We, the Australian people, must stand on our own two feet, and stand together as one, as we navigate the future.  A republic will better serve modern Australia.

Of course it was a bit of luck, Mr Abbott’s error of judgment with his “knights and dames”, which got us talking.  Do we always rely on luck to shake us out of our complacency?  Or is there more to the Australian story, if we look at the Australian people and how we have changed over the years?

When my ancestors left post-1848 Europe, after the failure of democratic revolutions there against tyrannical monarchies, they certainly struck the jackpot in coming to Australia.  They didn’t find gold on the goldfields at Ballarat, but they did, like all of us, benefit from the revolution that happened there.

At the Eureka Stockade in 1854, Germans, Canadians, black and white Americans, Irish, Italians and many more nationalities rose up with native born Australians against the authoritarian police and the corrupted justice in the infant colonies.  They swore allegiance to the Southern Cross flag and vowed to establish a republic.  We might not have achieved that yet, but despite being massacred by the English authorities, within months the brave men and women at Eureka had won for Australia democratic rights still dreamed of back in Europe.

Luck? Maybe. But it was through struggle, hard work and cooperation that the people who built those Australian colonies created industries with working conditions better than anywhere else in the world.  Where women first won the vote and the right to stand for parliament.

It was of course not so lucky for the indigenous people who were excluded and marginalized and, in some tragic cases terrorized, by the Australian colonies and by the young Australian nation after 1901.  They did not fit the “British to the bootstraps” ideology that sadly mirrored appalling racial policies in other parts of the British Empire, as well as other European empires of the time.

For its new citizens, though, having arrived from across the sea, Australia certainly seemed lucky compared with the countries they had fled.  Europe turned to hell in the first half of the 20th century.  We lost many people fighting for Empire in the First World War but it was our enormous luck to be saved in the Second World War by America at the moment that its star rose and the sun set on the British Empire.

And something else happened from the middle of the last century that changed Australia forever – and forever for the better.  Nick Greiner’s family arrived from Hungary, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s family arrived from Italy, and of course many millions of others came to Australia from around the world.

Olegas Truchanas, through the lens of his camera taught us to see the wilderness of South West Tasmania through different eyes than those who wanted to dam and log the whole island.  Claudio Alcorso introduced colour to Australian fashion and then went on to produce fine wines in a country that didn’t drink wine.  Frank Lowy revolutionized shopping and the list goes on.

Australia became a magnet for people with vision and ambition.  Luck played very little part in it.

Yes, in recent years we have been lucky to have hitched our resource-rich economy to rising China.  Yet again, we are in with the big kid on the block.  But we are a country that relies on much more than just resources for our well being.  Indeed, in the last few decades Australia has excelled in its economic management, leading market reforms and liberalization of the old protectionist Australia to make us more competitive and richer than ever.  We have diversified into services such as exporting education and financial services renowned the world over.   A result of innovation, not luck.

All of this, with one of the most diverse societies on earth that enjoys a high standard of living and greater opportunities than almost anywhere else you can think of.

So why do we not back ourselves?  Why do we have a Prime Minister who thinks he must swear allegiance to a monarch on the other side of the world instead of to his own people?  Why do we still have all of our major institutions, our armed forces, our hospitals and public spaces named after the aristocratic rulers of a small island on the other side of the world.

Of course I am not suggesting we should have anything but the closest of friendships with the United Kingdom, but it is time for Australia to stop putting ourselves second.

It made sense to put ourselves second when elites wanted to exclude people who did not fit the “British to the bootstraps” stereotype.  But those days have gone.  Australians today feel Australian, not colonial anymore.  Australians tell us our values are freedom, fairness, multiculturalism.

So our nation should be governed and represented by institutions and a Constitution based on these values, no longer pretending to be Little England.  We will be better served by a Constitution that includes all Australians and a system of government whose Head of State is one of us, accountable to us and with powers limited by us, the people.

It’s time for Australia to look forwards, not backwards, and not to rely on the winds of fortune, but to shape our own future.

As a diverse nation that aspires to be ever more united in the future, we can no longer be united by the call to Empire, but can certainly be united by our love of this country and the work that we do here to make it better.

It’s time to start the transition to an independent republic.  We need to make our own luck, just as we always have.

David Morris is a former diplomat, trade and investment official and National Director of the Australian Republican Movement.

Speech to Australian Republican Movement fundraiser, Sydney, 30 January 2015.

Featured as Blog of the Day, 30 January 2015, on Open Forum: 

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