It may come as a surprise to some, but most people in the world know little about Australia. For many, we are a dream holiday destination or perhaps known as the home of sport or entertainment personalities. But rarely as a place to do business, or as an independent thinker and contributor to peace, development and democracy. We could better ensure our future prosperity, security and community confidence with a stronger identity that reflects contemporary Australia and all of our competitive strengths.
Indeed, in Asia, where most of our trade takes place, we are often perceived as just a little uncomfortable in the region, people happy to do transactional trade but not to invest in long term relationships. Our image is that our heart is elsewhere, hankering for an age of European empires long gone. This is a problem, as the world’s economic gravity shifts to Asia. But we have one powerful way to redefine ourselves, to update the outmoded images. By becoming a republic we can strengthen our influence and bring Australia’s international identity into the 21st century.
It might come as a surprise to many that the stereotypes of Australia often quoted in Asia are held more broadly, including in Europe in the recent past. I conducted research in the 1990s into how “Brand Australia” was perceived in two countries with strong cultural bonds to Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In both, Australia was perceived as a place of sun, surf and fun but not a source of innovation or high quality goods and services. Nor, interestingly, were we perceived as multicultural or engaged with the Asia Pacific economies.
Australia’s identity in the world is alarmingly superficial. That means it is subject to potential volatility. We might be popular today, but could be actively disliked tomorrow. Witness the Indian student affair of a couple of years ago, which wiped billions from our international education industry. A superficial identity is not good for our economic security. Any business knows how important it is to invest in your brand, your reputation and your relationships.
Our identity in the world matters enormously. Business people, diplomats and governments understand very well the importance of “soft power”, the influence and the images that a country has can affect all kinds of decisions from business deals to the health and stability of our international security relationships.
Our “face” in the Asian Century will depend upon being understood as a grown up nation, confident in our own identity, values and place in the world. Our reputation and our influence are of course largely a result of what we do, but there is always an intangible effect of who we say we are. While we hold onto the apron strings of another country on the other side of the world, we project an image of a country unsure of ourselves, lacking trust in ourselves to manage our own affairs, content to be marginal and of secondary rank.
A strengthened reputation in the world would be significant, practical benefit should Australia become a republic. Taking responsibility for ourselves would send a strong message, as would a democratic and inclusive process to reach the decision. Indeed, Australia could be a model for the region, demonstrating responsible and successful self-government, deeply embedded democratic instincts and the peaceful resolution of political disputes through debate and dialogue. As such a model, we would be much more in the forefront of minds, a much stronger position from which to prosecute our national interests.
We were such a model in the past. Australia (and New Zealand) led the world in granting votes to women and allowing women to stand for parliament. We invented the secret ballot and designed an elected upper house, before even the US Senate was fully elected. The UK House of Lords, of course, is still not democratic.
We could be a model again, by involving all Australians – through informed debate and dialogue – in designing a head of state office with limited powers but with the capacity to unite a people in self-confidence and to promote Australia to the world.
Indeed, one benefit of a republic that just might spark the Australian public’s interest is this. If we had our own head of state, that person would be our chief representative to the world, supported by our Foreign Minister. The Prime Minister could stay at home, tending to domestic political issues of the day. That would be a win win for better government and better international standing. An Australian head of state could, apolitically, represent the whole nation at important events such as Anzac Day and popular events such as the Olympics. When heads of state gather at the UN, we could have a seat at the top table, instead of missing out because, currently, our head of state has a full time job representing another country.
Both Government and Opposition are tentatively starting a discussion about more substantial engagement with our region, including language studies and exchange and proposing to bolster our poor diplomatic representation in the countries of most importance to our future. But our leaders have so far failed to develop a narrative to capture the popular imagination.
An informed, inclusive discussion about becoming a republic could help build a narrative about our place in the world. It could spark more community interest than “Asian engagement” as currently constructed, because the republic is about us, who we are and who we want to be. A part of the debate is, of course, how we must become more comfortable with ourselves and where we live in the world. So the republic joins the dots for an Asia that is otherwise foreign for many Australians – it’s “them”, not “us” – despite our jobs and our security relying on our good relations in the region.
There is a new economic imperative for us to think more about our place in the Asian century. For decades, we have dug up resources and shipped them to Asia, which hasn’t taken much thought for most of us and nor has it mattered much how Australia is perceived. But, in order to broaden the benefits from the massive economic growth underway in Asia, we need to find new, high value jobs working with Asian economies across all industries, in high value niche areas. In service industries like tourism and education and in the export of niche products, our reputation will be so much more important than it was to sell coal or iron ore.
Amongst the most serious challenges for the next generation of political leaders is the need to unite Australians, in our diversity, around an identity that can also strengthen our identity in the world. An identity that is not simply rooted in being comfortable with the past, but one that actively embraces our present and future. Because our future is bright.
From a national discussion about who we want to be in the future, we can build a much more resilient “brand”, one that adds value to our business and diplomatic initiatives instead of holding us back. A brand that is confident, smart, optimistic and engaged. We can project a reputation in the region based much more on Australia’s contemporary reality than our past, a place of remarkable economic, social and environmental leadership.
In the decade to come the world will change, as it has each decade before. Australia will also change and adapt, as we have done so successfully over our history. We have gradually developed our own national identity and successfully governed ourselves over the course of a century. To complete that process by declaring to the world that Australia is fully ours, will be to send a very strong message indeed about how a peaceful and prosperous people make decisions about our own future, here in our part of the world.