The Need for a Reconciled Republic
The following is an extract from the introduction of
Mark McKenna’s forthcoming book on the need for a reconciled republic,
to be published by University of New South Wales Press early next year.
Canberra. May 9 1927. The opening of Parliament House.
Crowds gather on flat, dusty, ceremonial ground – witnesses to the
first steps in the invention of a capital city. The Duke and Duchess of
Kent have travelled from the mother country to preside over proceedings.
The sovereign Crown come down under.
In the midst of the huddle one figure stands out. He
is an Aboriginal man dressed in an old suit, dogs at his side. A reporter
from the Melbourne Argus described him as ‘very old and grey and
raggedly picturesque’, a ‘member of the Gundagai tribe’
and ‘a well known character in the district’. More typically,
another report from the Canberra Times referred to him as ‘a lone
representative of a fast vanishing race’ who had come only to salute
‘visiting Royalty’. His name was Jimmy Clements. Whitefellas,
as was their way, referred to him as ‘King Billy’. On seeing
Clements, a policeman immediately asked him to leave. He was apparently
dressed inappropriately for the occasion – a King not fit to be
in the presence of English royalty. But Clements did not want to be moved
on; This country was his after all.
Immediately and instinctively the crowd on the stands
rallied to his side. There were choruses of advice and encouragement for
him to do as he pleased. A well known clergyman stood up and called out
that the Aborigine had a better right than any man present to a place
on the steps of the House of Parliament and in the Senate during the ceremony.
The old man’s persistence won him an excellent position, and also
a shower of small change that must have amounted to 30/-. or 40/-.
The following day, May 10, prominent citizens were paraded
before the Duke and Duchess as they stood atop the steps of Parliament
House. Clements was among those who passed before them. As the Argus reported,
‘an ancient aborigine, who calls himself King Billy and who claims
sovereign rights to the Federal Territory, walked slowly forward alone,
and saluted the Duke and Duchess. They cheerily acknowledged his greeting’.
A photograph of Clements appeared in the same edition
of the Argus.
This image appeared under the headline ‘Demanded
The caption accompanying the photo read; ‘This is the member of
the Gundagai tribe who, as representative of the original Aboriginal owners
of the land, was given a prominent place at the historic ceremony in Canberra
yesterday. He carried in his right hand a small Australian ensign’.
The experience of Jimmy Clements at the opening of Parliament
House bears the pathos, perseverance and tenacity of all Aboriginal people
in the wake of colonisation. Some aspects of the story seem allegorical
- the Aboriginal figure as fringe dweller, the role of the preacher in
stirring the sympathy of the crowd, the tokenism of the coins thrown at
‘King Billy’s’ feet, and the symbolic presence of Clements,
the Aboriginal man who ‘claims sovereign rights’ at the very
moment the sovereignty of the Crown and the Australian parliament is asserted.
The most famous photograph of Clements (see p.1), a lone
figure sitting in the dirt, the whitefellas’ sacred site behind
him, his hands clutching the flag, also seems like an eerie precursor
of the Tent Embassy, founded in 1972. Many in the crowd allegedly acknowledged
that Clements, by virtue of his Aboriginality, had a better right than
anyone to be present in Canberra on that day. Yet Clements’ very
presence was a reminder that his better right and the rights of his people
had been forgotten in the forging of the Australian Commonwealth.
Clements was seen as a representative of Aboriginal people,
at least in the eyes of the Argus reporter. He had come to claim his sovereign
rights and to remind the whitefella that Aboriginal sovereignty had not
been extinguished. On 28 August 1927, little more than three months after
the opening ceremony in Canberra, Clements died at the age of 80 in Queanbeyan.
The newspaper report noted that he was buried in Queanbeyan cemetery ‘outside
consecrated ground’. Even in death Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal
people were unable to share the same earth.
With every subsequent occasion of national celebration
after 1927 – the sesquicentenary of settlement in 1938, the bicentenary
of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay in April 1970, the 1988
bicentenary and the Centenary of federation in 2001 – Aboriginal
people made it abundantly clear they had no reason to celebrate. Instead
they mourned their people whose lives had been lost in the process of
colonisation and, like Jimmy Clements in 1927, demanded their rights.
For non-Aboriginal Australians any sense of national
celebration has continually been hampered by the awareness that the full
redress of injustices suffered by Aboriginal people has not yet come to
pass. The ongoing presence of the Tent Embassy in Canberra is a constant
reminder of what is still to be done. The sight and smell of the smoke
from the Aboriginal campfires out the front of old Parliament house confronts
our senses with the same evidence of Aboriginal occupation that confronted
the colonists in 1788. The site of the Tent Embassy is a moral challenge
to the complacent heart that seems to lie at the centre of Australian
In 1970, Aboriginal protesters declared April 29 a ‘Day
of Mourning’ and threw wreaths into the sea at La Perouse at the
same time as the Cook re-enactment took place on the other side of Botany
Bay at Kurnell. The Sydney Morning Herald commented on the ‘sad
shadow’ Aboriginal protest cast over the Cook celebrations. Prophetically,
the Herald editorial warned that ‘it is our shame if [Aboriginal
people] are left to conduct mourning ceremonies on the sidelines of our
great Bi-Centenary year celebrations’.
Imagine the day, if you can, when the Australian republic
is declared. This is the day we replace the sovereignty of the Crown with
the explicit declaration of the sovereignty of the Australian people.
Would we wish that this day comes to be seen much like the Cook Bicentenary,
the opening of new Parliament house in 1988, the Bicentenary celebrations,
and the centenary of federation in 2001? Yet another day when our ‘celebrations’
are haunted by the shadows of historical injustice towards Aboriginal
people – a day when Aboriginal protesters mourn their exclusion
from the republic? Or would we wish that this day be different, a genuine
founding of the Australian nation based on the constitutional recognition
of Aboriginal people and the acknowledgment of past injustice?
Australia needs a vision of a republic that is one for
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike - a republic committed to reconciliation
and democratic process, a republic worth fighting for and a republic worth