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The Need for a Reconciled Republic

by

Mark McKenna

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 his Rights’.
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 politics.

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 voting for.


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