Friday, August 7, 2009

Preambles - imagining the republic

In 1999 a preamble written by Les Murray was offered to, and rejected by, the Australian community as part of the referendum on a republic. On 8 June 2003 the Preamble Project was launched at the Museum of Sydney.

The Preamble Project began as a conversation between the writer James Bradley and other republicans about the need to provide some imaginative foundation for the ongoing debate about an Australian Republic. In the course of that conversation the idea was floated of inviting several writers to draft preambles to a republican Constitution as a way of giving voice to some of the deeper impulses an Australian Republic might embody.

In the creation of an Australian Republic, the underlying source of authority is the democratic will of the Australian people. The Constitution of that Republic will be the expression of that will and embodies our values and aspirations. And so, in setting forth its unifying purpose the preamble to a republican Constitution must give voice to the deeper impulses that underlie its creation. It must, in other words, tell us the story of who we are.

Six writers offered individual statements reflecting their vision for Australia, its land and people.

James Bradley begins his statement with a pledge of allegiance to "the land, the sea [and] the sky".

Peter Carey declares that Australia is a nation "engendered by a foreign king, by foreign wars, by happenstance [and] by a once great empire which also bequeathed us our first rich cultural inheritance". Perhaps predictably for a writer who has spent his career probing the ambiguities in the Australian national identity, he chooses to make clear the contradictions in our past and our present, exhorting us to draw strength from these contradictions, and to recognise in them the bond that we must make if we are to draw strength from ourselves.

For Richard Flanigan the preamble becomes something more like a national prayer, an exhortation to find meaning in our past and in the land that we share, and to make ourselves anew through the medium of our shared love of that land. It is unashamedly romantic, not just in its language and imagery, buth with its explicit belief in the idea of the republic as an act of the imagination.

Delia Falconer and Dorothy Porter by contrast offer more plainsong approaches to the question. Delia Falconer compresses her feelings into a single sentence, trying to draw together the many impulses a republic might embody, acting finally to remind our elected representatives that their power stems from our will, and no higher source. Dorothy Porter also seeks to express the values the republic might embody by reference to the popular will, but unlike Delia Falconer she chooses to couch her contribution in a series of commitments we choose to make as one people, commitments as to what we will try to be, thus transforming itself into a statement of principles, giving heed to our history only as a thing from which we might learn, but never be hostage to.

Leah Purcell's contribution opens in the language of the Kamilaroi and Gungarri people and continues in English, calling for respect for pioneers, immigrants, the land and its first peoples. Eschewing grand gestures altogether it enjoins us all to a shared respect for each other's rights and histories, thereby providing a basis for the trust upon which a Republic might find itself.

Through productive discussions of what sort of preamble we would like to have comes a discussion of the meaning an Australian Republic might ultimately hold for all of us.

The full text of the six preambles can be read at