We received an email from a student doing research on 'Why didn't Australia become a republic in 1901'. The student asked for assistance “in understanding Australia's resistance to forming a republic in 1901”. We pointed out that the way in which the colonies united to form our nation was unique in that it was not only debated in the mainly elected conventions, but was actually approved by the people. Unlike the United States, we have verbatim records of all of the debates in the several conventions, and voluminous records of the public consultations and discussions. There is no record of any “resistance” to a republic – it was just not an issue. There was a consensus that the new parliament would operate under the Westminster system with the Crown at the centre of the constitutional system. The only significant republics in the world at that time were France, the United States and Switzerland. The latter two had been through civil wars that century, and France had experienced several violent changes of regime. The most advanced system seemed to be the British for it combined stability with democracy under the rule of law. it had been copied not only in the British Empire, but also in Europe.
The time when republicanism was an issue in the Australia was not at Federation, but some decades before. This began around the time of the gold rushes, when a movement developed for a white Australia policy. But the British imperial authorities were opposed to any discriminatory immigration policy. So the more radical thought this could only be achieved by secession as a white republic. This movement was led by an influential journal, The Bulletin. This was founded by J.F. Archibald, who financed the magnificent fountain bearing his name in Hyde Park Sydney. For a small population, the circulation of the journal was very high, and at times reached around 80,000. The motto on the journal’s masthead was “Australia for the White Man”, a motto which still existed until it was taken over by Sir Frank Packer in 1961.
Interest in a separate white racist republic waned with the movement to federation. Among the powers of the new Parliament was one over immigration. To try to circumvent British displeasure with the White Australia Policy, a South African style discretionary dictation test was introduced. Republicans today are embarrassed when it is pointed out that their most significant predecessors were those in the nineteenth century who were principally interested in a racist republic, and those in the twentieth century who wanted to impose a Soviet style peoples’ republic onto Australia.