Thea Astley lecture: Peter FitzSimons argues the case for a republic
The Thea Astley lecture is an annual event on the Byron Writers Festival calendar, instituted to honour the legacy of Thea Astley, one of Australia’s great writers of the 20th century. There have been many memorable moments from past Thea Astley lectures. Think Kate Grenville’s inaugural address to Stan Grant’s moving speech in 2016.
In 2017, the tradition of notable speakers continues, with award winning and best-selling writer, journalist and all round great Aussie bloke Peter FitzSimons presenting a case for the Australian republic as chairperson of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM).
But first, this year’s lecture was preceded by Susan Wyndham‘s launch of Thea Astley’s posthumous book of poems, Thea Astley: Selected Poems, gathered and curated by Cheryl Taylor, and rounded out with a reading of Astley’s poem Whitsunday.
All necks craned upwards as FitzSimons levered his imposing frame onto the stage in the Southern Cross University marquee. Distinctive in red bandanna and white button up shirt, FitzSimons set about charming, cajoling and entertaining the crowd, all in the name of drumming up enthusiasm for an Australian republic.
When he took on the role as chairperson of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) in 2015, his wife, Lisa Wilkinson had some wisdom to share:
‘Can I give you a piece of advice?’, my wife asked me, as I got off the phone from my first radio interview as chair.
‘It’s probably best to not play your natural game in this role.’
‘What’s my natural game?’ I asked.
‘Acting like a loud dickhead,’ she replied.
Whatever your thoughts on FitzSimons, and he does generate strong views on several fronts, I couldn’t help but admire him for his enthusiasm, contagious energy and passion for his topic.
‘The problem with the republican debate up until now,’ declares FitzSimons, ‘is that there has been too much highbrow earnestness, and not enough lowbrow grunt. That’s where I come in.’
According to FitzSimons, this is the most exciting time for republicanism since 1999. The cause has been buoyed by Bill Shorten, Labor opposition leader’s declaration last weekend that, if elected, Labor will call a referendum on the republic in its first term, helping to ‘bring our constitution home’.
FitzSimons made the point that when we become a republic, we signal to the world that Australians haven’t only been here for 119 years, or 250 years, but 65000 years; in fact, we are the most ancient country in the world.
He sees the republic issue as not a divisive one, but one that is potentially uniting. When there is everything in the world to separate us from each other, the notion that we can run our own show, that we can have an Australian head of state, is something that most people can get behind.
‘Every step of the way,’ FitzSimons declares, ‘there has been an outcry, and every step we have succeeded.’
When it was suggested that we become a Federation, there was outrage. When it was suggested that we have our own flag, our own anthem, an Australian as Governor-General, that the Privy Council should be abolished, and that the Queen’s head should be removed from our postage stamps, every single one of those suggestions generated outrage, and they succeeded anyway, despite all the ninny naysayers (in FitzSimon’s words).
‘Trust the Australian democracy,’ FitzSimons implores, ‘trust the wisdom of the Australian people. Channel the nascent sense of Australian pride, belief in ourselves and Lets. Get. This. Done.’
Sara Runciman is a Digital Media and Communications student at Southern Cross University.