One of the harder things to understand in Australian history is the almost pathological fear many had of republicanism. During the constitutional conventions of 1891 in Sydney, there was actually a debate over whether the word 'Commonwealth' was too Republican.
April 1st, 1891
Clause 1. This act may be cited as "The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia."
Mr. MUNRO: I think that a very important question arises here as to the title of the federated colonies. I do not think that the committee succeeded in securing a happy title. It is a title with which we are not familiar, and a title which historically raises rather serious questions-questions that suggests a good deal of controversy in the minds of many people. Without taking up the time of the Committee, I beg to move:
That the word "commonwealth" be omitted with a view to insert in lieu thereof the words federated states."
I think that that will answer our purpose very much better, and will be more easily understood.
Sir JOHN DOWNER: Say "Federation"!
Mr. MUNRO: "Federated States" will properly convey our meaning.
Sir JOHN DOWNER: So will "Federation"!
Mr. MUNRO: If you merely say "Federation," that does not convey our meaning. Our meaning is that we are to be federated states, and for that reason I move this amendment.
After they debated about working after dinner, Deakin chimed in with his support for Commonwealth and that it was in no way republican;
Mr. DEAKIN: The word proposed has, like every other word that can be suggested, some disadvantages; but in the opinion of a majority of the committee, it possessed more advantages than any other name that was suggested. In the first instance, it is a distinctly English word, and a well known word. It is a title which has a pacific signification which, from the tone that has been taken in regard to the defence proposals in the measure, is an advantage. It indicates that the state is formed for a pacific purpose-for the common good of its people, for their common-weal. It is a name which has not yet been applied. It is not open to the objections which may be urged to such combinations as "federal states" or "united states," titles which have already been employed in one part of the world or another. It is an old word, but it is a new name as applied to a state. There is no existing state which is known as a commonwealth, although Great Britain is frequently referred to both by orators and political writers as a commonwealth; and the word has been already applied on occasions when speaking of Australia as a whole. It is, therefore, a word which I fancy we are justified in appropriating, and I trust that the Convention will not lightly change a word which was adopted after very full consideration by a majority of the committee, and that even those who may have some sentiment against the name will take full time to consider the objections that can be urged to any other title.
Sir JOHN DOWNER: It is quite true that a majority of the committee arrived at the conclusion that it would be expedient to make this new departure, and adopted a term which has not been usual in countries under a sovereignty.
Mr. DEAKIN: Oh, yes, it is usual in countries under sovereignty!
Sir JOHN DOWNER: Commonwealth is a very nice word indeed, but it is very important to recollect, as the hon. member, Sir Henry Parkes, pointed out at a somewhat early stage of the proceedings,
that we have to consider, not only the technical meaning of the law, but also the popular understanding of the law, and the popular understanding of the word "commonwealth" is certainly connected with republican times
Mr. DEAKIN: No!
Sir JOHN DOWNER: It is, in my opinion, connected with republican times,
and it is certainly disconnected with that loyalty which we all, I am sure, not only profess, but very honestly feel towards the Crown
Emphasis in italics are mine.
Mark McKenna explains in
The Captive Republic
that the dispute was over whether the Commonwealth was sufficiently connected with England's glorious phase of history or whether it meant the exclusion of monarchy. As McKenna notes, between 1891 and 1897 the dominant colonies continued to debate the meaning of the word Commonwealth and whether it meant the acceptance of monarchism, Cromwellism or republicanism.
The discussion continued;
Mr. DEAKIN: The most glorious period of England's history!
Mr. CLARK: Hear, hear!
Dr. COCKBURN: Was it under the Crown?
Mr. DEAKIN: There was then no Crown!
Sir JOHN DOWNER: It may have been the most glorious period; but as my hon. friend, Mr. Baker, says, it certainly was not the union under the Crown, which we are all of us most desirous of bringing about at the present time. I do not think that in the initiation of this matter we should mix up two conflicting propositions-one that we are thoroughly loyal, and the other that we are going to adopt in our very initiation a title which is certainly connected with ideas other than those which are strictly loyal. I do not much like the word which has been proposed in the place of the word "commonwealth."
Despite Playford's attempts to describe Commonwealth as meaning common weal as described by Shakespeare, but Downer would have none of it. Wright then argued that Commonwealth was chosen for its aesthetic pleasure rather than its meaning;
Mr. WRIGHT: The hon. member, Mr. Deakin, in speaking just now, said the word "commonwealth" had a special signification. I agree with the hon. member; but I think it is anything but a savoury signification, and that it is, therefore, altogether an improper word to use. It appears to have been assented to by many members of the committee for aesthetic reasons rather than for any other.
Mr. PLAYFORD: The hon. member evidently believes in the glorious memory of Charles I!
Mr. WRIGHT: And it is possible that there are certain members who have in their mind's eye a future Oliver Cromwell, who would say, "Take away that bauble," meaning by the bauble the allegiance we owe to her Majesty the Queen and the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I think the question might be solved by striking out the word "Commonwealth," and by merely leaving the words "Constitution of Australia." We are proud to consider ourselves by birth or by adoption citizens of this great country, and I therefore think my suggestion would meet the views of a majority of members of the Convention.
Barton then sums up the case for Commonwealth;
Mr. BARTON: I do not know that there is much necessity for me to address the Committee, because I am satisfied with all that the hon. member, Mr. Playford, has said. But I rise chiefly for the purpose of referring to the suggestion of the hon. member, Mr. Wright, that the title "Commonwealth" has an unsavoury signification.
How that can be I do not know.
If we are to be frightened away from the use of any proper word, or the expression of any proper idea, from the fact that it has been usurped or perhaps misused by others who have gone before us, we shall be deterred from doing a great deal we ought to do.
If there are those who think that, under the great Protector whose name, as we live longer to understand history, will always be more venerated among English-speaking people-the process of republicanism as associated with the title given to the English body politic under him was inimical to the common-weal, and who think that on that account we ought to depart from the title, I would remind them that it was a name inherent in the minds of Englishmen long before that time.
If any hon. member thinks, however, that such a reason should be sufficient to prohibit us from using a title which absolutely designates all that we desire to designate then as we go through this bill I am afraid we shall find ourselves rapidly denuding it of some of its best features.
There can be nothing unsavoury in a title which means, according to the best authority, "the nation, state, realm, the commonwealth"-the word being interposed between "realm" and "republic," showing that it is used to signify the common good and that it has that signification whether under a queen or a republic.
"Nation, state, realm, commonwealth, republic, commonweal, nationality." The words used by Roget as synonymous are among others "national" and "public." If these are the expressions associated by the highest authorities with the word commonwealth, why seek better?
Shall we take confederation or federation?
I will not give all the words which are stated as synonymous, because some of them express almost too much; but we find these, "league, alliance, coalition, confederacy, confederation." These are not altogether what we wish to express, because we know that although we have, embodied the operation of federal action in this commonwealth, still we seek to constitute a national government for national purposes.
Our purposes of government may be national while we preserve the utmost loyalty to the monarch whom the constitution sets over us. As the hon. member, Sir George Grey, has expressed it, we have constituted the Queen a member, and the highest member, of our parliament.
The association of the Queen with the action of the commonwealth is distinct, and is firmly embedded in the whole bill.
If that is done, there can be no association of the idea of republicanism with this bill.
However appropriate the name "commonwealth" may be to a republic, it has been clearly shown from the quotations made by the hon. member, Mr. Playford, from Shakespeare to be associated in the minds of Englishmen with government for the public good-with government for the people-and as it so expresses in itself the very essence of government for the good of the people, and because we cannot suggest anything else which expresses the idea in one word, I hope we shall retain this name, and I believe that if we do, we shall all live to be proud of it.
Again emphasis mine. The Ayes were 26 and the Noes numbered 13. The Ayes included Deakin, Barton, Griffiths, Parkes, Playford. The Noes included Downer, Munro, Wright and Dibbs.
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