Becoming a republic offers Australians the chance to shrug off what author Paul Kelly has aptly described as the limitation of our "psychological pessimism".

Like the United States, Australia is the land of the dispossessed but, unlike the United States, we never conceptualised ourselves as the land of the free. Such optimism has flared only briefly in our self-image - expressed at different times, as "the wide brown land", as "the lucky country", and, more recently, as "the most successful multicultural society in the world". But each wave of optimism has faltered and disintegrated, beaten back by cynicism or by a pervasive intellectual, political and social cowardice which causes avoidance, denial and distortion of reality.

The source of this corroding mindset is as much a result of things that have not happened, as those that have.

Too often the defining moments in Australian history have been made under duress or to the timetable of others. The convicts didn't ask to come here. European Australia was not founded by choice, nor was it created with noble ideas of religious tolerance and personal liberty like the United States.

We did not have to fight for the freedom of our civil and legal rights. Ours evolved peacefully from a penal system, which encompassed the common law rights of true-born Englishmen and women.

Federation of Australia was an achievement but not an inspiration. It was predominantly a pragmatic decision - urged on us by the British who wanted to deal with one national government rather than six squabbling colonies.

Gallipoli was our glorious moment, but even though willingly accepted, it was thrust upon us - as were the heroic battles of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

This time it is important that we choose our future with clear-sighted deliberation. And we must make the choice for constitutional change now because if we vacillate, the old pattern could recur and it could be thrust upon us by Britain out of the need to complete her integration with the European Community.

We must select a moment which is historically relevant for us. The anniversary of Federation on 1st January 2001 is that moment.

Imagine how we will feel if we wake up the morning after the referendum to discover we have voted "no" to change. A negative result will not mean that we congratulate ourselves on our good sense. Instead, we will make common cause with embarassment in the eyes of the world - and shame in our own. Though a nation of gamblers, we will recognise in the stark light of day that, when the test came, we did not have the faith and the courage to risk the toss.

The self-defining action of voting Yes will strike a blow against our national pessism. For once we will do something to create optimism and enhance our pride in ourselves and our belief in the future.

Creating an Australian republic allows us finally to address the tyranny of distance by publicly acknowledging the region in which we live: not Europe, not England, not the Atlantic, but the Pacific - Asia-Pacific.

Most importantly, a republic offers us the chance to rediscover social cohesion.

While it is true that our system of government still functions well enough and, in that sense, is not "broken", Australia is no longer united under the Crown. One half of the community finds it alien and the other half is resentful that its validity is questioned. Perpetuating the status quo will not heal the rift which exists, only change and adaptation can do that. By removing the source of friction, the republic will increase cohesion.

Because it fails as a symbol for so many people, the relationship with the Crown IS broken and the constitutional tie between Australia and Britain is now detrimental.

The constitutional legacy is another matter.

Evolutionary change is a British political tradition. A peaceful transition to a republic offers the greatest chance to restore perspective on the British legacy and recognise the value of that country's contribution to this one. With a republic achieved, Australians will again be comfortable acknowledging their great British cultural and constitutional inheritance.

Confirmation of its value will banish the Anglo-Celtic antagonism towards a republican movement whose rhetoric has too often claimed that the past, particularly the British past, is worthless. As part of an Australian republic, those citizens with a British background - or even those who are simply anglophiles by education or experience - can once more feel legitimate.

By acting as a linchpin to muliculturalism, the republic will heal the Anglo-Celtic sense of displacement and address the question that has remained unacknowledged for two decades, when they ask: But where do WE fit in multicultural Australia?" The answer, in a changed Australia, will be "Under the Republican umbrella with everybody else."

By clarifying this issue, an Australian republic will be a force for national cohesion. It will bond our ethnic mix, banishing any danger that our valuable diversity could ultimately be nothing but exotic fragmentation.

Becoming a republic will facilitate reconciliation with the indigenous people, something, which I believe, most Australians earnestly desire to achieve. In using the British constitutional legacy to become a republic, we put colonialism behind us forever and with it the sins committed in the name of conquest and Christianity. With this gesture, we will make it possible for the Aboriginal people to forgive the Europeans, without which reconciliation will be impossible.

A republic is the means by which Australia can rediscover cohesion in a mutlicoloured, multifaceted form.

The banner of an Australian republic will encompass Europeans of all descent and Aboriginal and Torres Strait people of many tribes. It will wrap around Asians and Africans, around Indians and Lebanese and Turks, around Chinese, Fijians and Russians, around all the immigrants and their descendants whether resident here for forty thousand years, or two hundred, or only one. It will be our choice, THE self-defining act of Australian citizens and it will be what we make it.

An Australian republic offers us not only the opportunity to redefine our common values, but to find, at last, the optimism and the emotional courage to articulate them.

Australians are achieving independence without bloodshed or aggression, so we have no need for a Declaration of Independence. Our need is different - more subtle and more complex. We must create an Australian Declaration of Values that allows all Australian voices to be heard, something that every school child can learn, and every adult can remember - with a shiver of identification at the bits that resonate for them.

© Babette Smith 1998