This Australia Day Malcolm Turnbull should stop playing cautious politics and show leadership on the republic

The latter day emergence of Australia Day as a saccharine and jingoistic orgy of patriotism perfectly illustrates Australia’s confused national identity. On the one hand there is the overwrought display of ostensibly proud Aussies in their Australian flag capes singing what little of the national anthem they can recall (or decipher). On the other is the Australia that incongruously remains a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is the Queen of the United Kingdom and sundry other nations.

It is true that one need not obviate the other. Except that it is almost certain that the aforementioned flag-draped patriots encircling barbecues around the country on January 26 are unlikely to be giving Australia’s constitutional status or “our Queen” much thought. It is also extremely unlikely that sausages and lamb chops will be dispensed to renditions of God Save the Queen – except at barbecues hosted by David Flint and Young Liberals.

Australia remains a monarchy by default. It’s not as if the argument for a republic is being waged by a minority of fervent radicals against a majority steadfastly loyal to the British crown. Indifference and apathy are the only explanations for the embarrassing and ludicrous fact that Britain’s sovereign remains our head of state. Which makes the contrived euphoria of Australia Day as hypocritical as it is hollow.

If not for the passion and leadership of Paul Keating, the very idea of a republic referendum in 1999 would have been unthinkable. No other Prime Minister has had the courage to confront Australia’s colonial-relic ties with the British crown. Gough Whitlam, ever the constitutionalist, struck a legalistic blow for Australian independence by making Elizabeth Queen of Australia, but not even the great reformer had the republic on his agenda. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd were republicans but considered change secondary to Australia’s economic wellbeing. (Julia Gillard was a republican but as a minority PM had other things on her mind.)

Keating, the great economic reformer, did not consider the republic a second-order issue. He believed that the right for Australia to have an Australian head of state was absolutely pivotal to Australia’s future as a nation.

What momentum remains for a republic was set in motion by the 1999 referendum – an unexpected and precious opportunity that was Keating’s gift to the nation. What should have been a bold and historic declaration of independent nationhood was instead – thanks to John Howard’s unforgivable betrayal of trust – a humiliating whimper in favour of the status quo.

Malcolm Turnbull, the then head of the Australian Republican Movement and an implacable force for change, was right to condemn Howard as the prime minister who would be remembered for breaking Australia’s heart.

But now it is Turnbull who is prime minister, and it is within his grasp to be remembered as the prime minister who ushered in the republic. The irony, and sorrow, would be too much to bear if Turnbull’s prime ministership should pass without him seizing the opportunity for historic change.

Turnbull puts the republic on hold…for now

It has been a less than inspiring start to Turnbull’s place as a republican prime minister. Last year, on becoming prime minister, he stated in response to obvious questions about the republic that there were “much more immediate issues” to deal with, such as the economy. It is hard to imagine the Turnbull of old expressing such a weak-kneed view about something he believed in so strongly.

It was an equally asinine view when Turnbull said that “the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queens reign”. This left open the possibility that, so long as the Queen remains on the throne, Turnbull’s first full term as prime minister after this year’s election might see little or no action on the republic.

But republicans should not lose heart. Turnbull’s guarded responses, fresh from dispatching the Queen’s most loyal subject Tony Abbott, were intended for the ears of his conservative colleagues who treat their new leader with suspicion (while accepting the political fruits of his popularity with considerable ease of conscience).

The hope for republicans is that upon winning the 2016 election – as he surely must – Turnbull will have a mandate to call his own and only then will he be more forthright in setting progress towards a republic.

Last year, in distancing himself from the republican issue, Turnbull also made what at first blush seemed another ridiculous statement: that the republic “cannot belong to a politician, it’s got to be a genuine popular movement”.

Turnbull is not just a politician, he is the Prime Minister of Australia, as Keating was before him when he placed the republic on the national agenda for the first time.

But Turnbull was not disqualifying himself from demonstrating leadership on the republican issue. Rather he was sending a clear signal to the republican movement: if Australians for change want the next republican push to be successful, then they must create the necessary momentum that will enable Turnbull as Prime Minister to bring home the republic.

That challenge has been accepted by indefatigable ARM chairman Peter FitzSimons who has headed the ARM since July last year, shortly before Turnbull became PM.

In that time, FitzSimons has kept the republican issue firmly in the spotlight.

On becoming ARM chairman FitzSimons stated with a combination of high emotion and irrefutable logic: “[M]ost Australians agree that there is a fundamental injustice at the heart of our system when a young boy or girl growing up in this great country can aspire to just about any job except the one that should be the most representative of all – head of state.”

In what is perhaps the most significant political development towards the republic since the referendum itself, seven of the eight state and territory have signed an ARM declaration supporting the end of the constitutional monarchy.

Unprecedented expression of political will

Dealing himself out of this historic declaration was Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett, who although in favour of Australia becoming a republic does not think the time is right – a politician’s tried and true excuse for doing nothing.

“While I believe and hope that Australia will choose to become a republic in my lifetime, I do not think that the time is right, or that sufficient time has passed since the referendum, to be again prosecuting the argument for constitutional change,” he said.

At the height of his authority as WA Premier it is unlikely that Barnett would have opted for such a circumspect position, but in less commanding times he is no mood to play statesman at the risk of alienating his wavering support base either within his party or the electorate.

In any event, the ARM has demonstrated to Turnbull that there is unanimous support for an Australian republic among the state and territory leaders, with all but one seeking immediate change. This is an unprecedented expression of political will and is a major achievement for the ARM which is showing itself to be very savvy in laying the groundwork for the next referendum on the republic.

By the time an emboldened Turnbull is ready to pursue the issue of the republic hopefully the ARM will have generated even more expressions of support for change, both among the wider public and from key stakeholder groups.

It would certainly do the cause much good for Australia’s corporate leaders to voice their support for a republic. There is every reason to encourage Australia’s most prominent CEOs to show community leadership on such a critical issue. If Turnbull wants a “genuine popular movement” before he can act with confidence, then the ARM is going to make sure that he has it, but this is a challenge that other community stakeholders must also embrace.

The ARM wants a plebiscite by 2020 asking if people want an Australian head of state. With bipartisan support, there is no reason why a plebiscite could not be held within the term of the next Turnbull government.

It is foolish, and insulting, as Turnbull has done, to pin the timing of a plebiscite on the longevity of the current monarch. The Queen’s reign poses no obstacle to Australia becoming a republic. Elizabeth has always made it plain that the issue of a republic is for Australians alone to decide, as has the heir to throne Prince Charles.

Indeed, it would seem so much more fitting for the long-time reigning monarch to preside over Australia’s transition as a truly free-standing nation.

Much of this is mere wishful thinking until Malcolm Turnbull sets Australia on the path to the republic. It is almost inconceivable that Turnbull, once in possession of his own mandate, will not take definitive steps towards the republic.

To not do so for reasons of political expedience would be to break Australia’s heart all over again.

1 thought on “This Australia Day Malcolm Turnbull should stop playing cautious politics and show leadership on the republic

  1. It was an interesting comment from Malcolm Turnbull that he didn’t want an honourable defeat as in 1999. Rather than not leading he is taking the correct path in ensuring there is much broader political and public support (including corporate support) before he is prepared to move on a plebiscite and then referendum. I think it is a wise move and will pay dividends in the end. Patience is a virtue.

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