Malcolm Turnbull the fair-weather republican: a lack of leadership stalls Australia’s coming of age

Malcolm Turnbull’s dithering on the Australian republic is almost as frustrating as the monarchists’ irrational ties to the British Crown.

Turnbull’s clumsy aside that a postal survey may be in order on the subject is another example of the procrastination which has marked his prime ministership.

Turnbull either believes in the republic or he does not. If he does, he must show leadership on the issue as Paul Keating did before him. Keating needed no postal survey to convince him of the case for a republic, nor did he hide behind the cowardly pretence of waiting for the “right time” before bringing the issue to the fore. If not for Keating’s leadership on the republic there would have been no referendum in 1999, an historic opportunity scuttled by the wrecking-ball politics of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, who cynically (but skilfully) used the issue of the model for choosing a president as a wedge to favour the status quo.

Most Australians will recall Turnbull’s damning epithet for Howard as the prime minister who “broke this nation’s heart”. History will also recall that Turnbull not only forgave Howard’s calumny but came to regard the former prime minister as his greatest mentor.

The argument that the timing of another referendum on the republic should be determined by a groundswell of public sentiment for change is bogus. In the absence of leadership once more placing the republic on the political agenda – at which point Australians will become engaged on the issue – the status quo will simply simmer under the flickering flame of indifference.

Waiting for the Queen to die (begging your pardon Ma’am)

To further assert, as Turnbull has done, that the matter of the republic should not be considered while the Queen remains on the throne is gutless procrastination.

The inference that the Queen would somehow be insulted were the issue to arise once more during her reign is the real insult. As a model constitutional monarch Elizabeth understands that this is an issue for Australians to decide on, irrespective of who the monarch may be. The other inference to be drawn from this weak-kneed proposition – more insulting than the first – is that Charles will be an unpopular monarch and therefore will be a boon to the republican cause.

The argument for a republic has nothing to do with what we may think of the reigning monarch. There is no reason to suppose that Charles won’t in time prove as popular as his mother, and even if that were not to be the case, the allure of William coming to the throne may prove too irresistible for a celebrity-addled populace, ensuring that the “right time” remains ever-elusive.

The principal arguments for a republic are so fundamental that it beggars belief that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy well into the 21st century. The historical, cultural and sentimental ties between the Crown and Australia are simply not what they were.

Australia’s maturity as an independent nation and our irrevocable and ever-deepening composition as a multicultural society demands a system of government that is uniquely and unambiguously Australian and which reflects who we are today and will likely be in the future, not who we used to be.

Much of remaining monarchical sentiment is based on a lazy attachment to the status quo, where change is viewed as something to be avoided, whether because it’s best stick to “the devil you know” or that to do otherwise is just too much bother.

Then there’s the celebrity fandom disguised as loyalty to the Crown. What if becoming a republic stems the tide of royal stories in the Australian media? And won’t Wills and Harry stop visiting if we become a republic? Monarchical sentiment based on royal celebrity reduces Australia to a nation governed not by the Constitution but by New Idea.

Mythology surrounding the role of the Crown

Most frustrating of all in support for constitutional monarchy is the mythology that surrounds the role and influence of the British Crown in Australia.

There is the argument that the current constitutional system with the Queen as titular head of state has “given Australia a very stable and workable system of government” and has “contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century”. (These quotes are from John Howard’s 1999 statement in which he outlined his reasons for voting ‘no’ in the republic referendum. His arguments remain the case against the republic.)

Despite such a seminal role that the monarchy ostensibly plays in bringing stability to Australian democracy, it has never been explained exactly how the monarchy has achieved this.

Further arguments against a republic (again taking from Howard’s statement) include the warning that “some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under a republic” and that “the president could be less secure in his or her position than is the Governor-General”.

The tenure of the Governor-General is in fact absurdly fragile and the very antithesis of order and stability. He or she can be sacked on a prime ministerial whim, without reason or premise, and without recourse to the “Queen of Australia”, who is obliged to follow the advice of her Australian prime minister, regardless of how egregious his or her actions in dismissing the viceroy might be.

One of the more ridiculous arguments used by monarchists

Which brings us to one of the more ridiculous arguments used by Australian monarchists for preserving the status quo: the Queen is actually powerless and doesn’t have much to do with Australia. This from fervent monarchist Howard:

“The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.”

Having explained that the monarch is little more than a token symbol one might wonder how the monarchy has proven so effective in safeguarding Australian democracy.

Australian monarchists also disclaim the idea that Australia needs to be a republic in order to ensure that the head of state is an Australian. Here the purportedly loyal subjects of the Queen bend over backwards to explain that Elizabeth isn’t really the head of state at all, that the Governor-General is the effective head of state, and that since 1965 he or she has been an Australian. Take it away Johnny:

“It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian,” Howard explains.

“Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives.

“The Governor-General…exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone. His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.”

So again the argument for remaining a monarchy is that the monarch has been so comprehensively sidelined that – wink, wink – we are already a republic in all but name.

One might think this would prompt monarchists to ask the obvious question: ‘Why remain a monarchy when the monarch has so little function or purpose in Australia?’ But apparently not.

Junior Minister Alex Hawke, in response to the latest Keating-inspired stab at igniting debate on the republic, predictably insisted that, “Constitutional monarchy continues to serve Australia well as does our Queen”.

Arguments for a republic, he continued, “always fail to outline any improvement to our structure of government that would benefit Australians”. Hawke may be right. The structure of government might not change at all – given that, as monarchists have argued so comprehensively, Australia is already a de facto republic, but for the incongruity of kinda-sorta having the Queen of England as our head of state.

As for the “improvement” that Hawke seeks: that would be Australia finally growing up.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher


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.