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


Tony Abbott’s knighthood surprise: who are you going to trust to take us back to the 1950s?

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Australian honours system by the Whitlam government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has decided to celebrate this historic milestone early: by reintroducing knighthoods. Just four knights or dames a year, he hastens to add, as if this will sweeten this retrograde pill.

It is 2014 and Australia suddenly finds itself with knights and dames again. Tony Abbott plainly thinks it’s 1954. Or that’s what he wishes.

It’s difficult to know what disappoints the most. The fact that outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who recently caused a sensation by alluding to a better time when Australia would be a republic, accepted a damehood? That just last December Abbott unequivocally ruled out the reintroduction of knighthoods? That Abbott, self-described champion of the Westminster system who vowed to restore the primacy of cabinet government, did not consult his cabinet before dropping his regal bombshell? That Abbott promised, again and again, that this would be a government of no surprises?

This is a Prime Minister who campaigned for office on the promise of restoring trust in government and the political process; a Prime Minister who has vowed that the government he leads would not deviate from the election manifesto that got it elected.

Only days ago he told The Australian: “My ambition…is not to be a big-noter; my ambition is to get done the things that we said we would get done.”

One might think there was a hint of big-noting when he triumphantly announced on Tuesday that the Queen had “graciously” accepted his recommendation to reintroduce knights and dames in Australia – like she had a choice.

This was a decision based on what Abbott wanted, nobody else. There was no consultation with the community, no popular clamour for the return of knights and dames, no hint that it was on anyone’s agenda, much less the government’s.

Did this bizarre decision not constitute a surprise? The only surprise, according to Abbott, is that anybody could make such a suggestion.

Surprise? What surprise?

“I don’t think it is any surprise that I am a supporter of the existing system and that I want to enhance the dignity of our existing system and I want to particularly acknowledge and recognise the place of the Governor-General in our system. So, I don’t think it is really any surprise.”

The first recipients of the new honours are Dame Quentin Bryce and her successor Sir Peter Cosgrove – leading one to the conclusion that this was not quite the snap decision it appeared to be – and future governors-general will be accorded the honour at the commencement of their terms as part and parcel of their vice-regal office. At his press conference, Abbott explained that “it is fitting that the Queen’s representative be so honoured”. What it fits is the ardent-royalist PM’s idea of monarchical nirvana.

The titles, Abbott went on, will “honour people whose service has been extraordinary and pre-eminent”, but will be reserved for Australians “who have accepted rather than sought public office”. Examples of such personages include governors-general, state governors, defence force chiefs, chief justices and “people of that ilk”.

Assuming the new honours survive Abbott, the automatic bestowal of knighthoods and damehoods on future viceroys raises the spectre of prominent Australians refusing to serve in the role rather than join Abbott’s “bunyip aristocracy”. (The term was coined in 1853 by firebrand NSW lawyer and politician Daniel Deniehy who decried William Charles Wentworth’s proposal for the creation of a colonial hereditary nobility. The idea of a home-grown aristocracy was ridiculed out of existence, until now.)

This was a divisive decision. Abbott has created an unnecessary, anachronistic and jarring honour in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian (irrespective of how true that may be).

Such an important matter as the reintroduction of knighthoods in a modern society should at the very least have been canvassed in the community, and more properly should have been the subject of a referendum.

The stuff of student politics

This is an example of selfish leadership at its most arrogant. Abbott the ardent monarchist uses his position to sneak in archaic honours with little regard for the national mood or interest.

It’s the typical in-your-face surprise manoeuvre of the university politician Abbott used to be. It obviously suits his royalist ardour, but it also creates a welcome diversion as well as catching the Opposition off guard. And so much the better that the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, just happens to be Dame Quentin’s son-in-law.

But Abbott is not a student politician now; he’s the Prime Minister. And he is not behaving like one. He may have provided himself with instant gratification but the new honours are unlikely to survive his prime ministership (which might very easily be one term, especially if he keeps up this sort of nonsense) or the life of a Coalition government. Abbott’s short-sighted legacy will be a rump of knights and dames stranded in history.

As well as treating the people of Australia with contempt, Abbott has treated the very institution he adores, the British monarchy, and the Queen herself, with hamfisted disrespect by politicising honours which are at least nominally in the gift of the monarch.

Gough Whitlam abolished knights and dames in 1975, Malcolm Fraser reintroduced them in 1976 and they were finally abolished – or so we thought – in 1983 by the new Hawke government. John Howard, arguably even more devoted to the British monarchy than Abbott, declined to reintroduce knights and dames in the 1990s: he believed Australians had moved on from imperial honours, but he also felt that the on-again-off-again gongs were an insult to the Queen. Abbott had no such sensitivities.

Unlike Howard, who for most of his time as Prime Minister had a masterful sense of what the electorate would bear, Abbott has shown himself to be out of touch. Nor, it would appear, does Abbott mind dragging the Queen into this latest stoush. By unilaterally making this decision Abbott has placed himself above all. Judging by community reaction so far, the reintroduction of knights and dames has attracted the scorn and ridicule it deserves.

In the great scheme of things, does it really matter that knighthoods are back? Perhaps not. But as an indicator of the Australia that Abbott dreams of, and the Australia in which most of us live in, and the future we aspire to, the gulf could not be greater.

The reintroduction of the knighthoods show a Prime Minister who is self-absorbed, selfish, sneaky, secretive and reckless.

When Australians voted for a Coalition government at last year’s election, they did so knowing very little about the kind of Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be. Now they know.