In his much-anticipated weekend speech to the Australian Republican Movement’s (ARM) anniversary dinner, Malcolm Turnbull juggled the past, the present and the future.
He was true to his belief in a republic, but hard-headedly practical in declaring it not on the current agenda; he didn’t desert the cause, but told the faithful that they, not he, would be doing the building of the new public constituency.
He ended his speech with the exhortation: “Up the republic”. But on the way through he was frank about the problems, the timetable and the challenges if the change is (eventually) to come.
Despite mutterings from a few in his own ranks, it was right and sensible for Turnbull to address this dinner.
He led the ARM’s 1999 campaign. He has not changed his mind about the desirability of an Australian republic. It would have been a cop-out and a matter of greater controversy if he’d declined the invitation.
In his speech, Turnbull tied the argument for a republic to the solid anchor of “patriotism, pure and simple”, securing it with the rope of “national pride”. “Our head of state should be one of us. Our president should be a resident.”
But he reiterated that he did not believe Australians would welcome, let alone support, another republic referendum while Queen Elizabeth was on the throne.
Turnbull went into detail about the issue of the model and the process he thought should be followed next time round.
He has favoured a republican president being chosen by two-thirds of the parliament with bipartisan support. But the yes case was undermined in 1999 by those republicans who favoured direct election; they tapped into the public feeling – that has only become stronger – that the non-elected presidency would be “a politicians’ republic”.
While obviously it is not his preference, Turnbull said a directly elected president “is feasible”. It would be possible to codify the president’s powers – something that would obviously be necessary. But he pointed to what has always been considered the danger – the president becoming an alternative source of political power.
“I think legally, technically it is possible to preserve the status quo of a neutral, non-political head of state who is directly elected in a legal sense.
"But the problem remains nonetheless that a directly elected president could, depending on the character of the person elected and regardless of his or her constitutional authority, constitute a potential alternative centre of political power to the prime minister and the parliament.
"Indeed, a directly elected president would be the only federal official for which every Australian had the opportunity to vote.”
Turnbull’s proposed process would include “an advisory plebiscite” giving the public a choice between direct election and parliamentary appointment.
“This plebiscite is absolutely critical for two reasons,” he said. “We need to ensure that the Australian people feel they have chosen the model to be presented”, and “the arguments against direct election need to be played out before the referendum itself”.
Turnbull might hope that the flaws in the directly elected model would come through so strongly it would be shot down at the plebiscite stage. This seems to me an optimistic view of things, given the hyper distrust of politicians. In any event, “if direct election is chosen, we can make it work” though it would require “much more detailed amendments” than the 1999 model.
But he put distance between himself and the work to come, rustling up a strategic case to justify what is obviously also convenience.
“What parliament needs to see is a strong grassroots political movement mobilising a substantial majority behind the republic. That must be delivered by the republican movement … not by the government or the opposition,” he said, adding that: “If the republic becomes the agenda of this or that political leader, or this or that prime minister or opposition leader, it also becomes prey to partisan politics. And that way leads to failure.”
“The less party political the republican movement is, the broader its base, the deeper its grassroots, the better positioned it will be when the issue becomes truly salient again.”
Anyway, right now people expected the government and parliament to concentrate on today’s pressing issues – economics, health, education, energy security and the like, Turnbull said. And as for constitutional reform, the first cab off the rank was Indigenous recognition.
The people must have ownership of the issue – but the republic was not something that kept most Australians awake at night. “Today, if anything, it is more a slow burner than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding some blunt questioning.
“Nearly two decades after the republic referendum, are we any nearer that groundswell of overwhelming public support among a majority of Australians in a majority of states that would cast aside the doubts about the republican model, put at rest the fear of change, and assuage lingering anxiety about updating a system of government most Australians seem to think works OK – whatever reservations they may have about the people actually governing?”
Bill Shorten would want to put political leadership, notably his leadership, much more at the centre of the push for a republic. He has made promoting a republic one of his issues.
His response to Turnbull was to use the opportunity for attack while also claiming a willingness to co-operate.
“Climate change, marriage equality, housing affordability, now Republic too hard for Turnbull. Time for the PM to lead his party, not follow,” he tweeted. On the other hand, “My offer still stands – let’s work together to deliver an Australian head of state”.
The reality is, all we have is two republicans as prime minister and opposition leader but no serious debate about a republic.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra