Last week the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) held a fund raising dinner in Sydney where the guest speaker was Malcolm Turnbull. Over 600 people were present, which, given that the event was held on a Friday in Lilyfield, was an impressive turnout.
For those who are yet unaware the ARM has restarted the movement in early 2013 to make Australia a republic. The strategy is to start a new grass roots conversation to get the republic on the agenda. The ARM is proposing that there be a three stage process.
1. First, decide by a vote of all Australians that we wish to become a republic.
2. Second, decide by a vote of all Australians on the selection method for Australia's Head of State.
3. Third, a referendum, as required by the Constitution, offering a choice between a republic with the selection method preferred by the Australian people, or keeping the British monarch as Australia's Head of State.
According to the ARM these are decisions for all Australians and should not be foisted upon us – or prevented - by politicians.
The elephant in the room is the second step. According to the ARM website, most Australians in the 1990s wanted to make the move to a republic, but were divided on how to select the Head of State and a referendum in 1999 that only gave Australians one choice was narrowly defeated. Implicit in this statement is that John Howard, who has repeatedly admitted that he is a monarchist, plotted the downfall of the republican referendum. Of course etched in most republican's memory is Turnbull's famous comment post the referendum: "My friends, there is only one person who could have made the vital difference, who could have made November 6 a landmark in our history, and that, of course, is the Prime Minister. Whatever else he achieves, history will remember him for only one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke a nation's heart".
The current ARM line was stated by its National Director, David Morris, prior to Malcolm Turnbull speaking. The current ARM board proposes that all Australians must be given the right to choose from a range of selection methods generated through informed community discussion. It is opposed to one selection method being foisted on the Australian people. So it proposes to invite everyone to join the conversation. However before we all do this we should have a plebiscite to decide whether Australia want to be a republic or not.
Turnbull then spoke and he was impressive. He did not repeat his post referendum comments which is not surprising but did make a number of perceptive remarks:
Firstly Mr Turnbull he said republicans had "fundamentally undermined" their own cause by reducing the visibility of the monarchy in Australians' daily life. As the Queen and the Crown become less visible, the anomaly of it being there is less obvious and he said the best thing that could happen to republican cause is for the Queen's portrait to be hung in every classroom, for children to line up every morning and swear allegiance to the Queen, for all of us to get letters from the government demanding money for unpaid parking fines marked 'On Her Majesty's Service. Then people would realise the anomaly of having a non-Australian head of state who is chosen by birth.
Then while he stated he was in favour of compulsory voting he said that it made it easy for people running a scare campaign to generate a No vote. A reasonable number of voters will only consider the proposition when they enter the polling booth and they will vote emotionally. He noted no "mildly controversial" referendum had passed since 1948, when voters awarded Canberra greater power to regulate rents and prices. He said it would be difficult to get people to vote for anything unless they knew what they were voting for and that people needed to be engaged in discussion.
To prove his point he took the example of the proposal that Australians directly elect the President. He said whenever he asked someone why he was in favour of this proposal the answer was nearly always the same – he or she did not want a politician as President. However when he pointed out that direct elections were the one sure way to ensure that only politicians would be elected as President and under the Westminster system it is critical that the President/Constitutional Monarch be a disinterested party that person would reflect and generally change their position.
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