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Spades of retrospective courage

By Phil Cleary - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

In the time-honoured tradition of the Australian parliament, Lindsay Tanner (Age, Tuesday) chose a grievance debate to vent his spleen. Seemingly desperate to enhance his leadership chances, Tanner's speech on the republic was neither helpful nor an honest assessment of his or the ALP's role in the fall of the ARM republic. Like John Howard, he can't find it in himself to say sorry. Sorry that he didn't break rank when the party machine put its shoulder to Malcolm Turnbull's wheel. Sorry that he ignored the will of the people, as expressed in one poll after another, to elect their own president. Sorry that he didn't publicly confront Turnbull's 'celebrity ticket' politics and the phony republic he now openly condemns.

Tanner's retrospective courage is sadly typical of so many mainstream politicians. When direct electionists pleaded for a broad coalition to expose the ALP's collusion in what Tanner now calls a 'celebrity plaything' republic he was nowhere to be seen. From day one of the Constitutional Convention I said I would never vote for Turnbull's undemocratic republic. Silent then, a disingenuous Tanner now damns Turnbull as a self-serving Liberal multimillionaire who 'rammed this model through the Constitutional Convention'.

But even unbridled contempt for Turnbull isn't enough for Tanner to express solidarity with those who refused to cower in the face of the celebrity and media avalanche. For holding the line against the 'glitz and glamour republic' I'm derided as a 'professional curmudgeon' and direct electionists are portrayed as cheap populists. Is it any wonder people don't want Lindsay Tanner to choose the president for them?


The historical revisionism completed, Tanner went on to accuse those republicans who opposed Turnbull of having deserted the cause. How galling to see a professional politician reprimanding ordinary punters beset by the need to earn a living for failing to resurrect the republic. So removed from everyday life is the Member for Melbourne he now demands that a rank and file army, 'popularly based and democratic', should drive the republican cause.

While we're devoting spades of voluntary labour, what will my Member of Parliament be doing? Waltzing into the Chamber to pour scorn on those misguided fools who voted ARM and we malcontents who traitorously defended the republic against the 'stars and celebrities' he now wants banished from the movement? This was not a speech designed to build a mass movement. It was a silly piece of grandstanding.

When the vitriol subsided after the referendum failed, I met ARM National Director, James Terrie, and later went to Sydney to explain my position to members of the Just Republic. Despite supporting the direct election of a president, the Just Republic group had advocated a 'yes' vote at the referendum. I was bitterly disappointed with them. But I wanted a way forward. The meeting left me with hope. Later I met the ARM's Greg Barns and Richard Fidler to try and mend the split and find a way forward. During the referendum debate Barns' abuse made my blood boil. I found it hard to forgive him. But the republic mattered. So I put the anger aside and talked about what kind of republic I thought would capture the imagination of Australians.

Only a month ago, the Real Republic group had a national phone hook up to explore possible strategies. A week later I met La Trobe University constitutional lawyer, Spencer Zivcak, to enlist his support in the development of some direct election models. If Linsday Tanner had lifted the phone I'd have been happy to invite him to the meeting.

Instead of big noting in the manner of his mate and rival, Mark Latham, Tanner should be showing some real leadership and extending the hand of friendship. Instead of blaming Turnbull and the celebrities -who interestingly enough he refuses to name - he should be affirming his unconditional support for a democratic republic. Instead of rehashing the ARM's jingoism about national symbols and its shallow prattle about hereditary, race and religion being no barrier to a prospective head of state, Tanner should be telling us what he's prepared to do.

At some point he must accept that direct electionists opposed the ARM model because they honestly believed it was the antithesis of republicanism. If all Lindsay Tanner wants to do is blame everyone else, there'll be no reconciliation. It's time he waved the big stick at his mates in the labor caucus not at those people who saved him from Malcolm Turnbull's phony republic. It's time he dragged his own party to the forefront of the struggle for a republic with an elected head state. After all, isn't that what people want?

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About the Author

Phil Cleary was independent member for Wills from 1992 to 1996. His book, Cleary Independent was published in 1998. He played 205 games with Coburg, coached the club to two VFA premierships, and is now its president.

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