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A republic revived?

By Peter van Vliet - posted Thursday, 25 September 2008

The elevation of former Republican chief Malcolm Turnbull to the leadership of the federal Opposition has created the usual “republic revived” headlines around our nation.

As the former long term Chair of the Australian Republican Movement, the chief architect of the 1999 republic referendum campaign and for many years the face of Australian republicanism it’s hardly surprising this emerged as a key news angle.

Parliamentarians with social causes usually advance those causes even more effectively when elected to parliament. Thus far this hasn’t been the case with Turnbull. Turnbull has mostly avoided the republic issue in his dogged and ultimately successful pursuit of the Liberal leadership. Fair enough, you might say, as he was wooing a party with a significant monarchist rump - but one can only hope that now he has the leadership he will gradually return to his previous pet cause.


On the night of his leadership elevation when thrown the inevitable republic question by Kerry O’Brien the now familiar Malcolm line was: “I do not believe a referendum can succeed in Australia prior to the end of the Queen's reign. And a Prime Minister that tries to run the republican issue now, during the Queen's reign, has got motives which are not republican motives, they're just political ones.”

But surely we have to back the capacity of the Australian people to decide our constitutional arrangements on our terms rather than on the turn of events on the other side of the globe.

In fact in that same interview Malcolm Turnbull trotted out the lines used so effectively by the 1999 “No” campaign against him: lines like “what about the economy” and “they're just political ... (motives)”. These are the types of statements that exasperate republicans, and no doubt previously exasperated Turnbull, because they belittle the hugely important task of firmly establishing democracy as the foundation of our nation rather than persisting with an elitist and now foreign monarchy.

There will always be other issues of great importance around - but that shouldn’t be an excuse for avoiding this significant national debate. The sooner Malcolm Turnbull drops his current republican wet blanket persona and rediscovers his previous burning passion the better!

Kevin Rudd may not have escaped entirely honourably from the current republican murmurings either. After disappointing republicans somewhat by saying the republic wasn’t a top order issue following his election, Mr Rudd improved his republican credentials more recently by saying that he welcomed an accelerated republican debate. Then on the day of Turnbull’s elevation the Prime Minister nominated the republic as one issue he wanted to work with the new Opposition Leader on. One can only hope this was an honourable intervention by the Prime Minister and not a shameless wedge tactic as has been alleged by some.

What republicans are looking for from Rudd and Turnbull is responsible and bipartisan leadership around this important national issue. Clearly nation defining constitutional change can’t proceed without it. We saw that in 1999.


One way forward on this issue is for the House Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to develop a reference around the steps forward to an Australian republic. This could include work around a full public consultation process. Constitutional education and information measures for the Australian public could also be considered.

This would be a good way of getting the debate going again in a measured way. The Committee could build on the strengths of the 2004 Senate Report “The Road to a Republic” which recommended widespread constitutional education and two indicative plebiscites followed by a referendum.

If the committee could report prior to the next election this would be a good precursor to an initial non-binding plebiscite being held on the yes/no republic question at the 2010 election. During the next term of government the republican models plebiscite could be held and this would be followed by the final binding referendum. This is a full and measured process that avoids the disengagement and misinformation that characterised the 1999 referendum. But none of this can occur if the Rudd Government doesn’t act soon.

The Australian Election Study 2007 showed support for an Australian Republic at over 60 per cent, with 64.4 per cent of Australians also believing the Queen and the Royal Family are “not very important” to Australia. Interestingly the study also showed overwhelming support for direct election of our head of state.

Australia is also now in a position where our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, almost all of our Premiers and Chief Ministers and even our Chief Justice are republicans. Our April 2020 Summit recommended an Australian republic as a key priority. We are republican in our leadership and republican in our sentiment.

The stars are aligning for the final resolution of this important national debate. We could soon have our very own constitution and our very own national symbols. A constitution and national symbols which would unite our nation rather than divide it. Let’s hope our leaders don’t blow it in the interests of short term partisanship.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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