Prime Minister Turnbull and the Republic

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Malcom Turnbull and Tony Abbott, with Paul Kelly, debating the republic, prior to the 1999 referendum

If progressives think the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to prime minister will inevitably bring about an Australian Republic, they are in for a rude shock, writes Women for an Australian Republic convenor Sarah Brasch.

The prospect of Prime Minister Turnbull. For one moment, republicans let themselves feel the slightest tingling in their fingers and toes.

Deep, delicious thoughts settled in their minds and lingered. Would this ardent backer of the Republic really be able to bring it on, bring it in? Soon? By 2020?

Was this the unexpected event so long talked about by the faithful, not the death of the Queen of Australia, to herald the Republic’s messiah?

Then reality bit. Hard.

Highly unlikely, no matter how fervently longed for.

If Malcolm Turnbull finds himself in the top job, he will be heavily constrained by what the Liberal Party powerbrokers and backers will tolerate. They are looking for more aggression not less.

Forget those soft, girly issues — same sex marriage, Indigenous recognition, most of all, the Republic. There will be no liter- or glitterati clutching chardonnays at 2020 Summits.

Pin-up boy of the centre left he may be, but Turnbull will not be able to satisfy the agenda of socially progressive Australia, not even for his cherished Republic.

Then there is Malcolm timidity. For years now, he has stuck to the mantra that there will be no Republic until the Queen dies. Tony Abbott is not the only Liberal addicted to slogans.

Would that pre-condition prevail? If Turnbull can get his hands on the levers, this statement, now firmly embedded in the DNA of both major parties (Bill Shorten sounds particularly unconvincing on the Republic) could constitute a major hurdle.

Besides, Malcolm has only ever rooted for Parliament to vote for the head of state recommended by the prime minister.

When that lost the 1999 referendum, he took his bat and ball and went home. There he has stayed. Direct election will not ever be part of a Turnbull-led Republic.

With Malcolm – Malcolm the Second – as PM, there might be an advisory committee on the Republic at the very most — to advise on not much, its report conveniently lost in the bowels of Parliament House.

Nowhere will there be a wholescale embrace, teams of bureaucrats beavering away on the substantial amount of preparatory work that needs to be done, nor a publicly announced timetable for the votes.

We can be very grateful to Abbott for one thing, however. Elevating Prince Phillip to one of his ill-judged knighthoods on Australia Day has brought the runway to the Republic into clear view.

Suddenly, it has opened up straight ahead of us and the visibility is excellent.

We find our way in through the flag. Keeping the Union Jack on our standard is not sustainable in the 21st century.

We have long since ceased to be British colony, the Scots are wanting out of the Kingdom and nearly pulled it off last year while both New Zealand and Fiji are well on the way to ditching the Jack.

The banner was on display again, in all its awfulness, at the Cricket World Cup inaugural in Melbourne. Playing England, it is nothing short of embarrassing.

Paul Daley in the Guardian says change the flag first but the campaign will be fraught and delay the Republic for years.

Instead, we need to go straight for the goal.

When the Republic referendum is won, the Jack should drop off our flag as a legislated consequence the next day. We can run with the “at night” bit – the Federation star and Southern Cross on royal blue – until we come up with something better however long it takes.

To get to the Republic itself, we need at least two non-binding votes before a final referendum to change the Constitution.

Lots of questions can be asked in the first two plebiscites to gauge the opinions on topics like:

  • Do you want Australia to be a Republic?
  • What should the head of state be called? (It doesn't have to be "President")
  • What method do you prefer to select the head of state? Direct Election must be on the list.

The questions can be asked more than once. There is absolutely no barrier to doing that because the Republic is no longer in the realm of one-go wonders. We have changed our minds about one-term governments, we can change our minds about one-shot referendums.

It is complex and serious stuff to change your system of government, the more talking and polling the better.

But Australians are never going to get to vote on the Republic until they have dealt with Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. That is the real and only first step. It needs to be front and centre of the move to a Republic.

Australia must be a “reconciled Republic” because if it is not, it will continue to be “the Republic that never got to Square One”. Whether Malcolm Turnbull is ever Prime Minister or not.

Sarah Brasch is the National Convenor of Women for an Australian Republic.

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