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Political leaders must show conviction in pushing for republic

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Paul Keating put the idea of an Australian republic to the Parliament 25 years ago. Little progress has been made since (image by White House Photograph Office).

A quarter-century after Paul Keating proposed an Australian republic, David Muir suggests it has suffered from a failure of leadership by prime ministers who followed.

7 JUNE OF THIS YEAR represents the 25th anniversary of then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s statement to Federal Parliament outlining his plan to move Australia towards becoming a republic.

The Keating plan ultimately failed during the subsequent administration of monarchist John Howard who at least committed to a referendum. 

Although some argue he did so knowing voters would reject the “politicians’ republic” model being offered when they preferred a directly elected head of state.

It is regrettable that only those two of our most recent prime ministers have actively engaged on the republic issue. Even self-declared republicans, like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, didn’t advance let alone lead the debate or act to allow Australians to decide.

Perhaps the most surprising failure – his critics may say unsurprising – was Malcolm Turnbull, whose pedigree in the republican cause is so well-documented that his memoirs give only cursory treatment to the subject. He explains that he has already written two books on the subject.

So his autobiography, A Bigger Picture offers a somewhat incomprehensive look at the republic and avoids detailing his failure to advance the republic issue when he was Prime Minister.

Under Section 128 of our Constitution, which outlines how referendums occur, prime ministers are effectively the gatekeepers to any changes to our Constitution. If they don’t lead, nothing happens.

When he occupied the prime minister’s office, Turnbull said he would not even discuss another vote on a republic until Queen Elizabeth’s reign ended.

We all know that Her Majesty’s commitment to service means she will not abdicate, so Turnbull’s gruesome death-watch became his substitute for leadership.

Contrast that with Keating who personally explained to Her Majesty at a one-on-one meeting in September 1993 the process he envisaged to bring about a republic during — almost two years before his June 1995 statement detailing his plan.

According to an account in Troy Bramston’s book Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader, the Queen calmly accepted what was put to her, saying she would respect the Australian people’s wishes and saw the issue as a matter for us to resolve.

Bramston also reveals that Keating assured Her Majesty that he would do all he could to protect her and her family from the 'ups and downs' of the coming republic debate.

Turnbull did the exact opposite by placing Her Majesty’s very life at the centre of any discussion.

He also placed Prince Charles – Her Majesty’s heir and successor – in an awkward position by running the risk of making a republic debate all about rejecting him as King.

Bramston’s book notes the statements made by Prince Charles on Australia Day in 1994, in which he said the republic debate was the sign of 'a mature and self-confident nation' working out how it would face the future.

As Her Majesty and her heir understood more than 25 years ago, the debate is not about the Monarch nor the royal family, but about Australians and our future.

The only consolation in Turnbull’s memoir is that he now sees value in putting the option of a directly elected head of state to the people by plebiscite rather than another “take it or leave it” model as emerged without majority support from the 1998 Constitutional Convention and predictably failed at the following referendum.

Turnbull says that when he ran the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) campaign in the 1990s it was hard to find anyone with experience in government or politics to support a direct election model. But opinions of experienced politicians have changed.

Even one of the strongest opponents of a directly elected head of state at the time of the 1998 Convention, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, later acknowledged that the only way to get a republic in Australia was through a direct-election model.

Turnbull is not an accurate recorder of history either.

He claims that republicans seeking a directly elected head of state have 'never lifted a finger' to promote a second vote after the failure of the 1999 referendum and that 'one of the great political lies of our times' by direct-election republicans was that Australians would have another chance to vote on the republic in a few years following the failed referendum.

Maybe he is unaware that the Real Republic Australia and other "direct electionists" have attended more than six major republican gatherings with the ARM in various capital cities in the past 20 years. The Real Republic Australia hosted the last gathering in Brisbane.

Maybe Turnbull is unaware that on the 10th anniversary of the failed 1999 referendum, the Real Republic Australia and other direct-election republicans joined the ARM on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra at an event urging MPs to have another go at the putting the republic on the national agenda.

Maybe Turnbull was not aware that at the December 2007 state funeral for former Brisbane Lord Mayor and one of the founders of the Real Republic Australia, Clem Jones, and with then-Prime Minister Rudd in the front row at Brisbane City Hall my eulogy called on Rudd to resurrect the republic issue.

All those in City Hall and those listening to the telecast heard the applause for that call to action.

The truth is that many people throughout Australia have continued the republic campaign and continue to do so.

An inconvenient truth for Turnbull is that all such efforts in the past quarter-century have always needed to be harnessed and applied by the one person who could breathe life back into the issue — the person sitting at the Prime Minister’s desk in Canberra.

David Muir is chair of the Real Republic Australia and was a delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention in Canberra after being elected on the team of former Brisbane Lord Mayor Clem Jones favouring a republic with a directly elected head of state.

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