Republican Turnbull must lead, not wait


The argument for an Australian head of state is once again building public momentum. The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) has had a most successful year under its new chairman Peter FitzSimons and January brought not only unprecedented approval from political leaders but also the active support of 2016 Australian of the Year, David Morrison.

Turnbull on Sky NewsThe joint statement by the premiers and chief ministers that Australia should have an Australian head of state may turn out to be an important stepping stone. Notably the seven signatories included three Coalition leaders.

Only Colin Barnett in Western Australia, while reaffirming that he is a republican, declined to sign the statement, which read simply that the signatories 'believe that Australia should have an Australian as our head of state'.

Such high-level political support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform, as the 1999 referendum showed in some states where both the government and opposition supported change but the popular vote was lost. But such an Australia-wide united republican declaration, supported by the prime minister, the opposition and the Greens at the Commonwealth level, is unprecedented.

However Barnett's reasons for declining to sign may resonate with Malcolm Turnbull. Barnett told FitzSimons that he 'did not think that the time is right ... to prosecute the argument for constitutional change', though he believed Australia would become a republic in his lifetime (he's 65).

Unlike the ARM he may agree with Turnbull that for strategic reasons reform should wait until the passing of Queen Elizabeth as Australian head of state. Turnbull has long held this strategic view because he sees no benefit in a second heroic failure caused by moving too soon; though the ARM is merely proposing a plebiscite in 2020.

Turnbull faces a major test of his leadership this year as we enter a potentially groundbreaking reform era for causes that he has long supported, such as same sex marriage, the republic and Indigenous constitutional recognition.

He will need a judicious mix of caution and boldness in order to successfully ride these reform waves. In supporting reform he will face considerable conservative opposition. Success will breed success and his authority across the country and within his own party will rest on his ability to win elections.

Turnbull's strategic judgement is understandable at one level and his caution will be shared by some others who were bruised by the 1999 defeat. However, political leaders who wait for overwhelming popular support before offering leadership to a political movement are also self-serving because top-down support is always necessary for success. Leadership sometimes means getting out in front.

The ARM too must continue to be energetic and ambitious. It must meet Turnbull's challenge to become a larger and more popular movement. Republican petitions in support of the political leaders must be repeated again and again, enlisting ever larger support.

ARM should also encourage and welcome but not rely too heavily on support from high-profile community leaders. Morrison's enthusiastic naming of the republic among his three core beliefs as Australian of the Year came at just the right time.

Furthermore, as a former Chief of Army he may be able to more effectively explain the republican position within Australian military circles. So far the majority of the military, with important exceptions such as former ARM head Mike Keating, have been unenthusiastic about transferring its allegiance to an Australian as head of state.

But that will not be enough either. Many recent Australians of the Year have supported the republican cause and some, like mental health leader Patrick McGorry and businessman Simon McKeon, have been active advocates.

The necessary momentum will come from a potent combination of parliamentary and community leadership and demonstrated popular support.

The latter is the most important, and building such support, measured ultimately in petitions and public opinion polls, is the challenge that several recent republican prime ministers have issued to the republican movement. The ARM must keep knocking loudly on their door.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, Republic, Queen Elizabeth, David Morrison, Australian of the Year



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Existing comments

An excellent summary and assessment, John. The issue is actually the Head of State issue, rather than 'the republic', since Australia is already entirely independent and operates as a de facto republic in any event. That is precisely why having an absentee hereditary Head of State is so incongruously inconsistent with our independence and also with our egalitarian ethos. Notable that the recent declaration signed by State and territory leaders referred to the need for an Australian Head of State, rather than a 'republic' however such may be defined. Much better to focus on the Head of State issue, and less on the 'R' word.
Phil Shaw | 01 February 2016

I am ambivalent about the Australian Republic debate. Constitutional monarchy, as a system of government, works. It's the quality of political leadership that has often let the people down. It sounds a grown-up thing to do - being master of our own ship, etc, however we are already that. Australia is a large island in the Asia-Pacific, but we do have emotional ties to Britain. And emotions are hard to shake. The arguments for a Republic in 1999 were robust - the people weren't convinced. Change happens but politicians will need to do better this time around.
Pam | 02 February 2016

The Australia public is rightly sceptical of the intentions of those who advocate a republic. Other agendas often lie behind the bland assertions as was the case in the 1999 proposal.
James Grover | 02 February 2016

'Republican Turnbull must lead, not wait'. Likewise the ARM. But where the leadership is most required is in defining the powers the Australian Head of State is to have, and how the Head of State is to be selected. Without these questions being settled, discussions become rather meaningless, as everyone puts their own interpretation on what their vote means.
Robert Liddy | 02 February 2016

John Howard used his position to do the people of Australia in regarding the republic. Why not Malcolm Turnbull giving a helping hand from the same position!. Wouldn't that be a change!!!
Nola | 02 February 2016

Chris Kenny - a Republican himself - gave an insightful critique of the current simplistic approach to this issue by the Australian Republican Movement in the last Weekend Australian. It is worth reading. The Australian Constitution was drawn up by very wise and prescient statesmen. To change it requires a referendum. We really need a long, ongoing national debate on the issue in all aspects. Not only must the case for change be stated but we need to be clear as to how we want the Head of State appointed. As several wise people have stated the current system works well. I think we need to be wary of change for change's sake.
Edward Fido | 02 February 2016

All true John -- but at the moment Turnbull is still trying to get his government on the road and not sliding all over the joint. Climate change and the economy and how those two issues need to be put to work for one another -- along with negotiating or neutralising the stale old bread in the government -- is what's most urgently required.
John Elder | 02 February 2016

Maybe in a world so uncertain such a big change may be unsettling. What I feel is more urgent is for our indigenous people to be included in our Constitution. No more talk, no referendum, JUST CHANGE THE CONSTITUTION NOW.
AnnaC | 02 February 2016

I agree with Phil Shaw and Robert Liddy that the real issue is the appointment process of the Head of State for the Commonwealth and the appointment of governors. Last time around those seeking change were stymied by a choice between a popularly elected Head of State and one appointed by Parliament. Until that issue is resolved, how can we move forward?
Kim | 02 February 2016

My recollection of the 1999 referendum is of questions asked in such a way that it was not possible for me (a republican from way back) to register a yes vote. I wonder how many others felt the same way?
Margaret McDonald | 02 February 2016

Malcolm is insecure and toeing the line at present. I agree the ARM movement needs to build a stronger position, but I do think prominent Australians have a lot to contribute to the movement. Howard sabotaged the last referendum. I do not approve of the monarchy, even though I like the royals. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in conflict about the constitution, but we do need a solution and soon.
Kate | 02 February 2016

An excellent essay and very thought provoking John. Having spent time in the UK, I felt very much a 'colonial' and certainly not very comfortable at all in British society .The British public know very little about Australia .We do not figure at all in the news over there unless something very sensational happens here . I really can not understand the so called 'emotional tie' we are supposed to have with the 'mother country'. After all what proportion of the population is of British heritage now. I feel we are politically and socially still very immature and quite unsure of who we are. I find it interesting that the non British ethnic communities are not more active in establishing Australia as a totally independent country with our own identity, head of state and flag .
Gavin O'Brien | 02 February 2016

Australia Definitely should become a Republic! The system we have now is broke! And it's dangerous. The system we have now where the Queen, a person from (Another Country) owns our country, and has power in our Government, is a broken and dangerous one. And needs to be fixed.
Australian Republican Supporter | 02 February 2016

I agree with Phil. A real republic would separate the executive from the parliament and resolve the invader/indigenous issue and that would need a lot lot more talk. Focusing on the Head of State and her/his appointment should be easy. We don't even need to call the country the Republic of Australia. The 'Commonwealth of Australia' is a fine old term and worth reviving and bringing into the light again after Whitlam tried to centralise everything. There is no reason why the head of state of a commonwealth has to be a 'president'; s/he could just as easily be called Head of State and elected either directly or through some form of electoral college. Let's go for a minimal change in the powers of a Head of State but get rid of the current arrangement whereby s/he is appointed by the PM.
Ginger Meggs | 02 February 2016

I do not care who or what our head of state is. I am neither a republican nor a monarchist. I am only concerned that any changes and the actions they require have an overall benefit to all Australians. Spending millions of dollars on a new flag, millions more on the redesign of stationery and all the other inevitable administration worries me. Let's spend the money on something that really matters, health, education, the environment, welfare.
Gwilym | 03 February 2016

I was very pleased when the Australian of the Year, General Morrison, expressed his views on a republic in his acceptance speech. I think the present monarchical set-up is not good for us. Other correspondents to this column have pointed to some of its many drawbacks. I think it a shame that Australian kids cannot be taught that the position of head of state in their own country is open to them. I prefer the terms president and The Republic of Australia. They make the position clear. I am aware that England was described as a commonwealth during the time of the murderous Cromwell (Oliver). A couple of points of interest (for the very few perhaps). January was the 150th anniversary of the state funeral of the "Old Pretender." The anniversary was marked by a ceremony at his tomb in the Vatican, attended by the British Ambassador to the Holy See and the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the latter entered into full communion with the Catholic Church about 20 years ago, and others. A friend visiting from England, who follows these things closely, says Nicholas Windsor is popular and a good chap. Apparently he is the senior Catholic member of the present royal family (the real pretenders? No offence to anybody and I do know what the constitution says). Re the "wise" framers of that document (quoting a correspondent). The well known media figure Mark Day in a recent national newspaper column describes the constitution as a less-than-satisfactory document cobbled together by a group of horse trading politicians no different from today, and gives some of his reasons for saying so. The seem sound to me. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the Easter rebellion in Ireland (which impacted on some attitudes to Australian conscription debates) the Irish-English connection and probably lots of other significant events as well.
Rod Manning | 03 February 2016

To Australian Republican Supporter, the Queen does not own our country and has no power in our Government. That's furphy. Nor will a simplistic 'Republic' fix our governance problems, problems that have nothing to do with the Queen or head of state. In fact, as Phil points out, the current argument is about the Head of State, not a 'republic'. The general public, and most of our politicians, have no real understanding of what a 'republic' could be, let alone a federal republic. And that discussion will never get started until we get rid of the fantasy that the GG is only a representative of the Crown, and make her/him the de jure head of the Commonwealth of Australia rather than the de facto one. Only when that is achieved could we ever have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of a federal republican constitution that specifies not only the powers and responsibilities of the institutions of the Commonwealth and the relations between the states and the Commonwealth, but settles, once and for all, the relationship between the first peoples of this county and the rest of us.
Ginger Meggs | 03 February 2016

The office of the Australian Monarch is a declaration by the People and Parliament that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists. The cultural link between God and monarchy is ancient, but is only as weak as the People and Parliament let it. Governors-general cannot be proxies for the Moral Entity because they don't have this dynastic link. The human who is the Monarch is fallible too, but with longevity in office and an independent constituency set in the cultural link with the source of morality, develops a gravitas that comes from being able to compare the quality of "her" Australian prime minister to "hers" in like jurisdictions in New Zealand, Canada and the UK as well as in various other realms. Her governor-general's personal authority comes from representing her independent constituency as the proxy of the Moral Entity. Can there be nonsense from PMs? Didn't monarchist John Howard try to open the Olympics? Was it Kevin Rudd who went months without meeting the GG? David Cameron knows he reports weekly in person to his head of state. Can Peter Cosgrove insist the same of Malcolm Turnbull? These conventions cannot be legislated, or exist without acknowledging God.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 February 2016

As you were folks. My ancient brain reminded me yesterday that the state funeral of the Old Pretender was 250 years ago,not 150 as I mistakenly stated. I welcome that reminded from my brain but not the reminders of the many other errors that I have made in the course of a long life. The Old Pretender was entitled to the Crown but not to an extra 100 years of life. Apologies for the error.
Rod Manning | 04 February 2016

No sweat Ron, we're all entitled to a few senior's moments. But your comment about the old pretender's entitlement to the Crown and England's 'Glorious Revolution' very pertinent to our discussion. 'J3R' may have been entitled by birth to the Crown, but Parliament nullified that entitlement because it believed that, as J2R was not a protestant, J2R could not properly represent a protestant people, and so it chose a protestant person to be head of state. That's exactly the situation here and now. E2R may be entitled by law to be our Head of State, but the majority of us wants to amend that law because it believes that, as E2R is not an Australian, E2R can not properly represent the Australian people, and so it wants to choose an Australian to be Head of State. It's a case of history about to repeat itself. It's high time we had our own (bloodless) 'Glorious Revolution'!
Ginger Meggs | 04 February 2016

Ginger, I have just (belatedly) read your latest comment on the Old Pretender.Thank you. Belloc says a fleet bigger than the Armada 100 years earlier invaded England to take off the popular James 11.(the real founder of the Royal Navy). and to destroy the looming Catholic dynasty..Earlier, Charles 11 had secretly entered into full communion with the Catholic Church on his death bed.. James had a Catholic male a result of his second marriage.... England was long way from a democracy then (with an inherited head-of-state, today perhaps it sill has a way to go, as do we.). What an unrepresentative parliament in James' day did can be a matter of history but not a matter of integrity. .
Rod Manning | 12 February 2016

Turnbull will never take the lead on the republic because he is the main reason that we aren’t a republic already. Let's get this straight! Howard supported the monarchy and was open and honest about it, but still gave us the opportunity to become a republic by promising a referendum based on the outcome of the convention. Which he did! The vast majority of Australians who wanted a republic – more than 80% - also wanted to elect the President. Turnbull knew that but abused his power by refusing to support that model. So much for democracy! The direct result of Turnbull's actions was that many of us voted 'no', even though we want a republic. If we’d voted ‘yes’, the opportunity to fix the issues with the existing system would never return. By voting ‘no’ we ensured that the issue will come to light again and, when it is, we will have the chance to vote for a model we do support. One which fixes the major problems we currently have; such as politicians like Turnbull throwing democracy out the window while telling us they know best.
FillsHerTease | 06 May 2016


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