…"What a big plebiscite you have there grandmama!" exclaimed Little Red Riding Hood …
…" All the better to fool you with my dear," replied the wolf…
It is clear that the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is not going to follow his predecessors. To put it in the vernacular, he shows no intention of getting into bed with the self declared passionate republicans, who like star struck lovers in some in a soap opera, need to declare their passion to the entire world.
Those who attended the 1998 Constitutional Convention will recall the almost endless declarations of republican amour, and the detailed stories of the occasion when each one republican fell in love.
The Labor Party never fell in love with republicanism. It was included in the platform at the 1991 national conference, the chairman observing that the motion had been carried without enthusiasm. [i]
Until Kevin Rudd became leader, the ALP was so disinterested it outsourced its policy on a republic to the republican movement. This was curious given that the movement has been led more often than not by people with Liberal Party affiliations or inclinations.
This outsourcing was even stranger when the very generous subsidy from Malcolm Turnbull finally came to an end. In the real world, the movement fell on hard days, with a dwindling membership and an inability to say precisely what it wants. Two prominent political commentators, certainly not constitutional monarchists, have described the movement as being “near comatose” and “on life support.”
The high point of this outsourcing policy was just before the 2004 election, when the then leader, Mark Latham, endorsed the republican movement’s policy of two plebiscites and a referendum. Not only that, but he decided that this would be done in the first term of the government.
It is hard to think of a more foolish decision. The government would have been in continuous campaign mode, with a major vote each year.
With the advent of Kevin Rudd, the outsourcing policy has been dramatically axed.
Giving every indication that he is a most reluctant republican, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, confirmed in Brussels his pre-election declaration that a republic is not a priority. Before the election he had added the rider, “if at all”.[ii]
Accepting that becoming a republic is part of the ALP Platform, he has to give it some sort of formal support, that is, he cannot “walk away” from it.
Mr. Rudd was speaking on his overseas tour to the US, continental Europe, the UK and China.
His precise words were “I have said it isn't a first priority, we have other challenges. But it remains part of our platform as a political party. It isn't something that we can walk away from.” It should be pointed out that this statement was in response to a question after a speech in Brussels.
The ALP Platform is binding on Labor politicians. A few years ago a Labor leader might have said exactly the same about nationalising the banks, mines, and all sorts of businesses, or about tariffs, or the White Australia Policy.
The Prime Minister is not a passionate republican, as Paul Keating was. He is a careful man, inclined to a more conservative approach to policy.
He is well aware of the fact that Australians are not interested in a republic, and that all the indications are that another referendum would be defeated.
We suspect that when he indicated before the election that he would not touch the republican issue in the first term of his government, he was aware of polling and focus group research which would have confirmed this.[iii]
He recently referred to his experience in "Her Majesty's Australian Diplomatic Service."
While he shows every sign of not wanting to hand over control of his policy on constitutional matters to the republican movement, the passionate republicans still seem to think they have Kevin Rudd in their pocket. They vastly over rate their importance and the importance of the issue to the government.
“Howard's defeat…should have been the cue to wind up the culture wars. But Manne… can't quite break the habit of the past 12 years. And in selecting the republic as the opening chapter, he risks a collective yawn from Rudd and his senior ministers…(It’s) not a first-order issue for the new Government.”
…the 2020 summit…
The introduction to the 2020 summit note on governance strikes an ominous note. It says: “19th Century Constitutional frameworks can constrain the Government’s responses to 21st Century demands.”
That is well and truly letting the cat out of the bag. This confirms the ‘No” case in 1999. The politicians’ republic would give more power to the politicians.
This reminded me of a conversation I had while campaigning at Corowa in 1999. It was with Ted Mack, formerly an independent MP. He was so opposed to the parliamentary superannuation schemes he resigned from both the New South Wales and the Federal Parliaments just before he became eligible.
Ted Mack is a man of principle, as honest as the day. He is committed to a very different sort of republic to most republicans. I asked him whether the proponents of the 1999 model realised it would vastly increase the politicians’ powers. His reply was that they did; in fact this was their intention in trying to impose this republic.
Note that. In Ted Mack’s view, the real agenda in 1999 was to increase the politicians’ powers.
The 2020 summit note on governance does not say much about whatever republic is to be discussed there, other than the following questions:
“And given no referendum has been passed for 40 years, what are the chances that Australia can modernise its creaky constitutional framework? Or was our rejection of the Republic at the end of the last century just healthy cynicism about the model we were asked to buy?”
…polling and voting…
The background paper on governance for the 2020 Summit has a graph showing responses to Newspoll’s question from 1987 to 2006 over about a vague undefined republic, "Thinking about whether Australia should become a republic, are you personally in favour or against Australia becoming a republic?" [v]
The trend for support of a vague undefined republic is clearly down, and the graph shows that. The 2007 Newspoll shows a fall in in support to 45%, with those strongly in favour at only 27%. Bearing in mind that many of those strongly in favour of the concept will still vote No to a specific model, the polling is hardly encouraging for republican stalwarts.
In addition, no poll was commissioned for Australia Day 2008. This suggests that those at The Australian who commission these polls suspect the answer will only confirm that the trend is clearly down.
The paper changes the description of the uncommitted to “indifferent.”
This is wrong. If they were indifferent they would either not vote or vote informally. Many people do not wish to answer a question put by the polling arm of an organisation which after all was probably the most significant and powerful campaigner for republican change.
Why should they?
And the plain fact is most of them voted ‘No’ in 1999. A glance at the polling confirms that.
…the Summit and the republic..
The issue of Australia becoming some sort of vague undefined republic takes up half a page in the fourteen page background paper on governance for the 2020 Summit.
We suspect from the document that the desired outcome is not so much yet another call for some vague undefined republic, which will be delivered anyway. What the government really wants is a recommendation for four year fixed parliamentary terms. They will of course get such a recommendation. All of the bien pensants think that way. It is unlikely that such a proposal would be successful at a referendum, even if the Liberals support it.
It is just as well there are issues other than a republic for the panel to think about.
Two prominent republican summiteers, Sir Anthony Mason and Professor Robert Manne are on the record[vi] as identifying a “robust convention” or rule as the justification for republican change. But this is a convention or rule which clearly does not exist.
Rather than talking about a subject on which they are so ill-informed, it would be better to have their advice on other issues.
[v] Our recollection is that on one occasion the question was changed. More importantly, no poll was taken in 2008, the last being taken in 2007: see this column 25 January, 2007 “Australia Day poll: republican support slips further.”