June 27

Peter Costello and republicanism

Speaking at The Bulletin’s Top100 “Most Influential Australians” lunch in Sydney on 26 June, 2006, the Treasurer in HM Australian Government, the Hon. Peter Costello saw the need to reaffirm his republicanism. Mr. Costello, once a constitutional monarchist, was converted to republicanism only after becoming a minister. He is on record as saying the system “is broke.” In his speech, reported in The Australian of 27 June, 2006, Mr. Costello said the magazine might reserve a place on its list in 100 year’s time for someone "…who provides a model capable of winning genuine public support to improve and preserve our democracy and translate our current legal arrangements into those of a republic".If there was one issue that tears the Liberal Party apart, it is republicanism. In the referendum, we had the spectacle of a cabinet publicly and at times acrimoniously divided.  In the meantime, Liberal Party  members are, more often than not, supporters of the existing Constitution and flag. They remain loyal to their founder , Robert Gordon Menzies. While the National Party is committed to the present constitution, as are the Chritian Democrats, the Labor Party platform contains a vague commitment to some sort of republic, thus turning its back on John Curtin and Dr H.V. Evatt. So constitutional monarchists, at least those among the Labor politicians, usually keep a low profile.  But  to return to Mr. Costello. Why did he raise the issue ?

Our long held view is that Mr Costello’s conversion to republicanism and his need to restate it is at least partly due to something  economists call “brand differentiation.” As we understand it, in a market with a few large players, competition is often more about spending money on advertising the brand rather than on price. According to this interpretation, Mr. Costello frequently needs to show he is different, and more modern, than Mr. Howard. This message is directed not only to the electorate but, perhaps more importantly, to the “serious” media which is overwhelmingly republican.( Many politicians over- emphasise the power of the “ serious” media. They should take as an example the recent truckdrivers’ dispute with Tooheys. It was not the intervention of the “serious” media which assured  the truckdrivers their victory.)

Greg Sheridan, the respected foreign editor of The Australian  has come to a similar but far harsher conclusion to ours.  In one of the hardest  hitting pieces on the Treasurer ever published,( ” The grating pretender”,  in The Australian  on 2 March, 2006 )  Mr.Sheridan wrote that “this  shallow, lazy, lucky and opportunistic Treasurer does not deserve to run the country.” He declared that  there is not the slightest way of knowing what sort of change Costello would bring, or even what he believes in or stands for. For the past 10 year, Mr. Sheridan observed, the Treasurer had tried to differentiate himself from  John Howard, by being on the left: 

 “Costello the republican, Costello the supporter of reconciliation, Costello the champion of { a tolerant society. He ran as Howard lite, Howard minus, the little Howard…The bigger disappointment about Costello is just how lazy and shallow his thinking is whenever he’s not speaking from a Treasury script.”

To Mr. Sheridan, for most of the past decade, and apart from economic policy, Mr.  Costello had been basically a weathercock.

“The republic is a good example. When he was undermining John Hewson’s leadership in Opposition, he was a fierce monarchist. But then when it seemed that every reputable commentator was a republican, but Howard was a monarchist, Costello switched.”

There is of course another interpretation. This is that Mr. Costello was merely telling republicans alive today to forget about Australia becoming a republic. Perhaps he is saying that a republic which is both acceptable to the people and which will improve our system is unattainable and is at least a century away. And perhaps he is adding-but please remember, I am modern and up-to date- I am  republican.                                      



Sir Robert Menzies


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