February 14

Republicans turn on former leader, benefactor


Republicans are fighting among themselves – again.

As far back as the 1998 Constitutional Convention Australia’s republicans were so seriously divided it was only through ACM National Convener Lloyd Waddy’s mediation that a threatened walk out by one faction was averted.

Otherwise the Convention would have been in risk of collapsing, or losing any credibility.

The Australian Republican Movement have now accused their former leader, Malcolm Turnbull, of putting what they call “the” republic into the “too hard basket.”

 As one sage observer said, they are biting the hand that fed them – and fed them very well. Apparently Mr. Turnbull poured a fortune into the ARM. He is receiving little gratitude in return.

(Incidentally why do they talk about “the” republic?  As Channel 7 presenter David Koch[i] once pointed out, they don’t seem to know what sort of republic they want.)

The ARM have now even offered their former leader “assistance” in forging a consensus among republicans.

The ARM full well knows that such a consensus has constantly eluded them since their foundation.

The ARM is clearly annoyed by Mr. Turnbull’s recent warning that a referendum during the current reign was doomed.[ii]

…the elusive consensus needed for victory…


We mentioned two other conditions for republican success that Mr. Turnbull previously prescribed – they were on his website.

Apart from a republic being unattainable during the present reign, his second condition is that they find this magical and elusive consensus among republicans about the model. To which we would respond, with respect, yes, and pigs may fly.  

…little opposition required  for victory…  

But Mr. Turnbull also prescribes another condition. This third condition is that there be little opposition to “the” republic. We think we’re very safe in guaranteeing to Mr. Turnbull, the ARM and all republicans that the opposition will be determined, forceful, ethical, and community based, and based on the best interests of the nation.

 …a fourth condition? A very short question… 

Malcolm Turnbull has since returned to the issue with a call that any referendum question on a republic  be short and that it be uncomplicated by any detail of the model proposed.

This was in a report in a newspaper which circulates in his electorate, the Wentworth Courier[iii], on 30 January, 2008.He said the failed 1999 referendum had been influenced by the complexity of the question.

I take that to mean he attributes a part at least of the intensity of the defeat of the republicans to the question.  But the question was settled by a republican Attorney –General advising cabinet with the benefit of the advice of a parliamentary committee dominated by republicans.

Mr. Turnbull continued : “ The criticism of the question in 1999 was that once you moved away from a very short question you get into a debate about how much detail should go into the question and whether by including some and leaving out other detail you will influence the result.”

“ My own view is that the referendum question should be short with the detail of what is proposed being contained in the information booklet that is sent out to every voter and made available at polling booths , in the media etc.”

This statement reminded me of one point in the 1999 referendum campaign.  

…The question in 1999…ARM calls for two deletions…

On 5 July, 1999, I went with Kerry Jones, then Executive Director of ACM and the government appointed Chairman of the  Vote No Committee,  to Parliament House, Sydney. This was for a hearing by a Federal Joint Committee on the ACM submission on the referendum bill.

As we went in, we ran into a crush of journalists, pursuing a very grim Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Barns.    David Elliott, the ACM National Director told us later what had happened. 

This was confirmed when even the republican media heaped ridicule on the Australian Republican Movement about their proposal to remove two key  words from  the long title of the referendum bill and thus on  the  referendum question.

 The question was:

“Do you approve of the proposed law to alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two thirds majority of the members of the Parliament ? “ 

Believe it or not, the two words Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Barns wanted excised went to the very essence of the proposed change, a change more sweeping than any other proposed in the life of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The two words were “President” and “republic.”  It is reasonable to assume that polling and focus groups had shown to the republicans that Australians were wary – the republicans would say “confused” about both words.

But really. This is precisely what the republicans wanted. 

Not that ACM was content with the question.  We argued that the long title of the bill, and thus the question, should also refer to the extraordinary and absolute power a prime minister would have to sack the president without notice, without any stated reasons and without any real recourse, certainly not the right of reinstatement.

This was unprecedented and did not apply in any other republic. In our view it turned the President into the Prime Minister’s poodle.

Had the Joint Committee accepted our submission, the question in the referendum would have been something along these lines:

“Do you approve of the  proposed law to alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two thirds majority of the members of the Parliament and who may be dismissed at any time by the Prime Minister without notice, without the giving of reasons and without any right of appeal?”

In any event the result was a landslide for the ‘No’ case. All states rejected the republic, as did 73% of federal  electorates.

The point surely is that before the people vote they are entitled to be fully, fully, informed on the issues involved.

Normally, they could rely, as Mr Turnbull says on the media playing its role  

But as the eminent media authority Lord Deedes wrote of the Australian referendum campaign in the London Daily Telegraph on 8 November, 1999:

  “I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end.”[iv]

The shorter the question, the more it will be designed to complement what Lord Deedes witnessed.

[i] See this column,,” Secret Report: Last night's mate for head of state launch,” 19 January 2006 
[ii] See this column, “A watershed… or a tsunami,” 29 January, 2008
[iii] See this column, “The Governor-General and the media,” 31 January 2008 
[iv] Lord Deedes’ conclusion is supported by Dr Nancy Stone’s exhaustive survey of two representative serious media outlets: “The Referendum Debate: A Note on Press Coverage.” The Samuel Griffith Society, Upholding the Australian Constitution, Volume 12, Chapter 9 ( 2000); see this column “Knights and Dames,” 28 January, 2008.          


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