The election of Dr Brendan Nelson as Opposition Leader proves once again that there is little which is inevitable in politics.
While Mr. Turnbull campaigned in the media, Dr Brendan concentrated on the Liberal MPs. The fact that Dr. Nelson has matured in his outlook over time was obviously not seen as a barrier by his colleagues- indeed many would see his journey from left to moderate right as quite normal. Dr. Nelson performed very well on the 7.30 Report on the day of his election. He answered honestly and firmly, already showing he is a formidable leader. He indicated he was not going to rush to surrender on the new IR legislation without actually seeing it. (ACM of course has no position on that or whether it is desirable to be on the left or the right)
Yet The Australian editorialised on 30 November, 2007 that Dr Nelson's “greatest weakness is his lack of charisma.” I have seen a room spellbound by Dr Nelson, who for twenty or so minutes spoke cogently and persuasively without notes. The Australian (24/11) recently wrongly described John Howard incorrectly and pejoratively as a “suburban lawyer”; this was repeated by outlets around the world including The International Herald Tribune, (25/11) and the Voice of America (26/11). Perhaps The Australian should employ a person to check the facts in its editorials.
And as to whether a republican referendum is imminent, there are a number of considerations which are relevant.
First, Kevin Rudd is not as naive as Mark Latham was in 2004. Latham promised the nation would have to vote on republicanism each year of his first term, leaving little time for much else. The reason for three votes is because the republicans know they would lose yet another referendum. So they have developed a convoluted and expensive plan which requires two plebiscites before any referendum.
The first plebiscite will ask the people for a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutions, without any guarantee that that the model put to the people in the referendum would be carried. It is difficult to conceive of a more irresponsible proposal. Wise republicans – for example Professor Greg Craven – believe this process will guarantee the reign of not only King Charles III but also King William V.
Second, Mr. Rudd has already indicated that he will not deal with the republic in his first term, “if at all.” That said, republicans are already pressing Mr. Rudd to move on the issue.
Third, there will be pressure to schedule the first plebiscite with the next election to minimise criticism of the escalating cost of these attempts to force a republic on to an unwilling electorate. But this would be politically unwise, and I would expect Mr. Rudd’s staff advisers would counsel him against this. Too much media time would be diverted from the campaign to re-elect the Rudd government.
Fourth, republicanism was a very successful “wedge” issue which Paul Keating had effectively wielded against the Coalition. A “wedge” issue is one a political party knows will divide its opponents. Officially, Labor is committed to a republic. This was slipped in to the end of a national conference in Hobart years ago when many delegates had already left. It can be traced back to the Whitlam dismissal in 1975. In fact both Whitlam and Fraser now blame the Crown for their own actions. In any event, Labor knows that if it raises republicanism, some in the Liberal Party will take the bait. This is done for various reasons – ambition, treachery against the Liberal leadership, and jumping onto what once seemed like a successful bandwagon fashion. Some feared in 1999 that if the people did not vote for the model on offer, we would have a republic in which the president would be elected by the people. Whether Mr. Rudd will use republicanism as a wedge issue is not known. He may regard this as improper.
The fifth matter is the media expectation that Malcolm Turnbull will do something to further republicanism. In “Australia may say farewell to Queen after republican leader wins election,” The Times (26/11) reported that Mr. Turnbull’s “expected election” as Leader of the Liberal Party added to the already “strong likelihood of Australia now becoming a republic.”
Apart from getting the Liberal Party election wrong, which almost all the media did, (was Mr. Turnbull’s election inevitable?) The Times does not fully appreciate the fact that Mr. Turnbull is a conservative republican.
Mr. Turnbull has been bitten once before and does not intend to pour more of his own money, and I suspect, political capital into something he sees as a lost cause, unless a number of factors happen to coincide.We should not forget, and Mr Turnbull will not, that notwithstanding media and political support, and the money behind the republicans in 1999, the preferred republican model was rejected nationally, in every state and in 72% of electorates. Both the model and the question were chosen by republicans, although Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Barns argued, unbelievably, that the words “president” and “republic” should be deleted from the question. Obviously, focus groups and polling told them something. Turnbull says it shouldn’t be raised again in this reign, not unless there is a consensus on a (conservative) model and not unless the opposition is insignificant.
(Incidentally, when the ABC spoke to me on air on 29/11 about the likelihood of a consensus on a republic when Mr. Turnbull won the leadership, I reminded my caller that Dr. Nelson was also a candidate and was indeed a constitutional monarchist. The reaction was along the lines of “Mr. Turnbull is likely to win,“ and “ Dr. Nelson is only a monarchist because of Mr. Howard,” and “With the renewal in the country will you dwindling constitutional monarchists be the only obstacle?” As you can imagine, I rejected all of these triumphalist observations.)
The sixth matter of relevance is that Dr. Nelson is a committed monarchist, although he has been misrepresented in the media as a republican. He is very much a patriot. As education minister, against departmental advice, he sent out kits to all schools on the flag. On the Constitution, he says that turning Australia into a republic would shake up the nation's "fundamental balance of power," one that has created one of the world's most stable countries. "We enjoy a stability which is the envy of many people throughout the rest of the world," Dr. Nelson said this year.
Addressing the National Conference of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, he spoke persuasively for about twenty minutes without notes. He is an impressive, sophisticated performer, who is clearly guided by his beliefs:A shift would see the nation leave behind a system that gave Australia stability, not through power wielded by the Queen or the Governor-General but instead it is the power they deny others. If you transferred that across to a person who may be elected in some form or another, either by the public or a majority of the parliament, then the fundamental balance of power in our country will change. People will expect, quite understandably, a person who is the president perhaps under a republic to exercise power in the name of what is popular.
The seventh matter is that while all governments are by their platform committed to republicanism, they do not control all parliaments, which means there would be no clear legislative path for anyone tempted by the untested back door method of becoming a republic.
The point is that those who are committed to preserving, to protecting and to defending our heritage – the Australian constitutional system, the role of the Crown in it and our Flag – must remain vigilant.