August 10

The Day Malcolm Turnbull Went Missing


So Malcolm Turnbull heard no mention at all of The Queen during the Federation celebrations at Centennial Park on Monday. (If only we could but see her passing by, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 2001). Perhaps he had fallen asleep. Perhaps he wasn’t there. Then he missed the report in the Herald that the Governor-General began by reading a message from The Queen. The Herald even published the full message (2 January).

We have much to celebrate and it would have been better to have done that without the ARM’s divisiveness. Didn’t they learn their lesson from the referendum? Didn’t they learn from their aborted campaign for a series of demonstrations against The Queen last year when more journalists than press turned up to the first of these? (At least they told their supporters not to demonstrate outside churches!) Notwithstanding Mr Turnbull’s successor’s evident distaste for federation (Herald, 2 January) it was an extraordinary achievement. Not only was it the first federation of a whole continent, it was the first approved by the people and not just the politicians. Rather than the result of war or external pressure, it was the first made from an intellectual conviction of a whole people of the advantages of nationhood and the folly of disunion.

Justice Lionel Murphy saw 1 January 1901 as the birthday of an independent Australia. The reason? The British had fully repatriated the constitution, giving us the power to change it as we wished. Something the Canadians didn’t have until 1982! And just as we are today part of the United Nations, Australia remained part of the British Empire only because it wanted to. There was no need then, as there is no need today, to have an express power to enter into treaties – the external affairs power is sufficient. (There was in fact a reference to "treaties made by the Commonwealth" in the 1891 draft). So Australia signed the Treaty ending the First World War, and was a founder member of the League of Nations, signing the Covenant. As the Empire was gradually replaced by the Commonwealth, separate diplomatic representation (1920) and separate treaties (1923) began to emerge.

In 1926, the concept which prevailed from at least 1917 was formally adopted. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain were declared equal and fully independent from one another. So if Lionel Murphy were wrong about 1901, Australia was certainly independent by 1926. That the lawyers and politicians inevitably took their time over the fine points is not surprising – no one was in a hurry. So when Western Australia voted to secede in 1933 and approached London, the surprised British informed them they had come to the wrong place. Constitutional change was now in the hands of the Australian people. As it is today – a point made by The Queen on her last visit.

The ARM has had more than a fair go, and especially from Australia’s taxpayers. Its two publicly funded models for a republic were both dismal failures. Leading supporters of the referendum model (the product of backroom deals in the last days of the constitutional convention) admitted as much before the vote, and some since.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming press, political, financial and celebrity support for the Yes case, only 43% of the electorate voted Yes. (And how many of those votes were tainted by the rorts subsequently exposed?) In electoral terms it was a landslide – 72% of electorates nationally, 93% in Queensland and Western Australia.

Because of the ARM’s obsession, millions were spent on this exercise. But at least we know what the people think – they prefer their existing constitution. Yet now we have an irresponsible campaign for a veritable cascade of plebiscites and referenda to turn the federation and then the states into a republic. With the flag – and that was always on the agenda – there will be at least eleven of these, beginning with a plebiscite designed by spin-doctors to obtain a vote of no confidence in our constitution. And who is to pay the millions and millions necessary to find out that the people still prefer it?

This money will have to be diverted from health, welfare, education and defence. So the first question ought to be: do we want up to a billion dollars spent on this folly?

The ARM, whose leaders promised their organisation would be dissolved after the referendum come what may, hope that the public will become so sick and tired of the process they will swallow their line on the Head of State. The universally accepted definition of that diplomatic term, unknown in any of our constitutional documents, is "the person to whom foreign envoys present their credentials". The few Australians who worry about this will accordingly agree with Mr Hawke and Mr Keating. Their Commonwealth Government Directory named, and they held out to foreign governments and international organisations the plain truth – the Governor –General is our Australian Head of State.

In these federation celebrations, we should thank Sir John Quick for saving federation from the political morass into which it had fallen. At Corowa in 1893 he successfully proposed that the people and – not the politicians – should decide whether to accept the federal constitution. For the same reason the draft constitution was changed to require that the final approval of any constitutional change be not with the politicians or the judges, but with the people. As Quick wrote, this is not to prevent change: it is to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth. Above all it is there to delay change unless and until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.

We are fortunate indeed that our constitution has such a guarantee.


Malcolm Turnbull, Republican

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