On 1 January, 2007, the television news from France 2 relayed through SBS began with scenes of the New Year celebrations, most notably in Sydney. It was still New Year’s Eve in Paris. After no more than two minutes, if that, the strains of the Marseillaise accompanied an announcement that viewers were about to see and hear a New Year’s Message from the Elysée Palace. It would be from Le Président de la République, Monsieur Jacques Chirac. A political message of about twelve to fifteen minutes followed – without any questions or any interruption. Three politicians from the President’s party, the President, the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister had been campaigning for well over a year about the next presidential elections, in which they may each be candidates. The unfortunate aspect is that under this republic, the Head of State regularly uses his great powers for purely political purposes. And this is the model which republican experts tip will flow from the Australian Republican Movement’s plan for a cascading series of plebiscites and referendums.
From the perspective of Australia’s constitutional system, there are two important issues for 2007 and beyond. One is the state of our Federation, discussed in this column on 23 and 24 August,2006 and 20 November, 2006. The other constitutional issue is whether a future prime minister will seriously push constitutional change? The next prime minister will play the decisive role in determining this. The contenders are, on the one hand, the Leader of HM Australian Opposition, Mr. Kevin Rudd, and on the other, several members of the liberal party. One of them is not even on the front bench.
He was the subject of a recent report, “Voters favour millionaire MP” by Linda Silmalis in the Sunday Telegraph on 24 December, 2006. This was about a poll commissioned by the Telegraph which found that the “millionaire republican” Malcolm Turnbull had emerged as the next serious challenger to Peter Costello were Prime Minister John Howard to retire. The Telegraph headline exaggerated the support the poll indicates for Mr. Turnbull. Is the Telegraph campaigning in its news pages for Mr. Turnbull? In our column of 3 December, 2006, we reported that that day’s Sunday Telegraph had contained two pages of uncritical news and photographs, and a separate sympathetic opinion piece on another page, all dedicated to Mr. Turnbull. When it comes to Mr. Turnbull, the media seem to have put aside not only their usual skepticism, but also their memory. Mr. Turnbull is often reported to be a fervent supporter of the flag, with no mention of the fact that that not so long ago he was a major campaigner against it, a director of Ausflag, and benefactor of a new flag exhibition.
As to the poll, undertaken by Galaxy, respondents were asked: “If John Howard wins the federal election next year but steps down mid-term, which one of the following would you prefer to see as the new leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister?” The choice offered was between, presumably in this alphabetical order, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, Brendan Nelson, and Malcolm Turnbull. The overall results were: Messrs. Abbott 12%, Costello 32 %, Nelson 9%, and Turnbull 16% with 31% uncommitted. For coalition voters, the results were: Messrs. Abbott 16%, Costello 43%, Nelson 9%, and Turnbull 14% with 18% uncommitted. For ALP voters, the results were: Messrs.Abbott 13%, Costello 24%, Nelson 9%, and Turnbull 20% with 34% uncommitted.
The Sunday Telegraph says the result is a “surprise blow” to Mr. Turnbull’s opponents, who, it said, have been critical of his rapid progress up the political ladder. But the poll was only of 596 New South Wales voters, and the margin of error was not published. In any event the leader is not directly elected by the people, but by the federal Liberal politicians, so a poll of voter attitudes in one state is not directly relevant. The poll is interesting, but probably indicates little more than that Mr. Turnbull is recognized by NSW voters – still a distinct advantage for a politician. In the meantime, Mr. Turnbull, now a Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, is likely to be elevated to the front bench this summer, a remarkable rise for a first term politician. The Telegraph recalled that Mr. Costello was critical of Mr. Turnbull in the lead-up to last year’s budget after Mr. Turnbull campaigned strongly for tax cuts. But Mr. Turnbull has received strong praise from Mr. Howard. This was despite Mr. Turnbull’s strong personal attack on the Prime Minister when he conceded defeat in the 1999 republican referendum.
Mr. Turnbull won the seat of Wentworth in 2004, after defeating the former Liberal Party president, long-term constitutional monarchist and “moderate” Peter King in a preselection which saw record numbers of new members drafted into Liberal Party branches. Mr. King then stood as an independent. A curious feature of that election was the decision of the leader of a monarchist association to campaign for Mr. Turnbull, which led to his being pressed by leading members of that association to write a letter to a local newspaper explaining that this was a personal initiative, and nothing to do with the monarchist group.
As a result of the recent redistribution, Wentworth has become more marginal. But without a strong nation wide swing against the Coalition, it would probably still be held by Mr. Turnbull who has the advantage of being a high profile member. He has shown himself to be pragmatic, playing down the republic but turning up at the low key parliamentary forum on the republic, and not only renouncing his previous commitment for flag change but now flying the Australian flag with the zealotry of the convert. Notwithstanding his conversion to Catholicism, he cast his vote with the small “l” liberals on recent “conscience” issues about the abortion drug RU486 and stem cell research. ( On the RU496 issue, Mr. Turnbull voted in favour of two conservative amendments, but when these were defeated voted to support the Bill . He took the unusual course of rising after the vote to say: “I just want to record that, the amendments having been defeated, I support the bill— if that just could be recorded.”) This small “l” approach -no doubt one that he believes is correct – will endear him to the “doctors wives,” those wealthy normally Liberal voting constituents who oppose the government’s position on such matters as refugees, Guantanamo Bay etc, and who are well represented not only in Wentworth, but in the older Liberal electorates in Sydney and Melbourne. This will also endear him to the inner city elites who vote Labor or Green, which is illustrated in the higher Labor support he attracted in the Galaxy poll.
Except for one comment dismissing the impact of an interest rate rise, he seems to have managed to ensure that his wealth is not an Achilles heel. This is evidence of good public relations skills, for example allowing himself to be photographed using public transport. He has shown himself to be superbly skilled in ensuring that his presence, if not his views, receives widespread and unusually uncritical media coverage.
Between the contenders, the Galaxy poll shows that Mr. Turnbull’s support is boosted by Labor voters, but it does not measure how many Labor voters would change their vote if Mr. Turnbull were leader. Apparently Mr. Abbott is more popular in the Coalition heartland. Mr. Abbott is criticized by the commentariat for his principled stand on a range of issues. But if he advanced their views on these issues, he too would be promoted by the commentariat. Athletic, more in touch with the rank and file voters than most politicians, and a thinker who writes well, they would make him a star. Mr. Nelson is still less known than the other contenders, but as he settles into the defence portfolio that will probably change. Although he is not listed here, Mr. Downer must also be a potential contender. Notwithstanding the predictable hostility of the commentariat, he has been a very successful Foreign Minister.
The expectation remains that in the event of Mr. Howard standing down, Mr. Costello will be elected leader by Liberal Party members and senators. But Mr. Costello has not advanced his cause by his increasingly ineffectual attempts to force John Howard to stand down. In fact, the longer Mr. Howard is in office, the more Mr. Costello’s star seems to wane. Until recently, it was expected that Mr. Costello would be unchallenged should the leadership fall vacant. Mr. Nelson, who, like Mr Abbott and Mr. Downer, is not a republican, has put an end to that. He has indicated he will definitely stand. This will probably force others to throw their hat into the ring.
Much will depend on the atmosphere at the time, including the likelihood that the Opposition will still be led by Kevin Rudd, who will probably prove to be a more serious contender than his three predecessors. Even if Labor were to lose the 2007 election, it is likely that Mr. Rudd will have performed well and dented the Coalition majority. Mr. Rudd seems to be moving the ALP more to the centre right on a range of issues, and away from the dominance that the inner city elites exercised in the party over the last decade. The Australian system of preferential voting should ensure that they remain captive to the ALP, unless the Liberals were to swing to the left as some state parties have in the past. Mr. Rudd has yet to declare his position on the republic, apart from the usual sort of nominal obeisance to this party platform objective. A similar nominal obeisance was once given to the socialist objective in most of the years that it was not only in the platform, but on every ticket issued to members. Apart from rejecting republicanism, the most sensible course for Mr. Rudd would be to resort to the mantra that a “republic is inevitable”. This would put the republic off the agenda. This would comfort those who hope that the ALP leader is not out of touch and is concerned with the issues that matter to the rank and file.
This could encourage a future Liberal leader to fill the vacuum and announce a republican agenda. This would foolish as both the party and the coalition would be divided . The point is that it can no longer be assumed that the next Liberal leader will be Mr. Costello, or that the leader will be a republican. Whatever happens in 2007, where the polls indicate most Australians expect a coalition victory, it cannot of course be assumed that the Prime Minister after the 2010 election will be a Liberal. At the present time, it seems that the republic may not be on the immediate agenda in the next two elections. But this cannot be guaranteed. There is no sign that the ultra republicans in our parliaments will not, by their shadowy factional deals, ensure governments continue or at least do not reverse their programme of introducing a republic by stealth, “creeping republicanism”. And, as we know, there are no limits to the promises some politicians will make if, sensing an electoral loss, they become desperate.