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Once the nation’s most prominent republican, Malcolm Turnbull is now content to let Labor steal the debate’s lead. By Sophie Morris.

Malcolm Turnbull gives up on his beloved republic

For an avowed monarchist such as Eric Abetz, one might imagine any royal visit would occasion a certain frisson. 

And if the visitor in question is the heir apparent to the throne, then surely that excitement might tend to rapture or unfettered delight.

Yet even Abetz, the self-styled “informal leader of the conservatives in the Liberal Party”, struggles to muster any enthusiasm for the fact that Prince Charles could, in the not-too-distant future, be King of Australia.

As Charles and his wife, Camilla, toured Australia this week, Abetz said he hoped the prince’s 89-year-old mother would reign for another two decades, sparing Australia further debate about becoming a republic.

“Let’s hope she can live as long as her mother did. And that means the Australian people won’t be bothered with the issue for the next 20 years,” Abetz told The Saturday Paper.

That’s not what opposition leader Bill Shorten has in mind. His plan for a republic is not contingent on the Queen’s death. 

The ALP’s national conference in July called for Australia to become a republic within a decade, outlining a three-step process and promising a Labor government would appoint a minister to make it happen. Shorten now wants to accelerate this, given republicans are at the helm of both major parties.

Shorten used the 40th anniversary of the Dismissal of the Whitlam government this week to reignite the push for Australia to ditch the monarchy.

“Isn’t it time that we decided that we’re capable of governing ourselves rather than borrowing the monarch from another country?” Shorten asked. “It is time for Australia to set its own path in the world.”

It echoes a sentiment that has been expressed many times in years past by Malcolm Turnbull, who describes himself as a “notorious republican”, having chaired the Australian Republican Movement for seven years in the 1990s, spearheading the “yes” campaign in the failed 1999 referendum.

“So long as our Constitution provides that whoever sits on the throne of Great Britain is to be our Head of State, our progress to independence is incomplete,” Turnbull wrote in 1993 in his book The Reluctant Republic

“It is a sentence without a full stop. It is like a fence with all the palings painted but one. It is an unfinished work.”

As prime minister, though, Turnbull is in no great rush to paint the fence’s final paling.

From a man with his history, one might have expected at least a hint of republican ardour on the 40th anniversary of the Dismissal. But those hoping he might have loosened the leadership straitjacket for an instant, allowing a glimpse of his abiding passion, were disappointed. What he offered instead was an alibi for inaction.

It was not just that decorum demanded restraint on the very day that Prince Charles was visiting Canberra. Turnbull was also making the case that voters, in choosing governments, cared little for the cause to which he had, in the 1990s, dedicated years of his life and millions of his own dollars.

He did not rail, as he had as a 21-year-old scribe for anti-establishment weekly Nation Review, against the actions of “unelected ribbon cutter” John Kerr in sacking the Whitlam government. They were the views, said the prime minister, of “very much a baby journalist”. Yet he did not really renounce them, saying he still believed Kerr should have given Whitlam notice of his intentions. Turnbull offered this more as an historical aside, however, not a rallying call for constitutional change.

Indeed, a central theme of his reflections at the launch on Wednesday of a book on the Dismissal by journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston was that it was economic management, rather than the constitutional crisis, that mattered more to voters when they turned on the Whitlam government.

“They didn’t vote on the question of the vice-regal crisis or the constitutional crisis, they voted to tip out the Whitlam government because they felt they were mismanaging Australia’s economy,” Turnbull said.

“Bill Clinton might have put his finger on it himself with that great slogan, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Was then and it still is.”

Constitutional change, he observed, was “somewhat more challenging” than the opportunities for economic growth.

If John Howard was, as Turnbull famously declared after the failed 1999 referendum, “the prime minister who broke a nation’s heart”, then it seems he himself is in no rush to be the prime minister who mends it.

As Turnbull embarked on Thursday on a 10-day overseas visit to Indonesia, Germany, the G20 Summit in Turkey, the APEC summit in the Philippines and the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, championing the republican cause was not among his priorities. If foreign dignitaries at these gatherings should find occasion to toast Australia’s head of state, they will be toasting the Queen.

Any momentum, Turnbull argued in one of his first interviews as prime minister in September, must come from the people, not politicians. This is in tune with a view he espoused in the 1990s that the cause was set back by being too closely associated with Paul Keating.

“My own view – I have held this view since ’99 – is that the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queen’s reign,” Turnbull told Channel Nine. “I think that will be the next watershed event, if you like, that will make that issue relevant. That doesn’t mean that it will happen. I think that’s when people will be paying attention to it.”

Hence Abetz’s desire that the Queen’s reign endure for years to come, though he reluctantly concedes Her Majesty is indeed mortal. 

“Things being equal, Prince Charles will be king one day,” says Abetz, who Turnbull dumped from the frontbench. “Whether Prince Charles’s popularity increases or decreases should he become monarch is not something that is overwhelmingly important to me, because it is the institution that is more important, but I think we have been exceptionally well served by Queen Elizabeth II.”

When this reporter spoke to Abetz last year ahead of the visit of Prince William and Catherine, he was full of praise for the popular young royals and had proposed a new parliamentary group for supporters of constitutional monarchy to mark their tour. Poor Charles must sometimes feel a little unloved.

This same sentiment – disdain for Charles and reverence for his mother – was prevalent in conservative circles more than 20 years ago. A year after the monarch had survived her scandal-plagued annus horribilis in 1992, Turnbull reflected on this, observing that conservatives were “shocked at his [Charles’s] apparently unashamed adultery with the wife of another man”.

Turnbull continued: “While the Queen still generated enormous affection and respect, it was difficult to believe that Prince Charles could ever be accepted as king.” 

Now, he seems to find it believable, even probable. When probed on his previous views on Wednesday – between meetings with the prince and his long-time lover and now wife of 10 years, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – Turnbull stuck to the facts: “If Charles becomes the King of the United Kingdom, as I’ve got no doubt he will be, unless our Constitution has been changed, he will become the King of Australia.”

Turnbull’s successors in today’s Australian Republican Movement (ARM) are not convinced the population will accept this. The ARM released polling by Essential Research this week showing that 51 per cent of 1008 respondents supported replacing the British monarch with an Australian head of state when Charles becomes king.

Support was stronger among Labor voters, at 62 per cent, but half of Coalition supporters also backed change and only 27 per cent of voters overall opposed it, with a further 22 per cent undecided.

Winds of change

In the past year, the ARM has sensed the winds of change and launched a new membership drive, under the leadership of a new national director Tim Mayfield and a new chair, the irrepressibly ebullient journalist and author Peter FitzSimons.

The last time both PM and opposition leader were republican was in 2009, when Turnbull led the opposition and Kevin Rudd was in power. Rudd focused initially on ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and apologising to the Stolen Generations. By the time Turnbull became leader, the global financial crisis was demanding the government’s attention and the republic was seen as an unnecessary distraction. Now some in Labor concede it was a missed opportunity. Yet pushing for a republic today has the added benefit for Labor of making things awkward for Turnbull, by questioning his convictions.

The ARM’s ambition is for a plebiscite on the republic before 2020, in acknowledgment that Indigenous recognition in the constitution should take precedence. Then there would be
a process to determine the model.

Opinions still vary, with FitzSimons’ personal preference being for minimal constitutional change. As recently as July, Turnbull said his preference was for a plebiscite to determine whether the head of state should be chosen by parliament or directly elected, followed by a referendum on the constitutional change. 

Even if Turnbull does not feel free as PM to indulge his republican passions, there are others in his government whose enthusiasm is less restrained. Turnbull acolyte Wyatt Roy, now assistant minister for innovation, tweeted on October 10: “I’ve joined the Australian Republican Movement! Looking forward to an exciting national conversation w @Peter_Fitz & @Ausrepublic.”

Now that Abbott is no longer prime minister, other prominent republicans such as Christopher Pyne and Marise Payne, who was Turnbull’s deputy chair at the ARM, may also feel free to speak out. Even Kevin Andrews has on occasion identified as a republican.

It is doubtful that Roy, born in 1990, has clear memories of the referendum or the constitutional convention that preceded it in 1998, when confusion over the model split the republican forces and delivered eventual victory to the monarchists.

Turnbull loomed large at the convention, copping criticism for his abrasive style. As his unauthorised biographer Paddy Manning wrote recently: “The convention was the first time in Turnbull’s career that he had had to bring people along with him, not just impress the judges with a display of individual brilliance. And the wheels were falling off.”

Still, there was an outcome for republicans and rousing applause for Turnbull, after then prime minister John Howard acknowledged majority support for a republic and the need for a referendum.

Abbott’s triumph

But it was monarchist Tony Abbott who triumphed, outmanoeuvring the republicans as their support fractured over design of the model.

As to whether Abbott, now on the backbench, might reprise this role if the push for a republic gains traction, Abetz hints this could be an option.

“That’s for Tony to determine,” says Abetz, “but we know he supports the monarchy and that he ran an exceptionally good grassroots campaign to turn around the opinion polls and protect it.”

The deposed PM’s spokesman says: “Mr Abbott’s views on these issues are well known and haven’t changed.”

As prime minister, Abbott indulged his devotion to the royals, reintroducing the honour of knights and dames and bestowing this honour on Prince Philip. After toppling Abbott in September, Turnbull wasted little time scrapping the titles. The head of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, David Flint, saw this as evidence of the new prime minister’s “obsession with republicanism” and accused him of seeking “revenge” for the failed referendum.

Flint believes Turnbull is just waiting for the right moment to act to overthrow Australia’s constitutional arrangements. “I think that when he judges it appropriate, he will move on this,” he says.

As Turnbull met Prince Charles on Wednesday, Flint gathered with other monarchists in Sydney and toasted the prince’s birthday. He turns 67 on November 14.

“We will continue to fight,” vowed Flint, conceding it’s a challenge that the republicans have a “brilliant new leader” in FitzSimons, as well as a republican PM and opposition leader.

Despite this, he remains sanguine, claiming that young people in particular are not galvanised by the republican cause. “On present indications,” says Flint. “I am very confident that we will see the reigns not only of Charles III but also William V and George VII, and that will complete this century.”

Mayfield, from the ARM, says the challenge is not to go head-to-head with the monarchists, but rather to counter apathy, build momentum and instil a sense of urgency. “There’s no inevitability to this,” he concedes.

And no one knows that better than Malcolm Turnbull.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Turnbull gives up on his beloved republic". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.