Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Shorten uses the Dismissal to seize republic debate

Labor is struggling to get a good line and length on Malcolm Turnbull. Take the republic. No one doubts his credentials in this regard but in a week when we mark the anniversary of one of the great abuses of royal power he’s hardly pushing the cause, apart from earlier binning knights and dames. As a 21-year-old, Turnbull passionately attacked Sir John Kerr’s sacking of prime minister Gough Whitlam. In the now defunct Nation Review he wrote that the constitution was woefully undemocratic. He described the governor-general as “an unelected ribbon cutter”. He had no doubts Kerr should have followed convention and taken his advice solely from the elected prime minister, not secretly from the chief justice of the High Court, Garfield Barwick, or his colleague on the bench, Anthony Mason. So outraged was the young Turnbull that he dubbed the Fraser opposition in their lust for power as “nothing more than political fascists”.

This week, when the heir to the throne of Britain and therefore Australia, Prince Charles, flew into the national capital, the prime minister was reminded of his earlier sentiments. He must have been prepared for it – The Australian Financial Review had resurrected the comments a couple of days earlier. He parried the question but did not resile from his youthful views: “Well, I think I was always a republican, but at the age of 61, one tends to express yourself a little bit more, perhaps, prudently or moderately than you do at 21.” Especially if you are now the prime minister, leading a party with more than its fair share of monarchists.

But in his more considered comments launching a landmark study of the Remembrance Day “coup”, as Whitlam used to call it, he said, “my views on Sir John’s conduct have remained consistent … For what it’s worth, I believed then, and I still do, that Sir John should have given Whitlam notice of his intentions. His justification … that if he had done so he feared that Whitlam would sack him first, I don’t think is an adequate justification for that failure of notice.”

And here’s the rub. Labor believes Turnbull has vacated the field when it comes to one of the enduring pursuits of his life. Bill Shorten seized on these comments in parliament, congratulating him on being the first Liberal prime minister ever to express any criticism of the duplicitous Kerr. While Shorten claims not to have “maintained the rage” – he was eight on the day of constitutional ambush – he is now out in front on the issue. Turnbull is intent on stealing Labor’s claims for being the party of innovation and the future, but on the totemic issue of a republic he’s back in the shed.

In their extensively researched book The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston certainly give flesh to Turnbull’s assessment of Kerr. Though the governor-general was acting in the Queen’s name, Buckingham Palace was far from amused. The Queen herself would not have acted so precipitously or imprudently, well aware that her pompous and flawed proxy had damaged her reputation. The authors conclude there were no heroes in Australia’s greatest constitutional crisis: Whitlam, Fraser and Kerr all come in for searing criticism.

But the fact of the matter is there is nothing to stop another venal, conniving viceroy – a man the palace thought “greedy”, along with his wife – striking down a duly elected prime minister. Nor is there anything to stop a ruthless opposition leader with the numbers in the senate blocking supply and bringing down a government, and, adding insult to injury, doing it all in the name of a distant monarch “living in a palace in London”, as the head of the Australian Republican Movement, Peter FitzSimons, says.

Turnbull didn’t seize on the 40th anniversary of the Dismissal to push harder for a republic. Shorten sees it as an opportunity missed. He was not so reticent. He has a decade-long process in mind with benchmarks legislated. A constitutional convention would consider models. A plebiscite would gauge popular support for a preferred model and then a referendum would enact the change. He says it’s 114 years since federation and Australia is ready to have its own head of state: “I think we are an independent nation and I do believe that the debate could be handled constructively.”

Labor is hoping its leadership on the issue will send a message to progressive voters, who have deserted it for Turnbull. Shorten equates the prime minister’s reluctance here to his adoption of Tony Abbott’s “delaying tactic plebiscite” on marriage equality. Put simply: in Labor’s thinking, Australians looking for their more contemporary views to be implemented will come to realise there is more chance of that with the ALP than with the Liberals no matter who leads them. It’s a long shot but worth a try, especially if your leader is 43 points behind as preferred prime minister in Newspoll.

But Turnbull had a reality check for this kind of thinking. At the book launch he said: “Ultimately, the Australian people voted on the question of economic management. That’s what they voted on. 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.” They were also voting out a government that had become a shambles, with ministerial sackings after incompetence, and attempted dubious loan raisings among other disasters. Though it can be argued Whitlam had begun steadying the ship with more competent replacements when Kerr struck, the damage had been done.

Of course, that’s not a lesson for only one side of politics. The jury is still out on Turnbull’s economic management. There’s plenty of public goodwill but as “the conversation” on tax reform continues without apparent direction or form, Coalition MPs are getting nervous and Labor is hammering Turnbull with the GST.

Make no mistake about it: Labor’s relentless pursuit in parliament this week is unsettling many on the Turnbull team. While the prime minister is supremely confident his strategy will bring the nation’s voters with him, older heads aren’t so cocky. These doubts surfaced in the party room. There were concerns that the Liberals were looking as though they were preparing for a “tax grab” rather than cutting taxes. The Australian ran a story that Industry Minister Christopher Pyne had told a meeting of his colleagues the government wouldn’t be taking a GST increase to the next election. That was later denied. But one MP says Pyne’s political antenna is particularly sensitive given the Liberals’ rocky road in South Australia this year.

Any raising of the GST or broadening of its base would be a betrayal of the promises Liberal prime minister John Howard made when he introduced it. Sure, times have moved on, but the party that promised all proceeds would go to the states and a 10 per cent rate was virtually locked in forever would not be easily believed on any new undertakings. Everyone knows that if the rate can be lifted once, it will be lifted again. European countries got to their 20 per cent GST or VAT taxes incrementally.

The “everything is on the table” mantra, with no one willing to play the “rule-in, rule-out game”, has given Labor plenty of ammunition. All week we have been hearing about a 15 per cent GST. One Liberal marginal seat holder wonders how any party could successfully go to an election with a 50 per cent tax increase as part of its spiel.

To calm these worries, the prime minister told parliament early in the week, “the government does not have a proposal to increase the GST”. He was backed up by his treasurer, Scott Morrison, who said, “the government has put forward no policy option”. Such statements leave plenty of room to find such a policy on that plentiful table of options.

And in case anyone thinks there is no potency in the opposition’s tactics, frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon brought the house down when he asked Barnaby Joyce how much a lamb roast would cost if the government hits fresh food with a 15 per cent GST. This was a case of Joyce’s $100 hyperbole over the carbon tax coming back to bite him. His answer: “There is no policy direction to increase the GST.”

With nothing ruled out, Shorten was gifted this opening on Turnbull: “He has a plan and he won’t tell us. What is important in a democracy is trust. I think it’s important that Malcolm Turnbull trusts Australians, not only to engage in a conversation, but to tell them what the government is going to do.”

Turnbull is in no hurry to oblige, although he says, “the opportunities for constitutional change are somewhat more challenging than the opportunities for strong economic growth”.

It’s not only the opposition waiting for him to start playing his shots.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Bowling up for an early dismissal". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.