The biggest talking point from the release of the 1994-95 Cabinet papers was the approach the Keating Government took to achieving an Australia Republic. Although the failed referendum did not take place until 1999 following a Constitutional Convention in 1998 it was under Paul Keating’s Prime Ministership that the process was set in motion.
Polling during the 1990s had suggested a majority support for a Republic. However, the Cabinet papers revealed that Paul Keating and then leader of the Australian Republican Movement Malcolm Turnbull doomed the republican referendum process from the beginning by choosing the model that had the least amount of public support.
Polling in 1994 revealed that 91% of Australians wanted a Republic where the President would be directly elected. Which made sense that if Australia is to have its own head of state the people should have a say who that would be. Instead Keating and Turnbull backed a head of state elected by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of federal parliament who was nominated by the Prime Minister which had only 3% public support.
Keating was pretty blunt in his reasons on backing the politicians to decide a head of state believing the people would not elect a person of the right “calibre”. In speech to parliament on the issue in 1995 he poured scorn on the idea the governments should listen to people. “Governments can wait for opinion to force their hand, or they can lead”. Keating obviously forgot that for his elitist version of a Republic to be implemented he had to ask the people.
Keating upon the release of the Cabinet papers still stood by this rejected model claiming a directly elected President would be “a complete disaster”. He also didn’t want the politicians’ power to be eroded by a popularly elected President and was worried that god forbid “We could end up with a Donald Trump personality as the singular presidential person in Australia. The mere fact that person is the only person popularly elected will draw all of the political power”.
Keating also rejected taking any of the blame for the fact the Republic has been off the agenda for the past 20 years instead blaming his successors as Prime Minister “A whole series of prime ministers have broken the nation’s heart on the republic”. He also claimed we could not be a great nation unless we were a republic “It’s a spoof against everything we have created here. I mean, how pathetic. No great state has ever had the monarch of another country as its head of state”.
With this type of elitist attitude and with his motivation for a Republic more about his own legacy than the good of the nation no wonder Keating was voted out in a landslide in 1996. The main person in the government who realized Keating’s model of a republic was doomed was his successor as Labor leader Kim Beazley “At the end of the day, that’s a killer. I just felt we did not have a show of getting the republic through without the directly elected model”.
Most present day Australian Republicans now realise that foisting their preferred model on the Australian people was the wrong approach and why it was rejected. Now Republicans back a two-stage republic referendum process where the public are first consulted on what republican model they want and then that model is put in a referendum question to change the constitution.
Despite the Republic being a divisive issue in the Liberal Party and with his Coalition partner the Nationals supporting a constitutional monarchy Malcolm Turnbull had no hesitation yesterday in putting the Republic back on the agenda following the release of the Cabinet papers.
Turnbull still believes the process should not begin until after the Queen dies, but he would kickstart the process again while he was Prime Minister during that time. Learning the lessons from 20 years ago Turnbull stated, “You’ve got to have that discussion and it may be that a plebiscite, maybe even a postal survey, given the success of the marriage postal survey, could be one way to deal with that”
Some are wondering why Malcolm Turnbull would stoke further tensions in the Coalition by bringing back the republic debate. However maybe Turnbull now thinks that he won the same sex marriage postal survey that he could win a republic vote, however they are still two completely different issues with polling much closer on the republic issue.
The Labor Party platform is dedicated to achieving an Australian republic. Bill Shorten has stated if elected he will kickstart the process with a simple plebiscite on the republic and then consult the public about the model. You wonder if they would learn the lesson from Keating and not foist another elitist republican model on the Australian people.
If Australia is to become a republic, it must be a process that is owned by people and not one that is dream of political elites. A head of state should be picked by the people and not be a person who has got there because of their political connections. If that means, we ended up with a personality or celebrity the politicians did not like then too bad for them.