Malcolm Turnbull’s peculiar passion for a republic

It’s a peculiar type of passion that can be put on hold. Yet there was the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, assuring the republican movement he helped to found that he remains a believer, a passionate one. He still wants Australia to grow up, and stop genuflecting to its coloniser. Advance Australia; up the republic!

Just not yet. No move to scrap this branch of the Queen’s family business until she is Queen no more. “The vast majority of Australians have known no other head of the state than the Queen,” Turnbull told the Australian Republican Movement on Saturday night. “I do not believe Australians would welcome, let alone support, another republic referendum during her reign.”Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy at the University of Sydney on Saturday where the Prime Minister reaffirmed his ...Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy at the University of Sydney on Saturday where the Prime Minister reaffirmed his support for an Australian republic. Photo: Deborah Snow

No word on how long after her funeral Australians should wait for independence; would it be impolite to move after Elizabeth’s death but before Charles’ coronation?

Turnbull’s hesitation is well-founded. Moving prematurely to another defeat would doom Australia to a future that remains subservient to Britain for decades to come, if not longer. Elizabeth is one of the monarchy’s most successful leaders, and republicans have much work to do to convert more Australians to the logical next step in their homeland’s history.

As Turnbull knows, if another push for a republic is to be successful in these anti-elite times, it needs to be brought about by a widespread movement of the people.

Despite republicanism being anti-elitist at its heart, it’s nowhere near the level of popularity it needs to be to win: a Fairfax-Ipsos poll earlier this year showed public support for change five points behind, 47-42 per cent. It needs to be well in front to win the double-majority required of constitutional change: a majority of voters, and a majority in a majority of states.

Still, Turnbull’s speech did plot a path to independence, and one in which he wants not one national vote on a republic, but two.

Given the recent history of national votes – the self-harming Brexit decision, the rise of a reality TV lunatic to be leader of the free world – Turnbull showed he retains some crazy-bravery in pitching a double vote on the republic.

A plebiscite first, to choose between the people or Parliament picking replacements for the Queen, then the referendum to change the constitution. The double-vote has been tried before, including by Turnbull’s pin-up boy, former New Zealand prime minister John Key, who lost his push for a flag that wasn’t constantly confused for Australia’s.

But this route should help rather than hinder the republican cause. It would allow the fracture between direct-electors and the parliamentary appointee to be resolved, and surely you’d have to back direct election to get up.

Politicians shouldn’t fear direct election. If you seek a model that works, look to Ireland. Its president has limited powers similar to those exercised by the governor-general, yet has produced some of Ireland’s most unifying national leaders, including Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson.

Direct election has not destroyed Irish democracy, it has strengthened it, augmenting the republic’s already strong sense of feisty independence.

For Australia to join Ireland as a independent nation – formally, as well as practically – the republican movement has to harness that desire for independence and self-determination. Too often, monarchists blithely back the status quo by claiming there is nothing wrong with the current system.

Take this, from South Australian state Liberal MP Stephan Knoll, tweeted shortly after Turnbull’s speech: “The problem with the republican movement is that it can never articulate what the problem is that it is trying to fix #ifitaintbroke…”

There might be many problems with the republican movement, but identifying the problem to be fixed is not one of them: the Australian head of state is not Australian, and cannot be. She lives in London, Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham, but nowhere near this country, and as post-Europe Britain shrinks into itself, its ruler is still Australia’s.

Perched on top of Australia’s political system is a wealthy hereditary monarch, loyal to a foreign country, which has occasionally been disloyal to its former colony.

Elizabeth may be an able, dutiful, even likeable Queen, but if anything is elitist, it’s the monarchy, a codification of one family’s privilege over the populations of 16 nations, including the people of Australia.

That’s a broken system, and should be called for what it is. But more importantly for successful republicanism is arousing Australians’ sense of independence and national pride. A vote for independence should not just be about fixing an inherently flawed system, but a positive vote for a future free of colonial ties, when Australia is, lawfully and entirely, its own country.