Will Malcolm Turnbull Push for an Australian Republic?

As Australia's best know republican, his ascension to power could be what the movement has been waiting for.

by Hannah Scholte
16 September 2015, 5:58am

Illustration by Katie Parrish Gandrabur

With Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister it's reasonable to assume we'll see some changes made in his image. And while there's been talk about what that means for climate change and marriage equality, there's been little analysis on Malcolm's zeal for an Australian republic.

Abbott famously loved the monarch, once serving as National Executive Director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, but Turnbull's resume reads pretty differently. He chaired the Australian Republican Movement through its failed 1999 referendum, and in 2013 made an attempt to re-launch the campaign for a republic. So now he's on the top, will Turnbull push for independence?

VICE called Monash University political scientist Dr Zareh Ghazarian to see if we should start making plans for Independence Day.

VICE: Hi Dr Ghazarian. So we've got a republican PM. Will we be seeing Turnbull make a renewed push for an Australian republic?
Dr Zareh Ghazarian: Possibly, but Turnbull's time as the Australian Republican Movement's lead advocate didn't end well as they lost the referendum in 1999. So I don't think he's going to run after it as hard as possibly people want him to. But I do believe that there's now an appetite to revisit this question. It's almost becoming a perfect storm of conditions.

Related: We Asked Foreign VICE Offices What They Think Of Malcolm Turnbull

Why are Australian resistant to being a republic? It's not like we're crazy for the queen.
I think it's put in the too-hard basket because it doesn't have an immediate impact on public or economic policy. In the climate we are at the moment there is this need for immediacy, in whatever governments do there needs to be an immediate impact.

For Turnbull, I imagine it'd be pretty risky to stir things up right now.
It's a risky move—the idea of a republic is quite emotional for a lot of people. Also, the prime minister's primary pressing issue is to reset the government's approach and standing in the electorate. He's got to act carefully in that these sorts of things, that are not directly linked to those primary goals, don't overpower or overwhelm his efforts.

It's been a dream for so long though, surely he won't just drop the idea now he has this position. How do you think Turnbull will play it?
I think the idea of a republic is going to be advocated by stealth by Malcolm Turnbull. Every time he does give a speech, every time he has the opportunity, he will be pushing the agenda, but not in an overt and explicit way that might potentially cause a rift in his party and the broader community.

But is the discussion inevitable?
It will come up, it will always be there. People will always be expecting and reading into the comments that Turnbull makes about Australia in the world, anything to do with Australia and international relations, Australian identity. He has the opportunity to do what John Howard used to do in certain policy areas, which is to use "dog whistles" – to say things that resonate with people who are listening very carefully.

Lets say enough people hear those whistles, and an earnest push comes about, could we see any real action?
There's a bit of a roadblock at the moment in terms of a referendum: we know in Australia only eight out of 44 referendums have passed. That is a warning to anyone who wants to change the constitution; it's really, really hard to change the constitution.

The other thing coming up is indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution. The previous prime minister and basically both sides of politics had agreed that if there was going to be a referendum that would be the next one. You wouldn't want to introduce something that would muddy the waters of that coming referendum, but also at the same time you wouldn't want to introduce something that would again not have the maximum chance of passing.

Let's say that perfect storm happens, and the Prime Minister gets his wish, take me through what the process of transforming to a republic would look like?
The most basic of changes would be to replace the governor general, who is of course the crown's representative, with an Australian head of state. There are debates about how you select the head of state. Some within the republican movement want a presidential-type election, where people directly vote for the candidate they want. Or do you have a situation similar to now that is basically parliament amongst itself selecting a candidate and appointing them, which is definitely at arms length from the public.

Those are the two main models. I would suspect though that the prime minister would remain as the head of government, and would be the apex of politics and political power in the country. We wouldn't be adopting a fully American type system where the head of state is the head of government as well.

You make that sound pretty simple.
It's really complex because you're talking about a change of government, a change in the regime of how the political system governs itself. You would have to get that through a referendum, so you would have to have voters, citizens, agree with this change.

Having done that, if you went for a minimalist approach, it really is basically to change the constitution, remove reference to the monarchy, and you would insert, like any other legal document, the changes that you want. So it is in a sense quite simple, but getting to that point is the difficult bit.

Do you think people who do want to see a republic will be pleased to have Turnbull leading?
I think so; I think they should be pleased. It's an opportunity for republicans to have a glimmer of hope that the new Prime Minister will advance their agenda and desire to become a republic.

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