The Politics    Monday, December 12, 2016

A republic?

By Sean Kelly

Perhaps the PM can recover after all

It was an odd argument to make, for a monarchist hoping the PM would not suddenly start advocating for a republic.

This is something that we’ve been fearing because he’s obviously looking for issues that will establish his credibility and the republic is obviously one of them …

Philip Benwell, chair of the Australian Monarchist League, went on to say “… and we would caution him on proceeding along that pathway”.


Benwell had political arguments against the move, after it was revealed Malcolm Turnbull would be speaking to the 25th anniversary dinner of the Australian Republican Movement this Saturday. He reminded Turnbull that Coalition voters didn’t want a republic; that a Liberal Party split could result; that voters could be lost to One Nation.

All are possible. But of course it’s also possible that behind Benwell’s earlier suggestion lies truth, too: that Turnbull throwing his weight behind a republic would return to him some of the authority he’s been haemorrhaging.

Will it happen? I have no idea. In January, he said there was less grassroots support than there had been in the 1990s, that only a grassroots movement could make it happen, and that the best time to achieve success would be after the death of the Queen. I’d probably lean slightly towards a prediction of Turnbull delivering a fairly cautious speech on Saturday, while reiterating his words from January, perhaps with a dash more encouragement for that grassroots movement. But anything’s possible.

Is it advisable? The negatives are precisely what Benwell says they are – and Cory Bernardi’s warning that he’ll be going “all in” next year will only add to such fears. I’d add the concern that Turnbull might be seen to be focusing on symbols at a time when voters are concerned about a wavering economy. If Turnbull doesn’t have a plan for jobs, fighting for a republic will be seen as an indulgence.

On the flipside: it would give voters some hope that Turnbull has not entirely forgotten who he was. This is not just about progressive voters’ attitudes on this particular issue – it’s about voters’ general perceptions of Turnbull as an empty shirt. Adding to the pros, it would chime well with the prime minister’s message of optimism and excitement.

It’s also worth remembering that MPs go home to their electorates over Christmas. They spend time with their families. They hear a lot of opinions, from ordinary voters and from their loved ones across the Chrissie dinner table, and they take them back to Canberra when parliament resumes. Right now those casual conversations won’t be very good for Turnbull. He could be hoping to change their trajectory a little with the scant time he has left this year.

Regardless of what the PM says on Saturday (though given this is already news on Monday, I imagine we’ll find out sooner than that), I think the more important reminder here is that it is still possible for the PM to turn things around. Reversals on important topics are always a chance. New ideas can arise suddenly, and shift the currents of debate.

Do I sound like the lady protesting too much? Probably. I have maintained for a long time that the PM has the talent to fight back – but last week I began to seriously question my conviction on this. Not because last week’s climate farce was definitive in itself, but because it was another nail in an already fairly well constructed coffin. I also think there was a change of tenor across the press gallery last week – a kind of consensus that Turnbull really was doing very badly indeed. The gallery aren’t always right, but that’s not the point: if the atmosphere turns against you, it can be a barrier in itself.

But on the weekend, I was reminded of an important fact – one I’ve used before to defend this government’s chances of surprising us all. It’s the simple reality that most prime ministers have god-awful first years, and sometimes a little longer than that. Many recover.

The problem for Turnbull, as Michelle Grattan persuasively argued last week, is that his problems aren’t only personal: they’re structural, with the right of his party conspiring to stop him from doing anything.

Nevertheless, the small spark of hope some might have felt at talk of Turnbull and a republic are a reminder that politics can shift quickly. It might not be this issue that does it, but that doesn’t mean a way can’t be found.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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