Thursday, July 13, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Heavy is the head that wears the crown
The republic is just one of Turnbull’s problems


There is, these days, something inescapably morbid about the republic debate in this country. This is a result of the current policy that Australia will not move towards a republic during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Julia Gillard was the first to articulate such a timeline, and Malcolm Turnbull has adopted it too.

The policy reflects a pragmatic political reality: while most Australians would not dream of calling themselves “Elizabethans”, as our prime minister did this week, there is a kind of remnant affection for the Queen, who has been our nation’s head of state since long before the republican cause acquired a foothold in plausibility; rejecting her would, to some, seem impolite.

But it has also, in more recent times, had the effect of turning a very important discussion about Australia’s national identity into one giant deathwatch. Reformulated, the standard political formulation becomes rather blunt.

Arguably, that is even more impolite.

Late on Tuesday night, Turnbull met the Queen. Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, who has in recent times emerged as one of the Opposition’s most dogged (not to mention most surprising) attack dogs, was out beforehand to salt the earth, calling on Turnbull to ask the Queen how she might help Australia become a republic, though Dreyfus said he held no hope Turnbull would actually do so.

This was a little cheeky from Labor. First, what a bizarre request that would have been, and what a sign of immaturity – at the actual moment our prime minister, whoever that is, decides to press onwards to a republic, I hope that they will firmly outline their plan to the monarch, not meekly request assistance. Second, Dreyfus and Labor know full well that Turnbull was never going to divulge his discussion with the Queen, because that is protocol. It is an attack the PM cannot refute.

But then – speaking of pragmatic politics – if you were Labor, why wouldn’t you take every opportunity to mention the republic? The only confusion here is why Bill Shorten doesn’t return to it more often.

Shorten does, on occasion, bring it up. And when he does, it’s sometimes as part of the triumvirate of “authenticity” issues that have so hamstrung Turnbull: marriage equality, climate, the republic. Shorten sometimes throws in housing affordability as well, though it’s clearly the odd one out. The Opposition leader is due to speak at an Australian Republican Movement dinner later this month, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does the same again. 

Those three get grouped together so often they’ve almost lost their force as a list. Individually, though, they remain deadly. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a near-conflagration over climate policy and a bonfire over marriage equality. It’s no wonder Turnbull isn’t much interested in lighting the republic match as well.

Of course, this is the main reason it remains such a powerful weapon for Labor, especially given that it’s the only one so far underused.

The other reason it could end up being important for Shorten is its broader strategic value. One of the greatest battles fought at many elections is over which party stands for the “future”. Turnbull attempted to win this battle at the last election with his “innovation” pitch, but that didn’t work out. It is, in general, a battle for which Labor is better positioned. The same is true in almost any country: you can see it just in the words “progressive” and “conservative”. In Australia, think Kevin Rudd in 2007, with his ads about laptops and climate change.

In battles like this, over fundamental party identities, the side that starts behind rarely wins the argument – think Labor on fiscal responsibility or the Liberals on fairness – but that doesn’t mean the ground should be ceded entirely. Surrender and you’re giving your opponents a massive advantage.

The beauty of Turnbull’s authenticity problem, for Labor, is that it hurts the government in two ways. Each of those three issues – marriage equality, climate, the republic – hits Turnbull personally, as things he seems unable now to deliver, or even to fight for. At the same time, each tells the story that Labor is the party of the future.

Pollsters and pollies are correct when they say that most Australians care more about bread-and-butter issues than they do about symbols. But while some voters swing depending on policy, many others vote on the basis of the actual candidates. Where the candidates stand on symbolic issues can tell voters a lot about the type of leader they’re getting.

Labor’s policy is that it wants a republic by 2025. When I first began thinking about this, 2025 seemed like a long way off. (I think it’s ridiculous we’re not a republic already.) But realistically, if Labor gets elected next year, the process Shorten has proposed as a possibility – a constitutional convention, a plebiscite to decide the best model, and then a referendum – could easily take that long. That said, I tend to think it could also be achieved a little faster.

The chance of Turnbull achieving a workable solution on climate policy seems fainter by the day. That leaves both marriage equality and the republic as weeping wounds – but ones that could still be healed. It may seem right now that the prime minister cannot afford to deal with either. But nor can he afford, for long, to ignore them both.

In other news


Beyond the notes

Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar String Quartet meet some of Melbourne’s youngest musicians

Chloe Hooper

“The members of the Simón Bolívar String Quartet grew up involved in El Sistema (The System), Venezuela’s now legendary public music program that situates music schools in the country’s most impoverished neighbourhoods. Over this program’s 40-year history, hundreds of thousands of children have been provided with free instruments and lessons.”  READ ON


Feeding the beast

Billion-dollar burnouts keep emissions rising

Richard Denniss

“Take the response of the political class to the mid-latitude cyclone that ripped 22 electricity transmission towers from the ground in September and plunged the entire state of South Australia into a blackout. Rather than reflect on the enormous costs of our ongoing failure to address climate change, the loudest conservative voices took a leaf out of the gas industry playbook and went on the front foot. It wasn’t coal-fuelled climate change that Australians needed to fear, but renewable energy.” (November 2016)   READ ON

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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