The election of Dr Brendan Nelson as Opposition Leader proves once again that there is little inevitable in politics.
While Mr. Turnbull campaigned in the media, Dr Brendan concentrated on the Liberal MPs. The fact that Dr. Nelson has matured in his outlook over time was obviously not seen as a barrier – indeed many would see his journey from left to moderate right as quite normal. Dr. Nelson performed very well on the 7.30 Report. He is clearly not going to rush to surrender on the new IR legislation without actually seeing it. He answered honestly and firmly, already showing he is a formidable leader. Julie Bishop is competent and has an appearance most will find attractive.
Those who think a republican referendum is on the cards, much less that a republic will actually be achieved, need to be realistic. They forget three things.
First, Kevin Rudd is not as naive as Mark Latham was in 2004. Latham promised the nation would have to vote on republicanism each year of his first term, leaving little time for much else.
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The reason for three votes is because the republicans know they would lose yet another referendum. So they have developed a convoluted and expensive plan which requires two plebiscites before any referendum. The first plebiscite will ask the people for a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutions, without any guarantee that that the model put to the people in the referendum would be carried. It is difficult to conceive of a more irresponsible proposal. Wise republicans – for example Professor Greg Craven – believe this process will guarantee the reign of not only King Charles III but also King William V.
To minimise the cost of yet another vote for a republic, there’ll be pressure to schedule the first plebiscite with the next election. This is unwise. Too much media time will be diverted from the campaign to re-elect the Rudd government.
The second thing forgotten is that Malcolm Turnbull is a conservative republican. Notwithstanding media and political support, and the money behind the republicans in 1999, the preferred republican model was rejected nationally, in every state and in 72% of electorates. Both the model and the question were chosen by republicans, although Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Barns argued, unbelievably, that the words “president” and “republic” should be deleted from the question. Obviously, focus groups and polling told them something. Turnbull says it shouldn’t be raised again in this reign, not unless there is a consensus on a (conservative) model and not unless the opposition is insignificant.
The third matter overlooked is Dr. Nelson, misrepresented in the media as a republican. As education minister, against departmental advice, he sent out kits to all schools on the flag. On the Constitution, he says that turning Australia into a republic would shake up the nation’s “fundamental balance of power,” one that has created one of the world’s most stable countries.
“We enjoy a stability which is the envy of many people throughout the rest of the world,” Dr. Nelson said this year. Addressing the National Conference of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, he spoke persuasively for about twenty minutes without notes. He is an impressive, sophisticated performer, who is clearly guided by his beliefs:
A shift would see the nation leave behind a system that gave Australia stability, not through power wielded by the Queen or the Governor-General but instead it is the power they deny others. If you transferred that across to a person who may be elected in some form or another, either by the public or a majority of the parliament, then the fundamental balance of power in our country will change. People will expect, quite understandably, a person who is the president perhaps under a republic to exercise power in the name of what is popular.
The other surprise of the day was the nomination of Stephen Smith as Foreign Minister, a portfolio so well- handled by Alexander Downer. It is difficult to see why he has not been used more in the past. He performs very well in interviews. He masters his brief and delivers without bluster or aggression. Clearly having leadership potential, he gives the impression of sophistication and style. Most Australians will have confidence in him in the position of the nation’s spokesman to the world next to the Prime Minister–elect. Both will present well internationally and both Labor voters and those who supported the Coalition will be satisfied with that.
PS. I see I am listed in Crikey as a Howard political appointment. When appointed to the ABA in 1996 I belonged to no party and held no position in the ACM, was a lapsed member of the ALP, a former ALP branch president, and former trade union official.