A few months ago I received a call from a researcher at Four Corners. I spent some time speaking with her about Malcolm Turnbull, whom Four Corners is profiling tonight. She was interested in my perspective because I had been the National campaigner director for the 1999 Republic Referendum, and worked closely with Turnbull over that period and beyond, when I took over from him as Chair of the Australian Republican Movement. I told Four Corners I was happy to go on camera to talk about Turnbull but didn’t hear back from them. If I had, here’s what I would have told them.

Malcolm Turnbull’s efforts to guide the 1999 Republic Referendum campaign have been the subject of much misinformation. It is said that Turnbull, a Sydney Eastern suburbs lawyer and banker, was the wrong person to front the campaign. His presence, it is said, damaged the Yes campaign.

This was, and remains a myth. Polling during the campaign carried out for the ARM showed that Turnbull was not a negative factor. The major reasons we struggled in that 1999 Referendum were threefold: republicans were split, the One Nation type line of the monarchists, “Don’t vote for the politicians’ republic” worked, and because of Prime Minister John Howard’s relentless campaigning against the idea.

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In any event, I don’t know of anyone else who could have led the ARM as effectively during that campaign. Turnbull’s work ethic and feel for the campaign was second to none. This was a person who would send me emails at two in the morning; who would ring me at all hours of night and day with suggestions, ideas and sometimes just to chew the fat and let off steam about the campaign. He traversed the country, never once complaining about the grueling schedule.

When our polling showed us heading south in the final days of the campaign, Turnbull rightly decided that we should switch the advertising strategy from feel good, nationalist sentiment ads, to information style advertisements which would help to combat the lies peddled by the monarchists about what a republic would mean in practical terms for Australia. It was a strategy that helped arrest the slide, and our polling showed we lifted our vote in the final week of the campaign.

There are very few people in Australia who actually commit their own money to a cause knowing that they will get little or nothing out of it. I had a campaign budget approaching $5 million and Turnbull contributed the lion’s share of that money. Other high profile republicans either never put their hands in their deep pockets, or bitched and whinged about the campaign and Turnbull’s role in it.

Tim Costello’s reported portrayal on tonight’s Four Corners program of Turnbull as the Great Ayatollah of the republican movement is inaccurate — perhaps understandably so because Costello played no substantive role in the referendum campaign.

Yes, Turnbull was the intellectual powerhouse — he is head and shoulders above most of his parliamentary colleagues in this sense — but he was open to ideas. I had many a session with him during those intense months from May 1999 until Referendum Day in November of that year. I found him receptive and he never once screamed or ranted at me.

Finally, let me share a small but touching vignette about Turnbull that I think speaks volumes for the man. On the Monday before the Referendum he and I walked from the Park Street HQ of the campaign to do a media gig at Taylor Square in Sydney. As we walked he turned to me and said whatever happened on Saturday, the campaign team had done a great job. He meant it — after we lost the Referendum he never once launched into recriminations against me or other campaign team members.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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