I am a financial member of the Australian Republican Movement. Due to a prior commitment, I will not be present tonight when the Prime Minister addresses the ARM’s 25th anniversary dinner at the University of Sydney.
Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to break bread with the ARM has attracted some, but not much, criticism from within conservative circles. Philip Benwell, chairman of the Australian Monarchist League, was quoted as saying the Prime Minister’s gesture to the organisation, which he led between 1993 and 2000, could split the Liberal Party.
This is pure hyperbole. There is no evidence that any Liberal parliamentarian would leave their party over so trivial a matter. Sure, there would be serious conflict if the Prime Minister committed the Coalition to another referendum on the republic any time soon. But this is most unlikely.
It is not clear what Turnbull will say tonight, but nothing has changed since he made the following statement on the occasion of succeeding Tony Abbott as prime minister: “The republic issues cannot belong to a politician; it’s got to be a genuine popular movement. My own view … is that the next occasion for the republic referendum to come is going to be after the end of the Queen’s reign.”
Turnbull added that, while he remained a republican, there were many more immediate issues that required his attention. This remains so.
Peter FitzSimons, the ARM’s current chairman, takes a different view. He issued a statement that he was “thrilled” the Prime Minister was attending the ARM’s 25th anniversary but added that the organisation “has no intention of celebrating its 30th anniversary”. FitzSimons believes there will be “an Australian head of state within the next five years”.
It seems FitzSimons does not understand the practical problems in Australia becoming a republic by, say, Australia Day 2022. Or that he is part of the problem, not the solution.
In view of the fact the republican movement was divided at the time of the 1999 referendum — and that some republicans voted no because they wanted a directly elected president — the result was not a shattering defeat for the ARM under the leadership of Turnbull, but a loss nevertheless.
The national vote was 45.1 per cent yes to 54.9 per cent no. Since any constitutional change requires a majority of all Australians in a majority of states, the yes case must carry at least four states. Here, in 1999 the ARM did not get close. It did moderately well in Victoria (49.8 per cent) and NSW (46.4 per cent), but not so well in South Australia (43.6 per cent), Western Australia (41.5 per cent), Tasmania (40.4 per cent) and Queensland (37.4 per cent).
To get a republican referendum up before the end of 2021, the ARM has to convince the government of the day to put the matter to the people. Then the yes case has to prevail in NSW, Victoria and (perhaps) South Australia and Western Australia.
This is a hugely difficult task under any leadership but especially if FitzSimons continues to head the ARM. The yes cause can rely on support from Greens voters and significant support from inner-city Coalition and Labor voters. But, as in 1999, support for an Australian head of state is lower in the outer suburbs along with regional and rural areas. In his column in Fairfax Media’s The Sun-Herald each Sunday, FitzSimons rants against Australians with whom he disagrees, despite the fact he would need the support of at least some of them for the ARM’s cause to prevail. For example, on December 4, FitzSimons described religious believers as following a “Magic Sky Daddy” deity.
FitzSimons sneers especially at conservative Catholics but also at mainstream Christians (despite the fact his two sons were educated at a Uniting Church school).
A particular target of FitzSimons is Cardinal George Pell, one of Australia’s best-known republicans. FitzSimons’s ridicule of a fellow republican has even gone so far as alleging that Pell lives in a “$30 million mansion in Rome”. This is a wilful falsehood that Fairfax Media refuses to correct.
FitzSimons’s targets extend beyond believers in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths to include right-of-centre supporters of the Coalition and right-wing Labor. He embraces the intellectually fashionable positions on issues such as asylum-seekers, climate change, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
But as the Prime Minister will know from his experience during this year’s election campaign, attitudes in suburban, rural and regional areas can be quite different from what they are in the inner cities. The task of the ARM is to win support outside of the inner cities. This is probably more difficult now than it was in 1999.
First, there is the re-emergence of minor parties, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which are unlikely to embrace the thought of FitzSimons. Second, the terrorist attacks on Western democracies since the turn of the century have probably led to a situation where Australians feel closer to their traditional ally Britain. And there’s the popularity of the young members of the royal family.
I will continue my membership of the ARM. But I do not expect to see an Australian head of state anytime soon.