It is elementary that before any political alliance is announced, it is first discussed and agreed upon by the prospective allies. Not to do so would be worse than discourteous, bringing the risk of an embarrassing public rejection. Just recently, the republican movement, not renowned for its strategic and tactical skills, has just committed that very faux pas.
The strategy was to enter into an alliance with – monarchists would say “freeload on” –another current campaign to amend the Constitution, the movement for Indigenous recognition. The republican leaders also decided to announce their decision by giving The Australian “an exclusive”. It would have been a good idea to consult their alleged partners before summoning the press, but this small step was somehow overlooked.
In choosing to latch on to Indigenous recognition, republicans fogot that the only speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1998 which attracted a standing ovation was delivered by former Senator Neville Bonner, a delegate elected on the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy No Republic ticket.
In any event, the Australian Republican Movement’s national director, David Morris, plunged ahead and gave an exclusive briefing to The Australian’s Patricia Karvelas, who was informed that “an essential founding principle” of a republic must be the recognition of the First Australians. “A conversation” between the parties had commenced, he explained, concerning “key principles and values”.
Much to the surprise of republican supporters, the response was a polite but immediate rejection. Tim Gartrell, campaign director for Recognise, dismissed the offer of “assistance” and disavowed the claim of a natural link between the two causes. "The issues are clearly separate and so are the campaigns," he told Ms. Kavelas. "Constitutional change is notoriously difficult, and in order to do what’s right and recognise the First Australians we need to continue building the widespread support we are already receiving from both monarchists and republicans, from conservatives and progressives, and all sides of the political and social divide.”
His remarks echoed those of former ACM national director, now Constitutional Education Fund director, Kerry Jones, who made the same point more succinctly. "There are plenty of monarchists who support properly recognizing the First Australians but remain opposed to a republic,” she said.
The republican movement’s latest misstep should come as no surprise. Since their landslide defeat in 1999, advocates have refused to provide any details of what they are proposing, preferring boilerplate and vague statements about the apparent need – apparent to them, at any rate – for Australians to assert “a national identity”, whatever they imagine that to mean.
Their coyness has been curious and, at times, laughable. When Malcolm Turnbull tried to persuade a Federal Parliamentary committee to remove two words from the 1999 referendum — “president” and, believe it or not, “republic” — even hardened journalists fell about laughing. You can watch that hearing in the video below, and don’t be surprised if the classic episode of Fawlty Towers, “The Germans”, comes immediately to mind. That is the one in which Basil tries very hard not to mention the war.
While the premature announcement of what proved a stillborn alliance with Indigenous Recognition supporters was an embarrassment, even in failure it nevertheless represented an improvement on the earlier and cringe-worthy Mate for a Head of State crusade. The problem, as The Spectator’s Rowan Dean observed in his magazine’s June 1, 2013, issue, is that the likes of Turnbull and Wayne Swan cannot make a credible case for replacing a constitutional system which has worked well with one “they themselves can’t even explain”.
If pro-republic supporters stage any further demonstrations on behalf of their cause, basic honesty should oblige them to chant, “We want a republic ….but we haven’t the foggiest idea what sort of republic.”
What do the republicans do now? Until they work out precisely what they are proposing and why it would improve the governance of Australia, they won’t get back to first base.
Emeritus Professor David Flint is chairman of CANdo.org.au