Kevin Rudd may come to regret his announcement of another republic referendum. Never a “passionate” republican, he is surprisingly unconcerned about the risks in the direct-elect model. He is ready to fling vast sums at what could turn out to be a very expensive, long drawn out, divisive and ultimately futile exercise. Far worse, he has handed his opponents more ammunition to warn about “wall-to-wall Labor”: will Labor try to introduce a republic, and more, through the back door?
The result is he may have unwittingly made this, and his judgment, bigger election issues than they would have been.
He is clearly worried about the perception that he is a policy mirror image of John Howard. It’s not the Greens; they’d rather drink hemlock than preference the Coalition above Labor, but his own left, who must be straining at the leash over a succession of policy surrenders to John Howard.
Perhaps he decided to do what seemed to be the easiest thing: take a leaf out of Peter Costello’s book. The Treasurer tries to demonstrate a degree of brand differentiation from John Howard in the few negotiated exceptions to the Westminster requirement for collective responsibility: abortion; RU 486; his famous Sunday stroll for reconciliation - hardly a Compostela de Santiago; and, of course, there’s a republic.
Admitting that a republic was not a "first order concern" for working families, Rudd over optimistically predicted it would be in the future.
Malcolm Turnbull, also from a multi millionaire family, is better informed on the thinking of working families. Conceding months before the 1999 vote he had “Buckley’s chance of winning,” he gave the reason, “Nobody is interested”.
Mr Rudd probably believed his republican announcement would not only satisfy the left, but would also excite the media. (As to the left, it could keep the peace over, say, his renunciation of the Latham Tasmanian forestry policy, or his refusal to criticise the government over the cancellation of Dr Haneef’s visa.)
He must have been disappointed that it was not greeted with the excitement which such statements once attracted in the media. The story did however appear in Europe - perhaps they remembered Paul Keating regaling them about a republic and a new flag, while offering to redesign Berlin.
Unwisely, Rudd resorted to the head of state argument, which failed in 1999. Indeed the leading republican constitutional lawyer, Professor George Winterton, has slammed it as “arid” and “irrelevant”. Monarchists have always insisted that this is a diplomatic term any way and that is how the Govenor-General is received overseas.
But now they have found a silver bullet in an authoritative High Court judgment which uses the term “constitutional head of state” and describes the G-G as the “constitutional head of the Commonwealth”. And presiding over the court was none other than the brilliant lawyer who produced the first draft of the Constitution, Sir Samuel Griffith. Each of the other judges were also leading founding fathers. The argument that the G-G is not head of state has been dealt a mortal blow.
As to the model, Rudd doesn’t seem to appreciate that the direct elect model is anathema to most conservative republicans, including Bob Carr, Professor Greg Craven and Malcolm Turnbull. The problem is that the G-G has vast powers, only tempered by the conventions which surround the Crown. Take the Crown away, and you have an office in which Charles de Gaulle would have been comfortable.
Paul Keating and Gareth Evans laboured for long to codify the reserve powers, eventually throwing up their arms and giving it away as impossible. Yet Rudd says he is “relaxed” about direct election. Relaxed about making the country ungovernable? On this fundamental issue, he has clearly not done his homework.
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