If you are somebody who worries about climate change and believes Australia should be a republic, it has been a rough few days.
Tuesday last week marked the 20th anniversary of the failure of the republic referendum.
Monday this week made it 10 years since the Greens, the Coalition, Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding voted to defeat Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the Senate and end any chance of a consensus on energy and climate policy.
Both the republic and the climate policy calamity had common denominators. Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, as a pair, were one. Malcolm Turnbull and his political judgment was another. The futile pursuit of perfection was paramount.
Abbott and Minchin
Minchin and Abbott led the push to roll Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party on December 1, 2009, on the basis of Turnbull’s support for the CPRS.
Abbott supplanted Turnbull as leader and that was that as far as bipartisan support for climate change and energy policy was concerned.
A decade before, Minchin and Abbott both monarchists and members of the Howard government, masterminded the campaign to defeat the republic movement, which was proposing a controversial model.
A group of eminent citizens appointed by Parliament would present the Prime Minister with a list of nominations for president. The PM, in consultation with the Opposition leader, would select a candidate who would then have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of Parliament.
It was unwieldy but fail-safe insofar as it would have ensured that instead of Shane Warne or Kylie Minogue taking up residence in Yarralumla, someone more suitable would be installed as president with pretty much the same powers as the Governor-General – meaning they had no mandate that would conflate his or her powers with that of the elected government.
But the model’s clunkiness was also its downfall. The republican movement was split between those who supported the parliamentary model and those who wanted to directly elect a president.
Minchin and Abbott, with Howard riding shotgun, effortlessly drove the divide between the two camps. Abbott, to the chagrin of his colleagues, was even prepared to throw his own profession under a bus by urging people not to trust the politicians’ republic.
Denigrating politicians was a far easier argument to mount than contend the Queen should be head of state.
The No campaign even adopted the slogan of the direct-elect republicans and produced posters saying “Vote No to the Politicians’ Republic”.
The direct-elect advocates were played for fools.
Their message was to vote down the model on offer with the assurance there would be another referendum in a few years. Today, there is no visible prospect of a republic being revisited.
We have just been through a period of having avowed republicans – Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten – serving variously as prime minister and opposition leader and still no one was prepared to touch it, even with bipartisan support.
Turnbull and judgment
Some argue today that the best way to re-visit the issue is to hold a vote first on whether people wanted to become republic. If it is carried then decide the model. The misery of Brexit shows that is a flawed idea.
Turnbull, who was not in Parliament in 1999, ran the Yes campaign. He was defeated by Minchin and Abbott, just as he was 10 years later in the Liberal Party room.
The Yes campaign was not great and it left itself exposed to accusations the republic was the domain of the elites.
Tim Gartrell, who ran the successful Kevin ’07 campaign and these days works as chief of staff to Anthony Albanese, also ran the successful 2017 Yes campaign for same-sex marriage.
Gartrell said the 1999 Yes campaign for the republic served as a handy template of what not to do with same-sex marriage. That republic material relied heavily on endorsements of celebrities and millionaires.
“No wonder they lost,” he said during the same-sex marriage debate when he saw a copy of a Yes campaign brochure featuring Turnbull and Janet Holmes a Court on the cover.
The Yes Campaign for marriage equality, to the extent possible, sidelined celebrities and made it about everyday people. Apart from a sign-off from Ian Thorpe, there were no celebrities in the official ad campaign.
The perfect over the possible
The third and most potent common denominator between 1999 and 2009 was failure due to advocates of change opting for the perfect over the possible. The direct elect republicans voted against republic because they didn’t like the model.
On December 2, 2009, the Greens voted against the CPRS because they didn’t like the model.
Despite two Coalition Senators, Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce, crossing the floor to vote with Labor, it was defeated by 33 votes to 41.
Had the five Greens voted with Labor, the legislation would have succeeded by two votes, by 38 to 36.
The Greens today claim Boyce and Troeth would not have crossed the floor if it meant the policy was going to pass. This is a nonsense which overlooks there was no love for Abbott, who had become the leader the day before by just one vote.
Troeth confirmed this week she meant to vote the way she did and she would “do it again tomorrow” if given the chance to vote for the CPRS.
“At the time I believed that, with the agreement of both the major parties, it was the best opportunity to get legislated agreement on this issue, and would remove it from the emotive basket of issues where it still is today,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“Far more learned commentators than I have said in the 10 years since that it was the best chance Australia has had to put a reasoned and logical basis to the question of how we deal with it, and I can only agree with them.”
The Greens’ defence was exposed when two years later, they voted for Julia Gillard’s carbon tax, which was weaker than Rudd’s CPRS insofar as it gave greater exemptions for heavy polluters. That didn’t survive the change of government.
The take-out lesson of the past 10 days of reflection is that when it comes to big reforms in politics, take what is on offer because it will be decades, if ever, before you get another chance.
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