Malcolm Turnbull on the eve of the 1999 republic referendum. Photo: Mark Baker Leading conservative backbencher George Christensen is now whipping up support for a republic (although with a twist). Photo: Andrew Meares
The move for an Australian republic now attracts majority support in both houses of federal Parliament, according to new figures from the Australian Republican Movement, with several senior ministers in support, as well as some surprising names from the Coalition’s conservative backbench, including maverick George Christensen.
Adding fuel to the issue, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for the pair to work together to “make new progress to an Australian republic”.
The new numbers, revealed on the eve of Mr Turnbull’s highly anticipated speech to the ARM’s 25th anniversary dinner, show a minimum 81 MPs who favour a republic in the House of Representatives, and 40 in the Senate.
According to the ARM, 58 MPs in the lower house remain undeclared or undecided and 11 are monarchists. In the Senate, 21 remain tight-lipped and 15 favour the status quo.
Peter FitzSimons, national chairman of the ARM, said the Prime Minister had a “unique chance to put the republican cause firmly back at the centre of the national agenda”. Mr Turnbull’s decision to speak at the dinner next Saturday marks a break from recent silence on the issue and a return to the movement that first put him in the national political spotlight.
“The majority of the public want it. Every premier and chief minister wants it. Now it turns out that our federal representatives agree as well,” Mr FitzSimons told Fairfax Media.
He said Mr Christensen’s position shows that “passion for the republic comes from right across the political spectrum . . . it’s not a matter of being from the left or right but believing that in the 21st Century, Australia can run its own show”.
Conservative backbenchers Michael Sukkar and former minister Kevin Andrews have also expressed support.
However, Mr Christensen has attached heavy provisos to his backing, including possible abolition of the prime ministership as part of a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature.
He also wants a head of state elected by the people, not politicians.
While an Australian republic is binding policy for Labor MPs, most Liberals who back change have also attached weighty qualifications to their support: many would only back a certain model, some believe there are more pressing economic concerns facing the country while others want to wait until the end of the Queen’s reign.
The ministers listed as being in the pro-republic camp are Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Energy and Environment minister Josh Frydenberg, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, Defence Minister MarisePayne and Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Ms Bishop, Senator Payne and Mr Pyne confirmed their positions on Thursday but Senator Birmingham and Mr Frydenberg could not be contacted.
In his letter to Mr Turnbull, the Opposition Leader welcomes the Prime Minister’s looming speech and argues that it offers the chance for the two leaders to take a bipartisan approach to the campaign for an Australian head of state.
“It’s time you and I started talking about how we can lay out a clear process and timetable for success,” he says, before adding a thinly-veiled jab at Mr Turnbull’s role in the losing campaign nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m sure there are other important lessons you learned from 1999 that will assist us in achieving success this time around. Just because this campaign failed doesn’t mean any of us should stop working for an Australian Republic.”
“People too young to vote in the 1999 referendum have children of their own now . . . Next year, children born in 1999 will be old enough to vote. This new generation deserves the chance to decide if Australia’s head of state should be an Australian.”
Mr Christensen, who sits in the Nationals partyroom and has crafted a reputation as an outspoken conservative populist, would only vote for change if it also ushered in a fundamental change to Australia’s system of government.
The Queensland MP said his radical model, which would rip up Australia’s current “Washminster” system and usher in one far more similar to that of the United States, would “give more power to the people we serve”.
” A renewed push for an Australian republic gives hope not only of having someone who is Australian and not subject to any foreign power as our head of state, but also that we can reform government to make it more representative and responsive to the needs and desires of the Australian people,” he said.
Disagreement over the proposed model is considered a fatal factor in the unsuccessful 1999 republic referendum, which saw the “yes” campaign – led by Mr Turnbull – fail to gain the support of the Australian people for a minimal model with the head-of-state appointed by the Parliament. The most popular alternative is a directly elected position.
To succeed, a referendum must be supported by a national majority of voters as well as a majority in most states. In the 1999 vote, almost 55 per cent of Australians backed the status quo and so did all states and territories, with the exception of the ACT.
A Fairfax-Ipsos poll conducted in February found 42 per cent of voters support becoming a republic while 47 per cent are opposed, a relatively unchanged result from a year earlier. An ARM poll in November 2015 gave the change 51 per cent support when the time comes for Prince Charles to become monarch.
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