As if he did not have enough problems, Joe Hockey has just created another one for himself and his colleagues. His agreement – announced by Peter FitzSimons, chair of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) – to convene with Labor senator Katy Gallagher a new parliamentary friendship group pushing for a republic is extraordinary.
This is not because the cause is wrong. Australia should have had a republic after 1999, but instead the referendum was defeated by divisions within the Coalition government, including Prime Minister John Howard’s opposition, and fracturing in the republican camp.
It can hardly have slipped Hockey’s mind that Tony Abbott was one of the most active opponents, while Malcolm Turnbull spearheaded the republic cause.
Hockey’s signing up for the friendship group role – not just membership but as joint head – will highlight the split among ministers on this issue, and especially put on the spot Turnbull, whose inclination has been to kick the matter beyond the Queen’s reign and say as little as possible about it.
The republic is among Bill Shorten’s second-tier issues. He puts it as one of “two major priorities for constitutional change” – the other being the Indigenous recognition referendum.
“I don’t believe we have to wait for a change of monarch to renew the republic debate,” Shorten told the Lionel Bowen dinner in June.
Shorten said there would be complex legal, constitutional and policy questions involved. “But our ultimate goal should be to lay out a clear process, choosing the right sequence and combination of options such as:
a constitutional convention;
a plebiscite, to gauge popular support and to choose the preferred model; and
a referendum to enact the change.”
Shorten couldn’t have anticipated that he would be able to claim as a public ally one of the government’s most senior ministers.
Hockey’s willingness to co-chair the parliamentary group seems to have come as a surprise even to those around him. It smacks of saying yes in an unthinking moment to journalist and author FitzSimons, an old mate.
Hockey’s spokeswoman said that Hockey had “long advocated his views” on the subject. “They are a matter of public record. Those views haven’t changed,” she said.
It’s one thing to have long-held and known views. It’s another to take up a flag for them just now, especially when they have nothing to do with your portfolio. Imagine if it had been Turnbull who had agreed to be co-chair. The Prime Minister’s Office would have a lynch mob out.
Appearing at the National Press Club on Wednesday, FitzSimons said the ARM was launching a campaign for a plebiscite on an Australian head of state to be held by 2020. “We’re getting the band back together, and gearing up to ask the Australian people the question again.”
FitzSimons said that “Joe and I go back a long way. … I will allow Joe to speak for himself on the passion for the republic. He is only one of many, many in the Coalition with such passion, including Christopher Pyne.”
According to FitzSimons, Pyne’s passion on the subject outdoes even Hockey’s.
Asked whether he had asked Pyne or Turnbull to participate in the new campaign in the way Hockey is doing, FitzSimons said: “For me, it was obvious that Joe was the one because I know he’s passionate for it. I know Malcolm Turnbull is passionate for it. But you wouldn’t say ‘hold the front page, Malcolm Turnbull comes out in favour of the republic’. Of course Malcolm Turnbull is in favour of the republic. The fact that Joe Hockey, who is the number two political leader in the land [comes out] – that is newsworthy and engages the population, and it is absolutely clear to me that this has to be from the beginnings a serious bipartisan exercise.”
Yes, a successful push for a republic must be bipartisan. But there will not be any bipartisanship on the matter, as FitzSimons knows, while Abbott is prime minister. That makes Hockey’s decision all the stranger.