An Australian republic was a passion that united former Labor prime minister Paul Keating and current Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a common purpose from 1993 to 1995.
For Keating it was the centrepiece of his ambitious program to reshape Australia into a modern independent nation, as the 1994 and 1995 cabinet papers released by the Australian National Archives on Monday reveal.
In 1994 Keating had convinced the cabinet to fund an ambitious four-year $252m cultural package, announced in October that year as Creative Nation, designed to dramatically boost the arts industry and take Australia to the world.
The cabinet also looked at ways to encourage migrants to become citizens. On the international front, Australia took a bigger role in multinational free trade talks and Keating led the pivot to Asia as our most important international relationship.
But the republic was intended to be Keating’s crowning glory as prime minister.
It was equally important for Turnbull’s destiny. As head of the Australian Republican Movement, Turnbull was launched as a public figure.
The cabinet papers show that as head of the republican advisory committee to the government, Turnbull provided the argument for the minimalist model that was reflected in Keating’s submission to cabinet in March 1995.
According to the former deputy prime minister Kim Beazley, who launched the release of the papers, the submission was “an absolute gem” in its clarity and articulation of the arguments for the preferred republic.
Keating proposed a single nomination of the head of state by the prime minister, which would be endorsed by a two-thirds vote of the parliament.
This model would “safeguard the legitimacy, dignity and public respect of the office by obliging the government to nominate non-partisan candidates of high calibre; by providing a democratic process for involving the people through their parliamentary representatives … and by avoiding parliamentary debate on the relative merits of competing candidates,” Keating wrote.
“It would also avoid the risk inherent in popular election, that the head of state might be tempted to assume, or presume to take moral authority from a popular national mandate and exercise the powers of that office in a manner which could bring the office into competition with the government of the day,” he wrote.
“Such a change could see a substantial shift of power away from the respresentative power of the House of Representatives toward a more executive style of presidency, thus changing our system of government.”
Much of the submission is spent exploring how the powers of the governor general and conventions about how they were exercised could be transferred to the new head of state, without substantially altering them.
Keating was torn between codifying the conventions and the likelihood that doing so would dramatically complicate the debate over the republic.
The referendum was to be held in 1998 or 1999, with the republic to declared in 2001, 100 years after federation. But Keating, of course, did not have his hand on the tiller by the time the referendum was held. As he sees it, John Howard did everything to destroy the opportunity for the republic.
Keating is also highly critical of the media at the time, who he says saw little value in the republic. But Beazley believes the model chosen by Keating was doomed from the beginning.
“There was no chance that the public were going to accept the model that we put forward,” Beazley said at an event in Canberra to launch the release of the cabinet papers.
Polling in 1995 showed that 70% of people supported direct election – something the cabinet papers noted.
“Some pro-republicans can be expected to criticise the proposed approach as not addressing the wider issues of constitutional reform. Published opinion polls also suggest that any mechanism for appointing a head of state short of direct election will be controversial.”
Beazley said he read through the submission “with great sadness”.
“It’s an essay on change,” he said. “It was Paul’s ultimate big picture position, which would be the signature effort of the new government if we were re-elected.”
Keating’s Creative Nation statement in October 1994 left a more enduring legacy in the form of a serious injection of funds into the arts.
It included a new gallery for travelling blockbusters at the National Gallery, a permanent home for the National Film and Sound Archive as well $14m for the establishment of the Australian National Institute For Indigenous Performing Arts in Brisbane.
Arts minister Michael Lee and Keating tried to knock off the Museum of Australia planned for Canberra – a project Keating did not much like – and transform it into an online virtual museum, but were unsuccessful. The cabinet approved the continued development of the museum and a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia.
The cabinet also heavily trimmed Keating’s proposal for a program of “elite performance tours” to Asia as part of the government’s trade promotion efforts. But it did give the nod to $45.2m for a program to foster interactive multimedia production which would bring together text, photos, graphics and video.
“Multimedia has the potential to become the biggest information business in the world,” the cabinet was told.
The prescient program was designed to build capabilities. But most of its output was released on CD-Rom, just as the internet was becoming ubiquitous.