IT’S hard for the rest of us to know just how serious the prime minister was this week when he suggested a postal plebiscite might be the way to kick-start a new discussion on Australia becoming a republic.
We know Malcolm Turnbull is still basking in the glow of a (surprisingly) successful same-sex marriage postal plebisicite which delivered him the mandate he wanted to change the Marriage Act in this country.
Despite initial concerns from all quarters, the plebiscite worked for Mr Turnbull on every level. It resolved the divisions on his own side; it put wind in his sails as he enters the second half of the political cycle; it burnished his scuffed credentials as a progressive Liberal; and, most importantly, it delivered the reform he wanted.
Now he wants to return to the well, but it is not clear how. In his impromptu remarks, he appeared to be suggesting a plebiscite or non-binding survey could be used to establish the favoured model for selecting an Australian head of state: either direct election, or some form of bipartisan political process.
But how could this question be put to the public without the prior question being settled first: Do you support the establishment of an Australian republic?
Is this a genuine new idea to get the republican conversation going again, or (as Labor’s Tanya Plibersek seems to believe) simply a thought-bubble designed to swat it away?
The difficulty is that the question of becoming a republic (unlike the question of changing the Marriage Act) could only be decided by a referendum.
So does the PM really believe the Australian public would support voting in a non-binding plebiscite on an issue that would then have to go to a binding referendum anyway? It sounds like a tough sell.
Mr Turnbull headed the Australian Republic Movement when the last referendum was held in 1999 so it’s not surprising that he is now being goaded by people such as Paul Keating over his lack of action in this area.
He had been copping the same flak over his failure to advance the issue of same-sex marriage after first becoming PM so that might explain why he believes the same solution should be applied to a different problem.
If anything, though, there now seems to less of an appetite for a change to a republic than there was in 1999. Any real progress in this area seems a long way off.