If the 1999 referendum, in which he led the “yes” case, had been won, he more than any other single individual could have claimed the mantle of the man who delivered the republic.
It would have been a huge and lasting achievement, whatever the subsequent years brought.
As it is, it’s a fairly safe bet that Turnbull will never usher in a republic. He and many others – though not Labor, which is more impatient – see this as not coming back onto the agenda until after the Queen’s reign ends. Whenever that is, achieving a republic would be no cakewalk.
The failed referendum was an example of how, if an opportunity is lost, it can be a long time before another comes.
Turnbull can point to the fact that the deck was stacked against the yes case in 1999. In particular John Howard, as the staunchly anti-republic prime minister, played a canny cruelling game.
But in the future, when the debate returns seriously and assuming there is some momentum for change, it will quite probably be a more complicated issue than last time, and potentially even tougher to get a yes vote.
In 1999, the model put in the question had the president appointed by two-thirds of the parliament – that is, by bipartisan political agreement.
Even then, there was a considerable push from some republicans for a popularly elected president, a division that undermined the yes vote. Next time around almost certainly there would not be a hope in hell of getting a referendum through with any model but one with a directly elected president.
The public mood is such that the idea of politicians having the ultimate say on the president would be a complete no-no – and there is no sign that sour mood will abate.
In 1999, public suspicion of politicians was already high. Turnbull wrote in his post-referendum book, Fighting for the Republic: “Many Australians who voted no, perhaps most of them, did so because they simply did not trust politicians to choose a president.”
A model with a directly elected president would be more complex than the 1999 one. The president’s powers would have to be carefully codified and limited. And as we enter a phase of increasingly populist politics, the opportunity presented by direct election could throw up a problematic result. That would raise the question of appropriate vetting processes for candidates.
To pass, a referendum to change the constitution requires an overall majority and majorities in a majority of states. Formal bipartisan support would not be enough. There would always be a vocal group of naysayers within the Coalition, as well as spread more widely.
Capturing the moment can be key for “landing” an issue. For a while it looked as though a promised plebiscite could achieve same-sex marriage quite soon, despite it being a compromise originally promoted by opponents of change.
The plebiscite was killed in parliament by Labor, Greens and crossbenchers, following opposition in the LGBTI community. The critics in that community talked about the risk of hate speech but, looking back, their strong opposition was probably also driven by a fear of defeat. That would have killed the chance of change for a very long time.
Although a plebiscite does not require the “double majority” of a referendum, the negativity in the electorate about almost everything could have favoured a “no” case that portrayed this as an elitist concern. Possibly the issue’s strongest “moment” was immediately after the Irish referendum, passed in May 2015.
Labor taunts but Turnbull doesn’t have the authority to simply bring on a parliamentary vote. Same-sex marriage has now almost certainly been pushed beyond the next election and who knows how far beyond.
On another front, recognising Australia’s Indigenous people in the Constitution used to seem a realistic proposition that could be brought about in a reasonable time. As prime minister, Tony Abbott even set an aspirational date for a referendum – May 2017, half-a-century after the referendum that enabled the Commonwealth to legislate nationally on Aboriginal affairs.
But now interest has waned and the timetable has slipped. There is no draft question. The Referendum Council, which is consulting about a question, doesn’t present a final report until June 30. There are sharp differences about how extensive the change should be, varying from minimalist acknowledgement to a strong anti-discrimination provision.
Addressing a Recognise function last week, Turnbull said there was a high level of public support for constitutional recognition. “It gives me great cause for optimism, because this provides a strong basis to progress to a referendum,” he said.
Yet on this issue also – where a double majority would be required – there would be no certainty of success, given voters’ mood. And that’s supposing agreement could be reached, with the opposition but also within the Indigenous community, on an acceptable question. Timing becomes a fine judgement – in his speech, Turnbull made the obvious point that we could not afford a referendum to fail.
It would be a miracle if a felicitous moment arrived between now and the election for such a referendum. More likely, for reasons of caution and politics, it will be put off until another term.
The republic, same-sex marriage and Indigenous recognition are all causes in which Turnbull believes. Yet each remains out of his reach.