Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey is set to lead a renewed push for Australia to become a republic, raising the ire of some of his Coalition colleagues.
Mr Hockey and Labor senator Katy Gallagher are forming a Parliamentary Friendship Group to revive debate about the issue, which has been effectively dormant since the failed 1999 referendum.
The announcement was made by Mr Hockey’s friend, and the head of the Australian Republican Movement, Peter FitzSimons at the National Press Club.
But the timing of the announcement has surprised some within Government, given the Coalition has struggled in recent months to maintain focus on its agenda of jobs and economic growth.
Mr Hockey’s Cabinet colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, said a renewed debate on the monarchy was not on his list of priorities.
“We’ve got important issues to deal with, like the economy and managing difficult international issues, the security of this country. I think those are the sorts of things I‘ll be giving my priority to,” he said.
“I think we’ve dealt with [the republic debate] in the past, I suspect public opinion hasn’t changed much, so let’s concentrate on the things that matter most to this country.”
The Treasurer supported the 1999 referendum and is one of the most prominent republicans in Government, along with Cabinet colleague Malcolm Turnbull, who led the Australian Republican Movement before entering Parliament.
Liberal senator and constitutional monarchist Dean Smith criticised Mr Hockey, saying it was “most definitely a distraction”.
“The priority for every parliamentarian is to focus on the national economy and on jobs creation, nothing is more important than strengthening the economy and creating jobs at this time,” he said.
However, Mr Hockey defended his decision, saying he had long advocated his views on a republic.
“They are a matter of public record and those views haven’t changed,” his spokeswoman said.
Fitzsimons: ‘We’re putting the band back together’
FitzSimons said in his Press Club speech: “The key thing I wish to say today is we are putting the band back together.”
“It’s the hope in the next five years, Australia can begin the formal process towards becoming the Republic of Australia.
“A republic that we deserve to be, an independent sovereign nation beneath the Southern Cross we stand, a sprig of wattle in our hand.”
In 2004, Mr Hockey described the then-Labor leader Mark Latham’s push for another republic referendum as a “distraction”.
“When you’ve got hospitals and schools and police and security as you talked about — the issues that really matter — including national security, Mark Latham is off talking about the republic and as an avowed republican, I don’t know where he’s coming from,” he told Lateline at the time.
In that interview, he said if another referendum were to be held “let’s get it right and let’s get it up”.
‘Minimalist model’ proposed for referendum question
Two reasons are often cited for the failure of the 1999 referendum: the wording of the question, and a brawl within the republican movement over whether the head of state should be elected by politicians or the people.
To avoid these problems, FitzSimons proposed a “minimalist model”, starting with a simple question to be put to the Australian people.
He said the question should be: “Do you support replacing the British monarch with an Australian citizen as the Australian head of state?”.
Under his proposal, the Prime Minister would still appoint a Governor-General, but rather than asking the Queen to approve the appointment, it would be signed off by a two-thirds majority of Parliament.
“When properly presented, my minimalist model — this is only my view — is the most likely to succeed as it addresses the foremost concern of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ crowd,” he said.