In addition to celebrating the defeat of Malcolm Turnbull’s first exercise in nation-wrecking on this day, we can also happily remember the role a humble poet played prior to the failed republic referendum of 6 November 1999. It was Les Murray who was given what turned out to be the unenviable task of bringing panache and rhythm to John Howard’s doomed preamble – a veritable green-and-gold tracksuit of matching but daggy ideals of nationhood. The prime minister wanted ‘mateship’ in the mix but Murray thought it was “not a real word.” That was a good call. It would have been an embarrassment atop the Constitution. Some sacred things are ruined when they’re canonised. Geoffrey Blainey was also consulted. After predictably sour criticisms from some Aboriginal spokesmen, feminists, atheists and the Labor Party, the fruit of his labours was so manhandled that, according to Murray, the final version was “turned into mush in a process of political compromise.” This was a shame in the sense that such great patriots and minds – our finest poet and finest historian – were undermined solely because they weren’t ticket-holders in the Luvvies’ Union.
The bigger proposal was less interesting: “To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.” Its failure – 54.87 percent to 45.13 percent nationwide and carried in no single state – was a humiliation to Turnbull and the glamorous elites who so preachily campaigned for the cause. They consoled themselves ‘neath the blanket of inevitable-ism, of course, as republicans still do.
Given the House majorities and senators we’ve been ‘blessed’ with in the years since 1999, you have to wonder what sort of Presidents would have been horse-traded into Yarralumla had the proposal been carried. That’s in the outrage-fuelled, drag-em-down age of the internets, mind. Best guess: as newborn contemporaries, President Triggs and Twitter would have destroyed any prestige remaining to the office of prime minister.
What else has changed since the poll? Not the major antagonists, that’s for sure. John Howard would still go 15 rounds with Malcolm Turnbull on the subject. Not the sanctimony of the republican movement either. Still led by a privileged Sydney bore – this time wearing a bandana – ironically the dear old ARM is nowadays an almost quaint throwback to a simpler time. Part of the reason for that is the good fop/bad fop vim brought to royalism by William and Kate (for conservatives) and Harry and Meghan (for the rest). The saddest thing, however, is the sure knowledge that we will never again see a Murray and a Blainey at the drafting table of destiny. That was a grand opportunity, spoiled in the madness of envy and rush.