There are few issues that manage to bring together members from both sides (indeed all sides, really) of politics like the republic. Tuesday night was a demonstration of this as a gathering of young republicans from the left and right took the opportunity to imbibe a little too much alcohol and argue the toss with Liberal senator Mitch Fifield and Nicola Roxon, Labor shadow A-G, who constitute two-thirds of the new Parliamentarians for a Republic.
As seems common in the early stages of debate, the discussion doesn't move far beyong vague generalities. Yep, we all support a republic, and yep, we want to involve people in the process. Just what republic and how we wish to involve them is a discussion for another time. There are conflicting ideas on just when the time is right. The most optimistic plan, suggested by Roxon, would see a referendum occuring the election after next (most likely in 2010). Other suggestions saw the referendum as a goal to be achieved within ten and fifteen years. Given the recency of the previous referendum, this cautious time line is probably closer to the mark.
Many of the lessons of 1999 seem to have been learnt. The objective at this stage is on building a strong and unified body for the principle of a republic. Already there is plenty of support for this position, and as the profile of the issue rises, so will those who vocally support it. The strength of this consensus is important once the specific model of republic is decided (however it is chosen). If the bonds amongst republicans are strong, then regardless of the model, all republicans will back it. If the bonds are weak, then the fragile consensus will fracture along fault lines. Back in 1999, the republican movement was sufficiently weak for some direct electionists to break off and join the 'NO' campaign.
Which is where we get to nights like this. Though they might only include a gathering of the true believers, they are true believers with multiple republican models in mind. If they feel a commitment to the republic now, they can be expected to carry on the battle come the referendum, even if their own preferred model is not the chosen one.
Of course, there are always those who won't play along - and I'm one of them. Should a popularly elected president be a part of the republican model which makes it to the referendum, I would have to oppose it. A popularly elected president would be too fundamental a change to our existing constitutional arrangement and would risk putting the wide brown land in peril. Though at heart I support a republic, the pitfalls of a direct election model would be too great.
And here lies the nub of the problem at building a republican consensus to withstand dispute over the model. It's doable, but tough.