Don't mention the republic!

Well, that didn't take long. When provocateur-in-chief Paul Keating goaded Malcolm Turnbull into putting the republic issue back on the agenda for about five minutes it told you more than you needed to know about the wretched state of Australian politics.

At the first scattering of outrage Turnbull retreated in the knowledge this was an issue that would further destabilise – possibly threaten – his leadership, leaving the impression the country is hostage to a monarchist rump in his own party.

When a republican prime minister says there is "no appetite" among Australians for a republic, what he is really saying is that he and his fellow republicans in the Liberal Party (a majority of Liberal parliamentarians are republicans or leaning in that direction) have no stomach for a fight with in-house conservatives on what is a totemic issue for them.

Sampling opinion among Turnbull's senior colleagues – including republicans – the consensus is one of incredulity over his New Year's Day "thought bubble" on the desirability of a postal vote on a republican model.

This is not because Turnbull's colleagues disagree with him, rather they found the circumstances and timing odd. They have a point.

"Keating sure knows how to pick at a scab," said a supporter. "Malcolm has a thin skin when criticised for not having ticker. However, the key lesson for us in all of this is the need to focus on the economy. The economy is not an issue on which we can disagree, there are no internal factional issues."

So, for better or worse, the Liberal Party is bound to avoid contentious issues at a time when an internal consensus is gossamer thin. This is hardly a recipe for boldness in challenging times. Don't mention the republic!

Speaking of picking at scabs, the fair judgement is that Keating's description of Turnbull as a "chameleon" with "no system of prevailing beliefs" was coherently provocative.

  Illustration: Dionne Gain

Illustration: Dionne Gain

The PM returned serve by describing Keating's remarks as "barely coherent", and so the political year began, much as it ended, in a cloud of recriminations, if any but those paid to do so were paying attention.

In the midst of all of this an obscure Labor backbencher, Andrew Giles, member for the Melbourne suburban seat of Scullin, penned an opinion piece on The Guardian website in which he observed: "2017 has been a spectacularly bad year for Australian democracy ... Too often formal politics just seems irrelevant to many Australians."

  Provocateur-in-chief Paul Keating. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Provocateur-in-chief Paul Keating. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Giles has a point when he identifies a democratic malaise that is a product of a broken system that is becoming less and less relevant to a majority of Australians. He might not have said this directly, but lack of leadership on both sides of politics, including his own, is at the core of the problem.

The member for Scullin cites a useful recent poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Development that found: 77 per cent of Australians backed an anti-corruption commission; 58 per cent were in favour of four-year parliamentary terms; 79 per cent wanted a tougher code of conduct for parliamentarians [to keep the bastards honest]; and 57 per cent favoured a constitutional convention to "update the Australian constitution for the 21st century".

  Malcolm Turnbull was quickly on the defensive. Photo: Mick Tsikas

Malcolm Turnbull was quickly on the defensive. Photo: Mick Tsikas

This is the republic question, among other initiatives, including, preferably, four-year fixed terms to eradicate ridiculously short election cycles.

In view of this, the question could – and should – be asked: How does Turnbull know there is "no appetite" for a republic twenty years after a failed referendum – due partly to a fractured campaign over which he presided – when Australian demographics have changed dramatically?

In 1999 around 22 per cent of the population was born overseas with a weighting towards the mother country. By last year's census more than 26 per cent were born outside the country (or 49 per cent if you include one or both parents born overseas).

Easily the fastest growing demographics include people of Chinese and Indian origin. As it happened, India became a sovereign republic within the Commonwealth, on Australia Day, January 26, 1950.

The wheels have not fallen off the world's largest democracy in the meantime.

This returns us to the domestic debate. Turnbull advances – then withdraws hastily – an idea for a postal ballot on the sort of model Australians might favour.

The choice would be between a directly-elected president, or minimalist model in which an "electoral college" of Parliament meets to select a consensus candidate.

Labor's proposes a plebiscite in the first term of a Labor government to pose a simple yes-or-no question: "Do you support an Australian Republic with an Australian Head of State."

Once a vote in favour is secured in this Labor process, the modalities of the sort of republic envisaged would be worked out to be put to the people in a referendum.

Labor's proposal would seem superior since it would avoid corrosive argument about competing models with a directly elected president.

What should happen? Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten should forge a consensus around the question of whether Australians want a republic with an Australian head of state, pure and simple.

Do I think this will occur barring unforeseen developments like the Queen toppling off her perch? No! Sometimes, you despair.