Bill's Speeches





MONDAY, 15 JUNE 2015


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the first law makers of our continent and I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

Prime Minister distinguished guests, one and all.

The authors of the Magna Carta were troublemakers.

The Magna Carta we celebrate as the foundation of our decent and civilised society, began as treason and subversion.

Eight centuries ago, a weak, high-taxing King, a King so unpopular there has never been another carry his name.

And twenty-five fractious barons, fearing the loss of their status, territory, feudal servants and even more of their money in taxes to pay for the King’s lost wars, converged halfway between the rebels camp and the royals camps, at Runnymede.

The Barons brought with them a document.

A ‘great charter’, on fine vellum, calfskin.

Written, in abbreviated Latin, with swan and goosefeather quills, dipped in ink made from a mixture of crushed wasp eggs, oaktree bark and iron filings.

This was no piece of elaborate calligraphy, stylised capital letters or fanciful ‘illumination’.

It was a practical, working document, a list of feudal grievances, 63 clauses long.

Some have long since faded into history – but others have echoed down through the ages.

Pillars of our justice system:

  • protection from illegal or arbitrary incarceration

  • the right to a speedy trial before a jury of one’s peers.

There was freedom of trade and commerce – the lifeblood of great trading nations.

Allowing widows to re-marry – the first, minimal, recognition of women’s rights.

There was even a single standard for weights and measures.

And at the very heart of the Magna Carta, etched into each word of those 63 clauses, was one idea.

One of the great enduring ideas in the history of our world.

The idea that a nation and a people could be governed and unified, not by an army, or the threat of force or fear of secret informants, not by a dictator or even a benevolent king.

But by, as Melvyn Bragg has put it: ‘a piece of writing’

government and society, liberties and rights…organised around a document and made to hold…by a piece of writing’

In England, this proposition was tested by Civil War and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and it spread across the world.

To America, where revolutionaries saw themselves as fighting for the rights enshrined in the Magna Carta, liberties they later guaranteed in their own bill of rights, specifically indeed the fifth and sixth amendments.

To France, through the philosophes of the Enlightenment, The Social Contract and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

To the United Nations, whose Universal Declaration of Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt would call ‘the Magna Carta for all mankind’.

And of course here in our home Australia, in the parliamentary democracy we have crafted in our egalitarian image.

The Magna Carta lives around us, even now.

On either side of this hall, in the chambers of our democracy.

Above us, on the roof of the Parliament where any person can walk, because every person is sovereign.

Out the doors behind you, in the High Court that interprets the constitution, upholds the separation of powers and treats everyone equally under the law.

And across the Lake, in the memorial to those Australians who died in wars fought to defend these very ideals.

On its 800th birthday, we salute the Magna Carta as a flickering candle, a compass, a guiding star, the true beginning of rights and liberties.

None of them given lightly, every one hard-fought for, down the generations and around our world.

And we must continue to fight for these freedoms, because they can be lost much more easily than they were won.

By the Magna Carta’s light, and its words, its defiance, and its gift of hope, we see the way.

Long may it reign.