Bill's Speeches

ADDRESS TO LIONEL BOWEN DINNER

ADDRESS TO LIONEL BOWEN DINNER

 

SYDNEY

 

THURSDAY, 11 JUNE 2015

 

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
Members of the Bowen family, Matt Thistlethwaite, state and local colleagues.
Friends, one and all.
It’s an honour to be here tonight, among true believers, in Lionel Bowen heartland, to celebrate his life and legacy.
Some people in public life represent their electorate’s wishes, others embody their community’s values.
For 42 years, as a councillor, the Member for Randwick and the Member for Kingsford-Smith…
Lionel Bowen could feel the pulse of this place, he knew it better than the back of his hand.
He and his wife Claire raised their eight children here in the humble Kensington home they loved, rented, purchased and stayed in right through Parliament and into retirement.
Lionel was proudly local, and proudly Labor.
He walked the hard road of working people.
The son of a single mother, who often worked consecutive day and night shifts as a cleaner to support her son.
A child of public housing, who left school at 14 for a job as a messenger boy – and put himself through night school.
And a Corporal in the AIF, serving in the Second World War for four years and coming home to study law at the University of New South Wales, under a Chifley Government program helping returned servicemen go to university.
When Chifley’s great friend and Australia’s great wartime leader John Curtin passed away on the threshold of the victory and peace to which he had devoted his every effort…
Acting Prime Minister Frank Forde told a hushed House of Representatives that Curtin:
“was always a common man, a man for the masses.
He strived and struggled among them, and even when he came to the highest place in the land – he was still one of them.”
Lionel Bowen was such a man.
Grounded, humble and steadfast.
He never forgot where he came from, or the opportunities that helped him get where he was, especially the transformative power of education.
He and Bob Hawke both shared a love of the punt, but they were also very different men.
Lionel Bowen once said that charisma was a brand of cheese.
And Bob Hawke is...Bob Hawke.
Their different personalities complemented, rather than clashed, bringing balance and stability to one of Australia’s best ever governments.
Tonight we celebrate Lionel Bowen’s character, and his contribution - and we launch a tradition that will endure.
As members and supporters of Australia’s oldest political party, we are all rightly proud of our Labor history and our legacy.
Yet, as Labor people, as agents of change and drivers of progress we know there is always more to do.
Flipping fondly through the scrapbook of former triumphs and polishing the trophies of past glory is not enough.
We must always strive to better the status quo, to include more people in Australia’s advance.
To continually modernise our economy, our society and our social democracy for the 21st Century.
To learn from Labor history – not just revel in it.
So tonight, I’d like to reflect on a lesson from Lionel Bowen’s time as Attorney-General.
In 1988, the Hawke Government asked the Australian people to take on what Lionel Bowen called:
“one of the greatest responsibilities and opportunities enjoyed by a free and independent people – the task of making and amending their own constitution”
Australians were asked to vote on four referendum questions:

  • A four year parliamentary term

  • ‘Fair and democratic’ elections

  • Recognising local government

  • Broadening the right to trial by jury, extending an implied freedom of religion and clarifying the right to fair compensation when property is acquired by government.


As Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen told the Parliament the core rationale for these changes was Labor’s belief that:
“The Australian constitution is, and must continue to be, a living and working document, relevant to the needs and capable of responding to the challenges of our own generation and generations to come.”
But, in the absence of a long public awareness campaign and without a clear, widely-understood case for change and in the face of an opportunistic and cynical Liberal campaign against change.
The four proposals were overwhelmingly rejected.
Question two, fair and democratic elections, garnered just 37 per cent support – and it was the most popular.
And barely 30 per cent of Australians voted for a clearer right to trial by jury, freedom of religion and protection of private property.
Michelle Grattan wrote that the cause of constitutional reform had been ‘set back a generation’.
Lionel Bowen went further.
He said that constitutional reform would not succeed until a ‘some new form of future civilisation’ came into being.
The biggest positive Bowen could find was the significant shift in the exit polling – was the increase in the number of Australians who knew the Constitution existed!
Twenty-seven years later, I believe there are two major priorities for Constitutional change:
One, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional owners of our continent.
Two, an Australian Republic, with an Australian head of state.
These are two very different challenges, two very different questions.
And there are different lessons from 1988 - and indeed 1999 - that we can apply to each of them.
But at their core, they spring from the same philosophical principle Bowen spoke of nearly 30 years ago.
Our constitution is “a living, working document”.
Our constitution should speak for who we are.
Our constitution should be a mirror and a window.
A mirror for our best selves, reflecting the qualities and aspirations we share.
And a window for the world, letting others see who we are and what we believe.

Recognition

If this is the test we apply, if this is the benchmark we choose to measure ourselves against…
Then we must end the ‘great Australian silence’ in our founding document.
We must recognise the traditional owners of our continent, in our constitution.
I believe the exclusion of the first members of our Australian family from our national birth certificate is a fault line we must mend.
I am confident this is the view of the great, generous majority of Australians.
I am equally confident there will always be a tiny group of Australians who will never support constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in any form.
There will be always be a small number more interested in railing against imagined ‘political correctness’ and re-opening the old wounds of the history wars…
…than playing a constructive role in our national conversation of the future of our country.
That’s their prerogative…and, I would submit, their loss.
We shouldn’t waste time chasing their support, they’ll never give it.
Our focus should be on crafting a broad consensus – across the parliament and around the nation – for concrete and meaningful change.
For surely that is the first, and most powerful, lesson of 1988.
Unless a referendum proposal has the support of both sides of politics, it is destined to fail.
For some time now, I’ve been calling on the Prime Minister to convene a gathering of Indigenous leaders – and I’m pleased this meeting will now take place on July the 6th.
I see it as a chance to move together, with new purpose, toward a referendum question on recognition.
A proposition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians can advocate, own and vote for with pride and a form of words we will put to the people’s vote.
Australia has been working through this for a while.
From the expert panel convened by the Gillard Government, to the Parliamentary Committee chaired by Ken Wyatt and Nova Perris.
But for all the good work and good will, for all the co-operation and discussion…we still lack a concrete proposal to get behind.
We’re still operating in a vacuum, filled every now and again with conflicting views as to the best way forward.
In such an environment, it is easy to suggest we adopt the path of least resistance.
Easy to say that support just isn’t there, that we should lower our sights.
But this supposedly risk-averse approach, carries a far greater risk…
We could end up advocating a change that offends no-one, challenges no-one - and inspires no-one.
A change that can be defeated by the most dangerous referendum argument of them all: if you don’t know, vote no.
It ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I believe we can do better than this - and we should aim for better.
I believe we can tackle the discrimination that lurks in our constitution, the ‘race powers’ that speak for an Australia long vanished.
And we can make the Recognition moment as uplifting as the Apology, as honest as Redfern and as unstoppable as the sand pouring into Vincent Lingiari’s hands.
I believe, if we can come together on a question…shaped by the voices and aspirations of Indigenous Australians…then we can deliver real, unifying, lasting and meaningful change.

Republic

Another way of thinking about constitution as a ‘living and working document’, is to imagine if we were gathered here to draft it tonight.
We would without any question, acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of our continent.
In all likelihood, it would be the first sentence on page one.
By the same measure, if we were drafting our constitution anew, our head of state would be an Australian.
We would say, as a people, our nation’s head of state should be one of us.
I had this brought home to me a little earlier this year, when a piece of legislation called the ‘Succession to the Crown Bill’ came into our Parliament.
Just in case you missed this exciting day, or you’re not fully across the detail…let me explain.
The main provisions of this piece of legislation were:

  • Ensuring the future order of royal succession would be determined by birth, not gender.

  • Removing the bar on succession for an heir of the Sovereign who marries a Catholic

  • Updating various other marriage provisions, to cover the Royal Marriages Act


For the record, Labor voted for the legislation.
We believe in the equal treatment of women in our society…so I suppose that includes the right of eldest born princesses to reign.
But all I could think was…why on earth, in the Australia of 2015, is our Parliament talking about the order of succession to the British crown?
It is because our Constitution came into being as section nine of an act of British parliament.
But 114 years later, our nation has changed, our place in the world has changed.
And our constitution should change with it.
For me, this is the great opportunity of the Republic debate: it is a chance for all of us to bring our Constitution home.
To vote our constitution into existence as an Australian document, for our times.
An expression of the sovereign will of the Australian people.
A vote – unlike in 1901 – where the voices of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are heard.
The truth is, we are no longer the Australia that bound itself to Britain, ‘to the last man and the last shilling’, a century ago.
We are no longer the Australia that Corporal Lionel Bowen came home to after the Second World War…a nation perched fearfully on the edge of a hostile region.
We live in a marvelous, modern, multicultural democracy.
We celebrate diversity, we are grateful to count people from every nation, culture, tradition and faith as our own.
We no longer hide behind the walls of ‘fortress Australia’.
We look outwards – we embrace the opportunities of our region, the centre of the most profound economic transformation in recorded human history.
And I believe we should go to our region and the world proudly, independently Australian – confident in our maturity and our identity.
Not borrowing a monarch from another country on the other side of the world, not trusting to a hereditary system for choosing an approved ruler, but running the place ourselves.
Like all Australians, I have tremendous respect for Queen Elizabeth, she has fulfilled her constitutional responsibilities with grace for many years.
But I don’t believe we have to wait for a change of monarch to renew the Republic debate.
People too young to vote in 1999 have children of their own now…and children born in 1999 will soon be eligible to vote themselves.
A new generation deserves the chance to have a say.
And the choice of when we become a Republic…should be our choice.
One of the key lessons from 1999 is we need a clear process, owned by the Australian people.
And an older lesson offers us hope here too.
After the disjointed failure of the 1891 Constitutional Convention, the Victorian John Quick came up with the idea of an ‘enabling’ bill, to be passed by each of the colonial parliaments laying out a clear timetable for the move to Federation.
Legislating the process created new milestones and new momentum for the ‘Yes’ cause.
Professor Anne Twomey has suggested a similar approach could assist us again – and I believe her ideas have merit.
Of course, there will be a range of complex legal, constitutional and policy questions to deal with.
But our ultimate goal should be to lay-out a clear process: choosing the right sequence and combination of options such as:

  • constitutional convention

  • a plebiscite, to gauge popular support and to choose the preferred model

  • and a referendum to enact the change.


All in a defined timeframe, all owned by the choices of the Australian people.
On both recognition and the republic, there will be people who say these are second-order issues.
Ideas that can wait for a better time, at a later date.
It’s not a new argument – or a strong one.
People said the National Disability Insurance Scheme could wait.
People said an Apology would just be empty symbolism.
People said universal super was a ‘con job’, Medicare, unworkable, the minimum wage, unaffordable.
They said the eight hour day would ruin us all.
They were wrong then, they are wrong now.
Constitutional change is not beyond modern Australia.
Our courts can interpret it, our parliament can offer it.
But as Lionel Bowen said three decades ago:
The ultimate responsibility for deciding, for or against change rests with the people.
It is not the politicians’ Constitution, it is not the lawyers’ Constitution; it is the people’s Constitution.” 
He was right then, he is right now.
Only we can make our Constitution truly Australian, truly ours.
So friends, let us celebrate the memory of this great Labor man, by vowing to take up the challenge he set down.
Expanding social justice, tackling the big questions of reform, letting our constitution speak for who we are.
A generous, confident, optimistic and open people…in a smart, modern and fair Australia.
ENDS
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