Bill's Speeches

SPEECH - AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC MOVEMENT - MELBOURNE - SATURDAY, 29 JULY 2017

*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I pay my respects to elders past and present.

It’s an honour to be here tonight, I’ve always wanted to open a Paul Kelly gig.

And indeed it is an honour to be here, we will be able to say we were the first to attend the function when we got the Republic back on track.

I am a son of Melbourne and I love being here here in this world-heritage listed building that evokes the spirit of Marvellous Melbourne.

Think for a moment about where we are. This marvelous building.

It was an expression of Australasian ambition.

  • One of the finest examples of exhibition pavilions, anywhere in the world.
  • Home to not one but two Worlds Fairs in the 19th Century.
  • A makeshift hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919.
  • Home for RAAF trainees during the Second World War.
  • A migrant reception centre in the 40s and 50s, where many new arrivals to Australia spent their first nights.
  • And latterly, home to car shows and boat shows and home shows – every facet of the great Australian dream.

And of course, in May 1901, beneath these grand ceilings, 12,000 of the great and the good assembled right here for the opening of the new Commonwealth parliament of Australia.

That moment, 116 years ago, was immortalised in Tom Roberts’ ‘Big Picture’.

For nearly two years, in a small room just upstairs, Roberts strained his eyes working on a painting he came to call ‘the 17 foot Frankenstein’.

269 individual likenesses were included, in painstaking detail.

Some sat for the artist privately, others offered generous sums of money in exchange for a more prominent spot.

When the great Tom Roberts wrote to various dignitaries, asking for their height and weight, the…generously proportioned…John Forrest gave the oldest political answer of them all: no comment. 

Many of the people captured in that famous painting, who sat where you sit tonight, had a hand in the Constitution. 

Then, they were almost exclusively men, Anglo-Saxon of course.

They were pragmatists and not given to soaring sentences about life or liberty.

To be British, to be part of the Empire, to be Austral-Britons, free men and women under the Crown – a people could not aspire to a higher estate.

Someone once said the most lyrical sentence in our Constitution reads:

lighthouses, lightships, beacons, and buoys

The genius behind the Australian Commonwealth was not reflected in prose, nor in an attachment to abstract principles, or revolutionary ones.

Our forebears merely took an idea and in the space of a decade created a nation. 

A democracy, democratically elected. 

All in about the same time it took to build the Sydney Opera House. 

Now of course, there were plenty of doubters and commentators who said it couldn’t be done and wasn’t a priority.

Others, I’m sure who said: ‘the Russians are coming’ or ‘we’ve got to beat the Boer’.

Let’s fix these things before we get on the second order issues, they declared.

And others who reckoned that having tried and failed before we shouldn’t try again… and some no doubt who thought the founding fathers should hold their horses until Queen Victoria had left the stage.

But the idea of Australia proved stronger than this.

When you think about it, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

That generation found the courage, the imagination, the heart to vote for complex change.

Australians repaid the faith in their representatives.

And I believe they will do so again, when we vote for an Australian head of state.

It’s been a busy Constitutional fortnight.

One Minister has resigned and two Senators have left the parliament because they had not renounced their allegiance to a ‘foreign power’.

And there’s another Senator in search of empirical evidence.

Two of them took it on the chin, the Minister blamed his Mum. 

Yet the laws our parliament enacts are all passed in the name of someone who will never be an Australian citizen.

The King or Queen of Great Britain doesn’t just owe an allegiance to a foreign power – they are a foreign power. 

Last month, the Prime Minister demanded that new migrants must ‘join us as patriots’.

He and the Minister for Immigration have repeatedly beat the drum for tougher tests, so migrants sign-up to Australian values.

Yet, fond of us as they may be, the British monarch can hardly be described an Australian patriot, or even a loyal citizen, and they will never have to sign up to our so-called values.

On the contrary, our allegiance implies that we have signed up to theirs.

This debate about an Australian head of state is not about a lack of respect for the Queen: no-one will lose respect for her as an individual or her accomplishments, as a result of this change.

The Queen and her family remain very well-respected in the United States – and they had a revolution.

I have tremendous regard for Queen Elizabeth and her service.

But I am not an Elizabethan…technically I’m a Victorian. But in fact, I am an Australian.

I know no other land, as Henry Lawson said a hundred years ago.

And I believe our head of state should be an Australian too.

And we should start now.

This not a decision that requires us to wait for a change of monarch, we don’t need to tip-toe around our future.

I’m confident Queen Elizabeth would farewell us with the same affection and good-grace she has shown every time a Commonwealth nation has made the decision to cut its ties with the monarchy.

  • We can vote for an Australian head of state and still respect Queen Elizabeth.
  • We can vote for an Australian head of state and still win gold medals at the Commonwealth games.
  • We can vote for an Australian head of state and recognise that Will and Kate have two seriously cute kids.
  • We can vote for an Australian head of state and still binge-watch The Crown on Netflix.

And we can vote for an Australian head of state without derailing the business of government, or the priorities of this nation.

The important national conversation about our Constitution has to start with the Constitutional Recognition for the first Australians – begins from a simple place: telling the truth.

Telling the truth about who we are – as a country, as a people.

Imagine we were writing the Constitution tonight…and it’s not a bad crowd to take on the task…front of mind would be enshrining a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.

No question about that.

It’s why the work of the Referendum Council is our first priority for Constitutional change, and something we seek to achieve in this term of the parliament.

And if we were writing the Constitution tonight – we would also, without question, declare that our head of state should be one of us.

We’re not starting with a blank page, but neither is our Constitution carved in tablets of stone - it was never intended to serve as holy writ. As dogma.

We who are entrusted with the leadership of this nation should not be scared of trusting the Australian people with the responsibility of improving our democracy.

In every generation, conscientious governments on both sides have made use of referendums to modernise the Constitution.

In fact, the gap between now and 1999 represents the longest break between referendums in Australia’s history.

Seeking constitutional change isn’t an anomaly or an exception – it’s this current period of drought, of inaction, of holding-back, this is the anomaly.

We can no longer allow the failure of 1999 to govern our future.

We should see Recognition and the Republic as a chance to bring our Constitution home.

To make it a more Australian document, more reflective of our times.

That’s what I want to talk about tonight, my sense of Australia.

About what makes this country different. 

My sense of Australia begins with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Just last week, we got new proof that Australians were making axes in Kakadu 65,000 years ago.

Our history didn’t begin in 1788. Our history – and how luck are we – includes the world’s oldest living culture.

That’s who we are.

And we are different because of everything that’s happened since 1788:

-       Convicts, settlers and squatters

-       Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and Irish Catholics

-       Explorers and goldseekers and pastoralists and trade unionists, the sheep’s back and the shearers’ strike

-       Lawson and Paterson, Caroline Chisholm and Mary Reibey

-       And the creation and development of our Federation itself.

My sense of Australia is an unvarnished view, where we tell the truth about Lambing Flat as well as the Eureka Stockade…

Where we learn about Myall Creek as well as the Merino fleece. 

Where we recognise the full legacy of our British heritage: yes, Westminster and Shakespeare, fair play and the common law.

But also a dreadful war we joined to the last man and the last shilling.

A Great Depression where British economists told Australians to spend less and British banks called in their debts.

And a sense of servitude that gave us no say in the conflicts we joined or the deployment of our defence…until John Curtin stood up Churchill and brought the 6th and 7th Divisions home to guard Australia.

After that war, new waves of migration changed us again.

Gifting us a multi-culture enriched by every faith and tradition from all parts of the world.

People who owe their loyalty to this land, to our values, to the unique Australian model.

A nation of our own mind and our own making.

Voting for an Australian head of state will in no sense write Britain out of our history.

It will simply acknowledge that a new chapter has been writing itself for decades – and give it a name.

A vote for the Republic will be an inclusive act. And it will be the defining act of our modern history. 

It will not create modern Australia, merely recognize the modern Australia that we love.

Voting for an Australian head of state is not about breaking with the past, or with our best traditions but rather voting for the facts of our contemporary existence, the reality of our nationhood.

Friends

It’s been a quarter-century since the Queen told Prime Minister Keating she would respect the decision of the Australian people.

Children born in 1999 are now old enough to vote.

Indeed, almost 5 million people who were too young to vote then are eligible now.

Nearly 2 million others who’ve joined us as Australians since then are entitled to their say.

New generations deserve the chance to shape the future of this nation.

I know an Australian Republic isn’t front of mind for everyone, but I don’t buy the argument that we can’t have this debate until every other problem in the nation has been solved.

In these fractious times, governments age quickly and lead short lives.

It’s no good leaving this to someone else – we must set a direction and bring people with us.

That’s why tonight I give you this commitment.

A Shorten Labor Government will take the first real step to an Australian Republic in our first term.

A Member of our Ministry will have direct responsibility for advancing this debate.

And – by the end of our first term – we will put a simple, straightforward question to the people of Australia.

Do you support an Australian Republic with an Australian Head of State?

This national endeavour is worthy of a national vote, indeed there is no other way.

Because this is not a simple legislative change the parliament could simply achieve.

It’s not a compromise driven by political cowardice, it’s not about judging other people’s relationships or their rights.

And if the yes vote prevails – and I’m confident it will – then we can move on in a second term to discussing how that head of state is chosen.

I’m open to how we do that, I’m open to the new head of state keeping the title of Governor-General. 

But what we cannot afford is to be caught in a referendum like the one we had before, where Australians were given one vote to settle two questions.

When a lot of people voted ‘No’, because of the model, not because of the Republic.

Therefore, the first, clear question we ask the people should be whether we want an Australian head of state.

And the debate should be about why.

About our sense of history, our sense of Australia, and above all, our future.

The Australian Republic Movement has an irreplaceable role to play – and you can start by signing up your friends and colleagues.

Because you and I know that national votes aren’t decided in rooms like this.

They are won or lost in lounge rooms and kitchens, in supermarkets and clubs.

At school gates and agricultural shows and bus stops and train stations.

Changing the constitution starts by changing minds – door-by-door, street-by-street, workplace-by-workplace. 

I’m optimistic – with guts and heart – it can be done.

Nothing turns Australians off politics faster than the sense that their representatives believe in something – but are too timid to do anything about it.

The overwhelming majority of MPs and Senators support an Australian head of state.

And this should not be a Liberal-National versus Labor debate - Fraser, Costello, Turnbull, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating are proof no side of politics has a monopoly on Australian identity, or patriotism.

It’s time we just got on with it. And we will.

In anticipation of tonight’s event, I came here on Thursday evening into this place.

There was just me and the cleaners.

I stared up at the dome and just below the windows, I could faintly see the four Latin mottoes, painted for the opening of the new parliament for a new nation.

If you can’t make out the words, let me tell you what is written above us tonight:

Beneath the Northern windows:

Dei Gracia. By the Grace of God.

Beneath the Southern windows:

Benigno Numine. With benign power.

Beneath the East:

Audere Supere. Dare to be wise.

And under the Western window, advice which echoes today:

Carpe Diem. Seize the Day.

How clever were the founders of our nation. Seize the day.

Friends, the day is still ours to seize.

Making our head of state one of us is a job for all of us.

And so, with courage…let us combine.

And so with faith in Australians and their wisdom…let us all begin.

And with pride in our past and hope for our future…let us all succeed.  

ENDS


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.