ACTU President-elect Jennie George speaks on the ACTU’s policy on the republic and the issue of women and the republic.
Dr Con Castan, Queensland Convenor ARM,
Premier Wayne Goss,
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you tonight.
I want to talk to you about two things:
- first, the ACTU’s policy on the republic;
- second, the issue of women and the republic.
Unions And The Republic
The ACTU has taken a strong position in support of a republic since Prime Minister Keating initiated the most recent round of discussion on this issue.
At our Congress in 1993 we congratulated the Prime Minister for putting an Australian Republic so clearly on the political agenda.
We also at that time encouraged unions to participate actively in that debate and to ensure that working men and women are properly informed about all of the issues involved.
This is of particular importance given the level of distortion of fact and fear mongering rhetoric engaged in by those who are opposed to a republic.
It was for this reason that the ACTU launched its “A Working Republic” campaign on May Day in 1995.
May Day was an appropriate time for unions to publicly enter the debate.
It’s a day when unions celebrate the union movement’s and working people’s collective contribution to our way of life.
Unions have been instrumental in shaping Australian society through:
- the establishment of the ALP;
- institutions such as the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission;
- support for our unique social security system from the time it was first introduced to the recent changes involving the Family Allowance Supplement, etc;
- support for initiatives such as Medibank and now Medicare;
- establishment of community standards in relation to hours of work, leave entitlements, etc.
Unions were also centrally involved in the move to Federation in the 1890’s.
Many ex-unionist parliamentarians supported federation.
However, unions on the whole were concerned about the proposed Constitution and the linking of small States to the larger New South Wales and Victoria where quite significant industrial reforms such as shorter hours of work and social reforms such as the Factory Acts had been achieved.
Some union officials were quite prescient about likely future developments.
I’ll quote just two:
The Meat Union’s delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall Council, W.A. Bayst, was concerned at the dangers to democracy he perceived in the Federation Bill, and (with a rhetorical flourish similar to certain meat union officials today) predicted that the proposed High Court would:
” … be the fester of the Commonwealth, the tumour of corruption, equal in rottenness to the Supreme Court of America where your rich frauds will find shelter and your monopolists and your sleek and sly merchants will find confederates. Constitutional law will be the great whitewashing apparatus, where all your bung bank directors and building society swindlers will be made white, and recommended a knighthood.”
He, along with many others in the labour movement, queried the effect of federation on relatively progressive State governments where the new Labor parliamentarians were having some successes. In particular in Victoria, home of the eight hour movement:
“Victoria cradled in trade unionism, about to give birth to a newer set of ideas, high inspirations, broader hopes and purer ideals; about to spread her protecting wing more completely over her own; about to put on her statute book labour reforms that would be an eye opener to the whole world … must bind her interests up with the interests of West Australian whose interests are closely bound up with the ‘sacred’ interests of the foreign investor; that she must tack herself on to sleepy Tasmania; that the best planks in the platform of Democracy must be surrendered – equal representation of the small State with the large States.”
The powers of the Governor-General, the role of the Senate, the powers of the High Court and the hurdles imposed for changing the Constitution were all major issues debated widely and passionately by working men and women one hundred years ago.
The trade union leader, Ben Tillett, as published in the radical journal, Tocsin, exhorted a public meeting on the banks of the Yarra in 1898 to:
” … say that we shall not be prepared to hand our liberties at this stage of our development to either an irresponsible Governor-General, an irresponsible, but mischievous, Supreme Court, or an irresponsible and unrepresentative Senate. All the vices of class misrule are embodied in that Convention Bill.”
(Ben Tillett’s speech on Federation delivered on the Yarra Bank, 24 April, published in Tocsin, 28 April 1898, T.p.62)
He described the objective of the labour movement in terms of Federation as:
“If there is to be one destiny, there must be unity, there must be union, there must be oneness of aim, oneness of position, equality of the individual as citizen; there must be democratic administration.”
“We must have a share of sovereign power; we must have sovereign authority. But the only sovereign power, the only sovereign authority that a free people will accept, is the sovereignty of the people themselves and the sovereignty of their will.” (Ibid, p.67)
These are sentiments that unionists support today and by voting for a republic we will finally see this achieved.
Constitutional reform is particularly important for Labor Governments.
The history of Federal Labor Governments has shown a continuing concern by Labor to assert Australia’s independence and to seek to extend the powers of the Federal Government in order to implement progressive policies.
In the past, with respect to both pursuits, they have been hampered by the inherently undemocratic system of government entrenched in our Constitution.
In his policy speech in 1972, Gough Whitlam said:
“Our program has three aims. They are – to promote equality, to involve the people of Australia in the decision making process, and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people. We want to give a new life, and a new meaning in this new nation, to the touchstone of modern democracy – to liberty, equality, fraternity.”
(Brian McKinlay, “A Short History of the ALP”, p.138)
It is therefore deeply ironical that the Whitlam Government was brought down by the use of the most fundamentally undemocratic means.
Whitlam himself has referred to the Constitution’s:
” … total failure to make provision for the realities of our political system and what ought to be the foundations of the democratic process. It was the machinery of government under the Constitution that was shown to be inadequate … It was this which made possible the unprecedented actions of State Governments, the Senate, the Chief Justice and the Governor-General during 1975. These actions were all unconstitutional in the English sense, in that they were all breaches of long established conventions.”
(Gareth Evans, “The Labour Government and the Constitution, p.305)
It is therefore the responsibility of all Labor representatives to actively participate in the debate to remove those inherently undemocratic features of our system of government.
And unions have a role to play in informing their members about these issues.
As part of our “A Working Republic” campaign, the ACTU has been distributing Newsletters covering:
(i) Unions And The Debate.
(ii) The Minimalist Position.
(iii) An Australian Republic – What’s In It For Unions?
(iv) The Government’s Proposals.
(v) Selection Of An Australian President.
Our position in support of a Republic and broadly of the Government’s proposals was reaffirmed at the 1995 Congress.
We welcomed the Prime Minister’s historic statement on the Republic, noting this is the first time ever that an Australian Government has committed itself to “true national independence”.
We rejected John Howard’s approach of an open ended discussion on an expanding range of issues (but note, not including the progressive issues of national reconciliation, etc) designed to delay and derail Australia’s move to a republic.
We believe we will only get an Australian Republic in the near future if Labour is re-elected, but we won’t if Labor is defeated – the Coalition parties are actually fundamentally opposed to the change.
Now, with respect to minimalist versus maximalist position, the ACTU supports the republican debate being used to educate the community about a whole range of issues relating to how we are governed.
In this respect we have participated in the Government’s Civics education campaign.
We note the Government has encouraged a broad community debate on its specific republic proposals prior to them being put in a referendum in 1998 or 1999. The ACTU endorses a genuine consultative process including one relating to issues such as the Preamble to the Constitution, the rights of indigenous people, citizenship, and other issues likely to win widespread community support.
The ACTU will actively promote such consultation throughout the course of the present debate.
In any such debate the important issues encompassed in the Government’s proposals will also need to be clearly understood.
As Professor Cheryl Saunders has said:
“There is of course no such thing as the minimalist model. Instead, there is a range of options which can be combined in different ways to constitute a variety of republican models with a claim to be described as minimalist. Their common element is that they are confined to changes relevant to achieving a republic in the narrow sense. But within these bounds, the differences between them are significant. Which is the best and how that decision should be made are the real issues now for the republican debate. Far more important than a minimalist model is a good one.”
(“The Australian”, 30.4.93, “Can Less Be More For Consitutional Reform?”)
Women And The Republic
Quoting Cheryl brings me to my other subject which is women and the republic debate.
I strongly endorse the need for women to participate.
In Cheryl Saunders we have a senior woman, legal and constitutional expert who is a major player. She is also part of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation.
Another key player is Joan Kirner. Her work on the Centenary of Federation Advisory Committee and its subsequent report as well as public pronouncements on the republic are very important in this debate.
As Joan said in launching the Women’s Strategy of the Australian Republic Movement on 29 September 1995:
“There is no more important change to take place in Australian society by the year 2001 than Australia becoming a republic with a constitution that declares our independence, strengthens and protects our democracy, and enshrines our rights and responsibilities as citizens.
We must make it clear to the Federal and State Governments that this time women will not be excluded from shaping our national identity and our constitution in the lead up to the next century as they were in the last century.
We must get rid of the idea, once and for all, that not only is the State male, but our national identity is male and the process and content of Constitutional change can be dominated by males. Any reforms to our Constitution should reflect the process and the fact of gender equity.”
She focussed on the need to have a more inclusive preamble to our Constitution including reference to “equality of all before the law regardless of colour, race, gender or belief”.
These are issues that must be taken up by women in the present debate.
Another prominent woman in this debate is my friend and colleague, Sharan Burrows, Federal Secretary of the Australian Education Union.
Sharan and the AEU are conducting a major campaign relating to rights to education and the Constitution.
The AEU’s campaign is for “A Just Republic Not Just A Republic”.
Teachers through their union are calling for Consitutional guarantees for education for all Australian children and a strong and equitable public schooling system capable of delivering that guarantee.
This is linked to the broader notion of active citizenship and associated rights and responsibilities.
Other participants in this debate are considering how issues such as discrimination and equality are currently dealt with under our Constitution and how they might be dealt with in future.
According to Robert Orr and Guy Aitken of the Office of General Counsel in the Attorney General’s department:
“The concepts of equality and discrimination have had a significant influence on the High Court’s recent approach to Constitutional interpretation.”
(“An Introduction To Discrimination And The Constitution”, Constitutional Law Forum, August 1995, p.1)
They have referred to various High Court decisions to illustrate this point, including Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Wills where it was stated:
” … the general effect of the Constitution is, at least since the adoption of full adult suffrage by all the States, that all citizens of the Commonwealth who are not under some special disability are entitled to share equally in the exercise of those ultimate powers of governmental control.”
(Deane & Toohey JJ 1992, 177 CLR 1 at p.72)
In another case referred in this article, Leeth v The Commonwealth (1947) 74 CLR 31, the authors point out that two Justices of the High Court (Deane and Toohey JJ) “held that there was in the Constitution a general implied doctrine of equality” (p.10).
The authors of the article conclude:
” … there has been significant change in the approach by the High Court to the concepts of equality, discrimination and preference within the Constitution. The Court has moved from a narrow, introverted approach to a broader, rights based analysis informed by a range of sources. The issue of whether there is a general implicit principle of equality in the Australian Constitution is now a matter of serious debate.”
Without broadening the current republic debate to unmanageable proportions these issues of equality and discrimination do need to be understood and part of the community debate rather than of a mere legal, theoretical concern.
These issues are of fundamental importance to women, we have an opportunity as a community to say we support them as underpinning our Consitutional arrangements – we don’t need to leave it to judges.
In conclusion let me say:
- unions welcome the Government’s unprecedented commitment to a republic and to giving us a say about it;
- working men and women have a right to be informed on the subject and all of the issues involved in it and we hope to ensure they are active participants;
- similarly women must be actively involved and able to pursue issues that have a different impact on women;
- there is scope within the process laid down by the Government to pursue these and other issues and we will be doing so in the months preceding the 1998 or 1999 referendum;
- it is time, the Prime Minister said, for us to be truly independent and have “one of us” as our Head of State.
Address By ACTU President-Elect, Jennie George. Queensland Branch Of The Australian
Republican Movement. Wednesday, 29 November 1995.