ACTU President, Jennie George on why she supports having an Australian head of state, and a yes vote at the referendum on the 6th of November 1999.
It gives me great pleasure to speak to you tonight and it is an honour to share the platform with Janet Holmes a Court who is a most persuasive advocate for the republic and a great Australian.
I would also like to congratulate the ARM for organising this dinner and in particular the women in the Victorian ARM – Felicity, Cate, Jenny, Jodie and Deborah who have put in such an effort in organising a great night.
I want to tell you:
why I support having an Australian head of state
why I support a yes vote at the referendum on the 6th of November
And I want to encourage all of you to leave this dinner tonight eager to passionately argue for a resounding ‘yes’ vote amongst your families, friends and workmates.
This is an historic opportunity which we are privileged to be part of. Not many Australians have had such a direct opportunity to affect our system of government. In casting our vote on the 6th of November we will be making history.
I reject the simplistic slogan being adopted by some monarchists ‘when in doubt vote no.’ I think it sells Australians short. For anyone to vote no because they don’t understand the full implications is an abrogation of our responsibility as mature citizens.
The fundamental issue is a simple one.
It is whether we, as Australians, can trust ourselves with all aspects of our system of government
- whether we are capable of having “one of our own” at the symbolic head of that system.
This is essentially a symbolic change – in practice we are independent from Great Britain. The Queen does not direct the Governor-General and the Governor-General carries out his role on the advice of the Government. This is not however, reflected in our Constitution.
Contrary to the assertions of monarchists, our Governor-General is not our Head of State. The Governor-General is the Queen’s representative.
That is the Fundamental Flaw at the heart of our Constitutional arrangements. This is the part that is ‘broke’ and needs fixing.
This is why we have embarrassed toasts to the Queen of Australia at official dinners. That is why our Governor-General is not accorded full diplomatic head of state status when he travels overseas.
The change that we are being asked to approve will in fact for all intents and purposes make our Governor-General our actual Head of State.
An Australian President will perform the same role that is currently performed by the Governor-General and will have the same powers as the Governor-General. The difference is that he or she will be representing us – the people of Australia – not a foreign monarch.
This is what this constitutional change is about. It is a necessary change. It is a timely change. It is a change required for our self-respect as a nation.
It is the final step in what has been an evolving separation from the colonial links that once firmly bound Australia to Great Britain.
I am going to vote for this change in part, too, because of my personal history – a history which I share with a great many Australians – which reflects why that formerly close link has weakened to the point where we now can say it should be severed.
As some of you will be aware, my parents were part of the great wave of post-war immigration to Australia which saw more than a million people settle in Australia between 1945 and 1960. They met and married in one of the many displaced persons camps that existed in Europe after the war. I was born in one of those camps.
My family came to Australia to seek a better life than the one they had left behind. A Europe and a Russia that had been devastated by the war.
They suffered considerable hardship in their early days here – making their way in a new and strange land. A country that at that time was overwhelmingly anglo-saxon – in terms of both its people and its social customs.
My mother worked incredibly hard to forge a life for herself and her mother here, in this, to them, quite alien and strange, new country. They were given an opportunity and they took it.
That wave of migrants, of which my family was a small part, and the millions more who came to Australia later – a total of 5.7 million all up – significantly changed the mono-culture that then existed. They have all contributed significantly to the Australia that we know and love today.
We now have one of the most culturally diverse populations of any country in the world – second only to Israel. Around 42% of the Australian population was either born overseas or has at least one parent who was born overseas.
Of the 23% who were born overseas, 14% are from non-English speaking backgrounds like mine.
Australia is a much more open and diverse society as a result. Our customs and social mores are now uniquely Australian.
Our Australian identity has been forged by our links to Great Britain and the contributions of people from many different lands as well as Indigenous Australians.
We are now united in our ‘Australianness’ rather than any links to any part of the rest of the world.
We are united in our commitment:
- to Australia as our homeland;
- to the Australian way of life;
- to those characteristics that we like to identify as uniquely Australian in particular our commitment to a fair go.
This ‘Australianness’ has been forged in a crucible in which these diverse cultures have been subsumed and from which a single Australian culture has emerged – which is all our own.
My life is representative of this common Australian experience. My childhood was spent in a distinctly Russian household in Sydney where I talked Russian at home, went to the Russian church and mixed with the Russian community. I then turned into the typical rebellious Australian teenager. I remember my Grandmother’s shock and horror when I bedecked my bedroom with posters of the Beatles (Paul was my favourite!)
From that background I was able to move to my present position as head of the Australian trade union movement.
I am a true example of the great Australian egalitarian tradition, to which unions have made a substantial contribution, which says that no matter what your background, your race, your gender, you should be able to aspire to any position in this country.
Putting that tradition at the heart of our system of government is what this referendum is about.
Now it is time that we put one of our own people – an Australian – at the head of our system of government.
A small part of the Governor-General’s duties involves being the arbiter in a constitutional crisis – I emphasise a small part.
By far the most important part of the role is as described by Sir Zelman Cowan, that of representing the nation to itself. It is that part of the job that I believe will only be fully realised when we have an Australian President.
Sir William Deane is showing us the potential for that. What Australian was not moved by his use of the very Australian symbol – sprigs of wattle – in commemorating the lives of those young Australians killed in the canyoning accident in Switzerland.
I support the model that is being put up for the reasons that Janet has outlined.
It fits our system of government.
It avoids the Prime Minister and President both having political mandates.
It ensures the primacy of the parliament.
All Australians will have the capacity to nominate a candidate for the Presidency through the Presidential Nominations Committee.
It ensures the Prime Minister is accountable to the Parliament in the choice of President and for the dismissal of the President.
I also support a yes vote in this referendum in the hope that it will pave the way for further constitutional change.
The sort of change that I will continue to advocate goes to the issue of a bill of rights. Australia is one of the few western democracies that does not have a constitutionally guaranteed set of individual rights. That is a debate we need to continue.
The important thing for us to do as a nation is to take that first step – let us become a republic.
Taking that first step will also assist the path of reconciliation in this country.
Australia’s Indigenous leaders have made it clear that they want to finalise the unfinished business that is a hangover from our colonial past. They have issues that they are seeking to have addressed by both the British and Australian Governments regarding that historical period.
They are also saying that the move to a republic will assist them approach a new and positive phase in relationships between black and white Australia.
Let us all now make this decision to govern ourselves completely and totally – practically and symbolically.
Let us celebrate our Australian identity:
not only in our literature,
not only in our performing arts,
not only in our great Australian painters,
not only in our great Australian scientists and innovators,
not only in our national identities
not only in our sporting stars,
but also where it matters most – at the very heart of our system of government.
Let us continue the great task of nation-building that all of our forebears have contributed to – our Indigenous Australians, the early settlers, generations of Australian born, as well as the great waves of migrants that have continued to come over the years.
This task of building a nation is one that is never finished. We can’t sit back and say ‘there it is all done’. We have a responsibility to future generations of Australians to continue to improve our system of government as we continue to evolve as a nation.
Let us take this step because we know in our heart of hearts that it is the right thing to do.
Let’s vote for ourselves on November the 6th.
ACTU President, Jennie George
Australian Republican Movement Women’s Dinner, Melbourne