ACTU President Jennie George explains what it means for Australia to have an Australian born Head of State.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on what is the fundamental issue at the heart of this Convention.
That is, the need for Australia to have an Australian born Head of State.
Whilst I welcome the format of the Convention in focussing on what sort of a model we might ultimately recommend to the Australian people I believe we must, whilst debating the various options, keep in mind that this is our goal.
That is, and I repeat it, to have an Australian Head of State at the pinnacle of our system of Government. Whilst this has important symbolic significance I think it is more than that. It does go to our sense of self worth as a nation to acknowledge that we want one of our own citizens to fill that position. It is appropriate that every Australian can aspire to it. And that it not be an hereditary position.
It is now accepted, I think, that the great majority of Australians support this change.
Certainly those Australians that I represent, as the leader of the Australian trade union movement, do.
As do those people who voted for me to come to this Convention as an elected delegate.
It makes sense that people should feel this way.
Because as the Prime Minister himself has recently acknowledged the current symbolism of having the monarch of another country as our Head of State is just too remote and inappropriate for Australia today.
Around a third of all Australians ~ 23% ~ have been born overseas. 13.9% of the Australian population were born in non-English speaking countries. These Australian citizens, together with their children have no links – either historical or cultural with Britain. I myself, am in that position being the daughter of Russian immigrants to this country.
This does not mean we, as Australians, do not embrace the historical, cultural and institutional links between Britain and Australia. These links will continue to be important as indeed they should. They have in fact made Australia the country that it is today.
I have embraced one of the most obvious British cultural imports – and one which I believe has been of enormous benefit to Australia – with my involvement in Australian trade unions.
The very foundations of the Australian trade union movement are based on British democratic principles. And our early trade union leaders drew heavily on British experience in establishing their own organisations.
It is our support for these democratic principles that underlies the strong support of all of the ACTU’s affiliated unions for an Australian republic.
This has been a long held sentiment going back to the earliest days of the trade union movement. Many prominent trade unionists were active in the debate that preceded Federation – though not as delegates to the Conventions.
At that time they expressed concerns about the role and powers of the Governor-General as well as the Senate, which it was at that time envisaged would act as a parliamentary chamber representing the States.
The views of trade union leader Ben Tillett, expressed forcefully at a public meeting on the banks of the Yarra in 1898 were typical. He queried the role of the Governor-General, the Supreme Court and the Senate. He went on to describe the objective of the labour movement for federation in the following terms and I believe these objectives are as valid today as they were in 1898:
‘If them is to be one destiny, there must be unify, there must he…. equality of the individual as citizen; there must he 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”. (Tocsin p. 67).
Since then, over the last century Australian workers have contributed much to this great country of ours. We have built the roads and railway tracks that link our communities. We have built the telecommunications and power systems upon which we rely. We have built the cities and the towns in which we live.
Through our involvement in the political, cultural and social life of Australia, Australian workers and their unions have helped shape and have enriched the democratic institutions and practices of this great country.
We now want to be part of what is a great historical opportunity – our move to an Australian Head of State.
This is an issue for all Australians. It is not just an issue for particular sections of the community – not just the literary and academic set. Not just the Chardonnay drinkers. Not just those who are politically active on either the far left or the far right.
It is an issue for all of us – for all Australians.
We, the delegates to this Convention have a responsibility to use these next two weeks wisely and well – we can’t fritter it away pursuing goals that are unlikely to attract the necessary consensus, however worthwhile. Nor can we throw up our hands and say the job is too hard.
Over recent times we have seen the debate move on to a consideration of models for an Australian republic and the business of the Convention reflects this progression.
At the outset of these deliberations let me say I have long been a supporter of broad constitutional change in a number of areas including having a Bill of Rights incorporated into our Constitution.
It is clear both from our own experience and the experience internationally that in a globalised and increasingly technocratic state; individual rights need additional protections.
However, let me say that it is important that we are realistic and set ourselves achievable gains in terms of the next two weeks.
This debate about a Head of State has shown how hard it is to engage the community’s attention in what might be considered abstract issues removed from peoples more pressing concerns.
This is not surprising given the pace of our lives in the 1990’s and our increasingly frenetic juggling of work, domestic, social, and personal commitments.
It is no wonder people place a higher priority on jobs for themselves and for other kids as well as other concrete issues like education and health care.
The current debate has also revealed a general lack of knowledge among members of the community about our system of government – and a consequent lack of confidence in addressing these issues. This situation must be rectified and this process has commenced the greater awareness of, and demystification of constitutional arrangements that is required.
Notwithstanding such difficulties people have indicated they support change to our current arrangements regarding our Head of State. About half of all voters have said they support change regardless what sort of model is put up. More have said they support change subject to an acceptable model being presented to them.
Going back to those broader issues that have been raised in the course of this debate I would say this. I have attempted to have these issues as part of the republic agenda. I know that a number of other delegates to this Convention also seek broader change at this time.
However I believe that we are not at that stage of community understanding which is necessary in order to progress these issues. There just is not sufficient knowledge about the pros and cons of having a Bill of Rights constitutionally entrenched. We need to have a much –broader and longer community conversation about what sort of rights would need to be included and the ramifications of their inclusion.
In particular, in the Australian context we need to look carefully at how individual rights can be protected without detracting from the traditional acceptance in our community of personal restrictions as necessary for the common good. A small example of this is our acceptance of compulsory seat belts and breath testing of drivers on our roads.
I think it is important that these issues are raised and the debate about them continued over the coming months or even years – as long as it takes to build that level of knowledge and support required for a broad consensus to emerge.
Consensus is however, closer in relation to the Head of State issue because it is a concept whose time has come. It is just plan common sense to have one of our own as our Head of State.
As I said, it is our task over the next two weeks to present a workable model about that specific issue.
Consistent with the Australian Republican Movement platform I support selection of our Head of State through a vote of the Federal Parliament.
I believe this model sits best with the win goals of enhancing our system of representative government and involving the community in the selection process.
Whilst I understand the democratic sentiment which underlies support for the direct election model I believe there are grave dangers in adopting this method of selection for our Head of State.
First it would necessarily result in a politicising of the selection process with the political parties supporting their respective candidates. We would end up with a politicised office of Head of State. This would be a direct threat to the primacy of Parliament in our system of Government.
We must continue to have a single source of political power in this country (I am taking about the federal system here which does not include the States and Territories). And this must remain the Federal Parliament.
To have an elected Head of State means that our system of government will certainly change. Whether that change occurs gradually or immediately it will occur, if that system is adopted.
You can’t give a person an overwhelming political mandate which is the consequence of a direct election and expect that not to carry some weight in the community. And that applies whether or not the powers are clearly codified and restricted.
The issue of codification is of course recognised by all as critical in the event of a direct election model.
Through the parliamentary selection model the community is still involved through their direct election of their parliamentary representatives who will be voting for the Head of State.
I know there is a deep cynicism in the community about the representative nature of the political process. Many in the community feel that this has been distorted by party politics. We wonder about the effects of globalisation, technological change and economic imperatives on the political processes and the capacity of our politicians to effectively represent us.
But if we elect politicians to govern on our behalf we should be prepared to trust them with the selection of our Head of State.
I believe we need to invest more in our support for representative democracy.
The bi-partisan support required if a special majority, say two-thirds, is to be achieved should ensure that politically partisan selections are avoided.
The parliamentary selection model allows for indirect community involvement. This will be further enhanced if the nomination and consultative processes are open to the community. This detail needs to be worked out during this Convention.
The appointment model proposed by Richard McGarvie is the least democratic model and removes ordinary Australians from any involvement in the selection process and for these reasons I do not support it.
Finally, I believe that the parliamentary selection model offers the most likelihood of there being some gender balance in future appointments. Even if this is not made a constitutional requirement – which I know is being sought by some delegates – the obvious pressure that can be brought by women and women’s organisations to the nominating processes and subsequent parliamentary election should be sufficient to ensure the Parliament is sensitive to this objective.
Gender balance can certainly not be assured through the direct election model. Nor it is likely if the appointment model is adopted.
Finally I would like to indicate my strong support for a new Preamble to the Constitution. I believe a new Preamble is necessary to draw people to our Constitution by outlining in simple language our fundamental shared values. It should be aspirational and inclusive, reflecting a community consensus about who we are as a united people under the commonwealth.
I support the comments of Paul Kelly in The Australian on 11.12.96 when he spoke of the need for our core values to be debated and defined and enshrined in our Constitution. This is an appropriate task for this Convention and one on which we should be able to make significant progress.
I support those core values that Kelly has identified in the following terms:
first, recognition of the original inhabitants of Australia. As Kelly said this “is a moral imperative given the historical record .. and an opportunity to redress the racial bias in the original document”.
Secondly we need “an explicit constitutional commitment to racial non-discrimination as a cornerstone of our society”. As Kelly nots in his article “ It is racial values where Australia’s ethics have changed most over the past hundred years … Australia has moved decisively from a White Australia policy to become a multi-racial and multicultural society untied in the one nation. This principle of racial non-discrimination is fundamental to our new sense of identity. It should be recognised in our Constitution”..
To these I would add reference to equality of opportunity and non-discrimination on the basis of gender.
This debate is about both symbolism and the mechanics of our system of government. This debate enables us to look closely at what we want of our Head of State and what relationship that office has to our other political processes.
This is an important debate. The Australian community has charged us with progressing the issue. Australians have said to us – their delegates at his Convention – symbols are important and it is time that we had a symbol at the head of our system of government which is relevant to us – a Head of State who is one of us.
They have said to us work out a practicable model for republican Australia. One that will enhance our system of government.
That is the task ahead of us delegates. I am confident that we can meet the challenge.
I thank you for your attention.
Jennie George President, ACTU. Address To The Constitutional Convention, Canberra, February 1998. Elected Australian Republican Movement Delegate, February 1998.