Speech to the launch of
Parliamentarians for an Australian Head of State
Thursday 1 December 2005
House of Representatives Alcove
Welcome to the launch of Parliamentarians for an Australian Head of State. I’d firstly like to acknowledge Professor John Warhurst, the outgoing chair of the Australian Republican Movement, Senate leader Robert Hill, and my co-convenors Nicola Roxon and Natasha Stott Despoja.
Today we’re launching a non-partisan, cross-party forum for Members and Senators which is independent of any other organisation. The purpose is to maintain an awareness of the need for an Australian Head of State and also to keep the issue of an Australian Head of State on the constitutional agenda.
But I need to clear my soul at the outset, and start with a confession. I’ve actually been struck by royalty. Many months back when Mary Donaldson was here, the Black Rod told a few of us that Mary was actually going to take a short cut through the Senate lobby to get to the Great Hall. So myself and five of my Senatorial colleagues blockaded the entrance to the Senate lobby, to force Mary to say hello to us.
Ron Boswell collared me, and he said, “Mate busted. I’m going to report you to Republic HQ.”
I said, “Bozzie, mate, I don’t have a problem with Australian royalty.” I said to Bozzie, you could almost convince me if we could introduce some sort of contestability into the monarchy, where maybe Australians every five years get to choose which particular royal family they want Danish, Australian, British. Bozzie wasn’t convinced.
But I use that illustration to make a serious point. Symbols are important. Symbols do matter. That is why we got so excited about Mary Donaldson because she was one of us. We could identify with her, we could see a little bit of ourselves in her.
It’s when symbols fail to resonate, it’s when symbols become difficult to identify with, that they lose their believability. It’s at that time that we need to think about refurbishing those symbols.
In terms of my own party, it is actually possible to be a good Liberal and a good republican. The Liberal Party platform says that “we believe in a constitutional head of state as a symbol of unity and continuity”.
There’s that point again, about symbols of unity. And when something ceases to be a symbol of unity, it’s time to start thinking about looking for a new symbol.
Recent polls that we’ve had, some could be disheartened by. I don’t think we should be. There is no imminent proposition so we shouldn’t be surprised that the polls are where they are. We also shouldn’t be disappointed, because you never know what the catalyst for change will be.
The Berlin Wall who knew what the catalyst for change there would be. ATSIC five years ago, if you’d said that ATSIC would cease to exist, people would have looked at you as though you were crazy. You never know what the catalyst will be, and we certainly want to be ready for it.
We’re MPs. We’re parliamentarians. It would be sad and disappointing if we merely felt that it was our job to reflect opinion polls. We’re meant to be leaders. We’re meant to lead debate. We’re in the ideas business; we’re in the advocacy business. We’re there to argue a case.
One of the disappointments of the 1999 referendum was the tagline “Don’t trust the politicians’ republic”, as though it is possible to have a system to government without politicians. Unless it’s an absolute monarchy or a republican dictatorship, you’re going to have politicians. It’s entirely appropriate, entirely legitimate and entirely right that we as politicians mount the case, argue the case for the system of government that we think we should have in Australia.
Just before I hand over to Nicola Roxon, perhaps the greatest threat that we face to the cause is probably if Prince William visits the Slip Inn any time soon. We should be eternally vigilant.
But regardless of what any individual wants to achieve with a republic, whether it’s large change or smaller change, change is worth it. If only for the symbolism itself, because national symbols do matter.