Speech to Australian Republican Movement’s 25th Anniversary Dinner

December 18, 2016


Thank you very much and what a treat to be here in the Great Hall. This is such an amazing hall. Most of us who have been to Sydney University have done exams here; for those who did well in their exams, got their degrees here.

I’ve got one experience that may well be unique. I can’t see any other members of the cast here tonight but nearly 50 years ago I appeared in a production of King Lear which was held in this hall.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about the length of my speech but the drama teacher at my school thought Shakespeare’s poetry was so beautiful he felt that none of it could be cut. The production ran for four and a half hours. There is nothing Shakespearean about my address here tonight.

So my friends, twenty five years ago we founded the Australian Republican Movement with the same spirit that has brought us together tonight.

Patriotism - pure and simple.

Love of this nation above all others.

A profound commitment that every office under our Constitution should be held by an Australian.

We are citizens of a most remarkable country.

We seem to be living in an age when technology is advancing but tolerance, or mutual respect, is retreating.

Around the world, most bloodily today in Syria, we are reminded that peoples and faiths which had lived together for hundreds of years are now at each other’s throats.

And yet, here we have created the most successful multicultural society in the world - no comparable nation has so many of its people born beyond its borders or from such a diversity of cultures, religions and races.

Our values of democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect, a fair go, mateship are all consistent with the values of other democracies - but the combination, the Australian formula is unique – it is unmistakeably ours.

The cause of the Australian Republican Movement is a cause for Australia.

We do not diminish or disrespect the patriotism of those who take a different view, but we have no other motive, no other reason than love of country.

We look neither down nor up. We look to each other with respect and admiration and we say we are united and we are Australian. And so our Head of State should be one of us.

Tonight, I thank you all for coming here to honour the founders of the Australian Republican Movement and all of its members and supporters over 25 years.

Some of our founders are no longer with us - Neville Wran, Geoff Dutton, Donald Horne, Faith Bandler, Harry Seidler and Franco Belgiorno Nettis - but it’s wonderful to be joined tonight by some of the originals including Tom Keneally, Franca Arena and Geraldine Doogue.

And I want thank Peter FitzSimons and the national committee for inviting me and Lucy here tonight - although it’s unusual for us to be at a republican dinner where our children aren’t selling raffle tickets, as they did for so many years. And thank you all, so many of you, for buying them over so many years.

And thank you Stan Grant for your warm welcome to country and a reminder of another and urgent piece of unfinished constitutional reform - the recognition of our First Australians.

There have been so many great and warm and good Australians in our movement. Uncle Bob Hughes waving his crutches at Tony Abbott on the stage of the Town Hall. Or opening an ARM dinner with “welcome chardonnay sipping elitists.”

Neville Wran walking the corridors of the old Parliament House as we quietly stitched up one deal after another at the Constitutional Convention. I’ve been trying to channel a bit of that with the Senate recently.

Tom Keneally, my distinguished predecessor, as Chairman and leader of what he always described as the provisional wing of the Australian Republican Movement.

When we founded the ARM in 1991 we did not imagine we would be celebrating 25 years without a republic achieved.

Although it must be said that at the time, that wily Prime Minister Bob Hawke, suggested a good date for a republic referendum was 2041.

Of course, he would have imagined that would have coincided with his 20th term as Prime Minister.

But we always knew, and often said, that an Australian republic is far from inevitable.

Indeed history is littered with inevitable causes that never came to pass.

Only hard work, smart work, unrelenting advocacy will secure an Australian republic and so while the convivial surroundings draw me to an evening of fond reminiscence, tonight I will offer you my frank analysis and advice on how to win - because I know more than most how we lost.

What I am going to say is not influenced by partisanship or political advantage.

I am speaking to you as one of the founders of the movement, a passionate Australian republican and one who wants you to succeed.

But I also speak to you recognising that the Constitution does not belong to the Government, or the Parliament, or the Judges.

It belongs to the People. Only they can amend it.

And so those of us who propose change must approach our task with humility and respect for the people to whom the Constitution belongs.

Only 8 out of 44 proposed amendments have been carried.

The last mildly controversial one was in 1946 and since then a number of amendments with bipartisan support have been defeated - including the preamble amendment in 1999.

The formula as you know requires a national majority and in four out of six states.

Australians have proved to be constitutional conservatives. Our great friend and constitutional guru George Winterton once talked about Australia in constitutional terms as the frozen continent. A little gloomy, but none the less a useful reminder that constitutional reform is not for the faint hearted or the over-optimistic.

This conservativism is enhanced by our system of compulsory voting. A voter who is not familiar with or even interested in the issue would in a voluntary voting system stay at home. In our system they are made to vote and quite rationally will not agree with a change they don't understand.

As our opponents said in 1999 “If you don’t know - Vote No”

This means that for referendums to succeed you need to achieve a high level of interest and familiarity with the question. You also need to achieve a very high level of public support and the minimal level of opposition - as was done nearly 50 years ago in the 1967 referendum.

We also need to recognise that the media landscape has completely changed since 1991.

Back then the media was curated - in order to reach the people you needed to persuade an editor, a director, a producer to let you have access to their platform.

Media outlets sought to reach a wide audience so they could generate more advertising generally and so therefore sought to be reasonably balanced.

Now the mainstream - the curated media - is in retreat both financially and in terms of influence. People increasingly can receive the news, or what passes for it, that agrees with or confirms their views.  

These social media bubbles are fertile grounds for lies, or what is euphemistically called “post truth politics”.

As we saw in the last election, an audacious absurd lie can be made, exposed, denounced, its author humiliated but then successfully persisted in through direct digital means.

So one very important task for every political movement, including the ARM, is to better understand the new environment, anticipate the scares, rebut them again and again and creatively embrace those digital channels to tell their positive story.

Timing is absolutely critical.

The 1999 referendum was the culmination of the commemoration of the Centenary of Federation - this was a time for review and we were able to pick up that momentum and present the republic as an appropriate coming of age as we celebrated 100 years of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The vast majority of Australians have known no other Head of State than the Queen. She is so admired and respected that few of us can say - whether monarchists or republicans - that we are not Elizabethans.

I do not believe Australians would welcome let alone support another republic referendum during her reign. And as you know I have held this view for some time.

Indeed, during the republic referendum campaign when the direct electionists disingenuously urged Australians to vote “no” to the “politician’s republic” so they could have another vote for a different model in a few years, I warned that a “no” vote meant “no republic” for a very long time.

Regrettably my prediction was correct.

Let me turn now to the direct versus parliamentary election point. The rock if you like on which the referendum floundered.

The Australian Republican Movement model which the Constitutional Convention adopted provided that the President, who would have the same powers as the Governor-General would be chosen by a two thirds majority of a joint sitting of the Parliament nominated by the Prime Minister, seconded by the Leader of the Opposition. The logic was very simple.

Under our constitutional system the Head of State is a non-political position, acting on the advice of the government of the day but with certain reserve powers in extremis to remove and appoint a Prime Minister, but again to be exercised with scrupulous neutrality.

So if the job description is to be a non-political Head of State, the best way to appoint them we felt at the time, was in a bipartisan manner.

This exposed us of course to the claim that the ARM model was “a politician’s republic’. We were told that you can’t trust politicians – ironically most vocally by politicians.

As Peter Costello said, increasingly incensed at this line, “apparently you can trust politicians to set your taxes and go to war, but not to appoint the Head of State”. “The monarchist’s argument,” Peter observed “is that’s so important that’s got to be left to genetics and bloodlines.”

When the Constitutional Convention assembled in 1998 we saw for the first time organised groups advocating a directly elected President. Some supported it because they believed it had a better chance of success, others because they wanted the President to have more powers than the Governor-General.

A directly elected President is feasible. Indeed in 1993 George Winterton and I had drafted a codification of the reserve powers so that such a President would be confined to no more than the current powers of the Governor-General. Largely due of course to George’s scholarship that codification has over the years been looked at and regarded as a pretty good piece of work.

I think legally, technically it is possible to preserve the status quo of a neutral, non-political head of state who is directly elected in a legal sense. 

But the problem remains none the less that a directly elected President could, depending on the character of the person elected and regardless of his or her constitutional authority, constitute a potential alternate centre of political power to the Prime Minister and the Parliament.

Fraser, Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Beazley, Carr - the leaders of the time were all united on that point.

Indeed, a directly elected President would be the only federal official for which every Australian had the opportunity to vote.

A key element of the ARM’s strategy then and now is to secure the broadest range of political support and to minimise the opposition wherever possible.

Parliamentary appointment at that time had the advantage of being supported by leading political figures of right and left. It would be fair to say that it had the support of most of the Labor side of politics and a substantial part of the Coalition including of course people like Peter Costello.

It also had a good housekeeping tick of approval from former Governors-General and High Court Judges as being safe.

On the other hand a direct election model would have been opposed root and branch by John Howard’s whole government - as he said to me at the time, “there would be no conscience vote then” as well as being opposed by many of the leaders of the Labor Party.

Added to that we found that when the matter was discussed in groups large or small, support for a direct election quickly diminished when people understood that a directly elected President would almost certainly be a politician and a rival, if only for attention of the Prime Minister.

So in addition to a referendum being at the right time to be successful, the republican movement will need to have settled the issue of the model. The model presented to the public must be made constitutionally sound and also be one which is likely to win popular support.

The 1999 referendum itself while strictly a choice between the monarchy status quo and a President appointed by Parliament became in many respects a proxy battle with direct election, not least because so many of the direct election supporters advocated a “No” vote, allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And so many of the monarchists chose to slip into the clothing of the direct electionists at least for the purpose of the campaign.

We never overcame that fundamental fault-line in the republican camp.

So how do we deal with it?

In my view we would need to have an advisory plebiscite which offered a choice between two republican models, presumably direct election and parliamentary appointment. I doubt if there would be much support for a President with different, let alone wider, powers than the Governor-General – so the question would relate solely to the method of appointment.

This plebiscite is absolutely critical for two reasons.

First, we need to ensure that the Australian people feel they have chosen the model to be presented. Of course every member of the Parliament is elected, but we cannot be blind to the levels of cynicism about politics, parliaments and governments. If anything they are greater today than they were back in 1999.

Second, the arguments against direct election need to be played out before the referendum itself. By surfacing all of the concerns I noted a moment ago, the people will either conclude it’s not the right approach or be reassured that it can be managed. Either way the question will be settled.

Once the model is chosen at the plebiscite, the Parliament should then formulate the terms of the amendment in line with the people’s choice and present it at a referendum. If direct election is chosen, we can make it work; it will require much more detailed amendments, as I said earlier it is possible.

Let me now turn to the critical question of ownership. To succeed at a referendum, a republican proposal cannot be seen as a plaything of one or other of the major political parties.

Labor leaders in particular are always tempted to exploit this issue for political gain because they believe it divides my side of politics more than their own.

In truth they would always rather be Her Majesty’s Prime Minister than the Leader of the President’s Loyal Opposition.

And right now, in terms of constitutional reform, we have an immediate and pressing and bipartisan commitment of securing constitutional recognition of our First Australians. That task is challenging enough and Mr Shorten and I should not be distracted from it.

What Parliament needs to see is a strong grassroots political movement mobilising a substantial majority behind the republic. That must be delivered by the republican movement today, just as it did twenty years ago - not by the Government or the Opposition.

I know that the people expect my Government - indeed the whole Parliament -  to devote all our attention to the pressing issues of today - our national and economic security, health, education, energy security, infrastructure to name a few. It is a long list and each issue on it requires my attention right now.

Either way, the clear lesson is that you cannot succeed in any referendum – let alone one that goes to touchstone issues of national identity - if the proposal is not seen and understood by the Australian people as one over which they all have ownership.

Nobody must feel excluded.

But all of us have to be pragmatic in acknowledging that it is not something that keeps most Australians awake at night.

Today, if anything, it is more a slow burner than it was 20 years ago.

As I have said before – and this is the cold, unyielding practical reality - it is hard to see how this issue will return to the forefront of debate in this country during the Queen’s reign.

I concede that the controversy around the knighthood proposed for Prince Philip in the 2015 Order of Australia Awards may have stirred some passions. But I don’t think anyone should delude themselves into thinking this was the game-changer that would reinvigorate the republican cause.

And in any event, I have to report, knights and dames are no longer able to be awarded in the Order of Australia.

Nearly two decades after the republic referendum, are we any nearer that groundswell of overwhelming public support among a majority of Australians in a majority of States that would cast aside the doubts about the republican model, put to rest the fear of change, and assuage lingering anxiety about updating a system of government most Australians seem to think works ok? Whatever reservations they may have about the people actually governing.

That is why I say tonight, to you Peter and your team at the Australian Republican Movement, you have a lot of work ahead of you – a gruelling, demanding and often thankless struggle.

Those of us that founded this movement in 1991 will know exactly what that involves. I wrote on this in 1999. I suspect it remains true today:

“The ARM is not a well-oiled machine waiting to carry would-be national heroes into the history books. It is no more than a vehicle for work – boring, expensive and endless work. But it is that work, and the dedication of those who worked, that has got us this far. Nothing less than that sort of dedication will bring us to the republic.”

The less party political the republican movement is, the broader its base, the deeper its grassroots, the better positioned it will be when the issue becomes truly salient again.

It has to be a genuine popular movement. To proceed on any other basis is to miss the point of what happened in the 1990s.

If the republic becomes the agenda of this or that political leader, or this or that Prime Minister or Opposition Leader, it also becomes prey to partisan politics. And that way leads to failure.

We all remember Paul Keating’s ferocious advocacy of the republic, and I don’t doubt for one moment his commitment to the cause.

But when he unleashed both barrels in the Parliament in 1992, accusing outrageously the Liberals of cultural cringe and colonial subservience. Yes, he grabbed the headlines; yes, he energised his backbench. But for the ARM, this over-the-top diatribe was not the speech we wanted to hear.

Paul Keating’s support for the republic gave it a lot of profile, no doubt, but it made the task of forging national consensus so much harder. It was one step forward, two steps back.

What must not forget is that the most potent argument against us in 1999 was the accusation of the “politicians’ republic.”

And Rod Cameron sitting right there, he remembers that extremely well. That was the most potent case that was presented against us.

Bringing all of this together, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that success for the ARM in any future referendum will depend on building support from the grassroots up. The movement has a massive task of community outreach ahead of it – and it doesn’t start at Sussex Street or Menzies House.

So why should we be a republic? What is the pitch?

It is as I said at the outset, it is a straightforward issue of principle and national pride.

I am an Australian, I am proud to say so.

Our Head of State should be someone who can say the same.

Our Head of State should be one of us.

Our President should be a resident.

I take heart from your mission statement which I believe, provides the ARM a roadmap to success. It is about broadening your reach; it is about engaging with Australians at all levels, everywhere. It is about patience and endurance and, most of all, mutual respect.

It is also about hard work and dedication.

In your words, “House by house, street by street, suburb by suburb, we must make the case to our fellow Australians that we deserve one of our own as Head of State.”

“Right now, an Australian republic is not inevitable. But we can make it so by working together on this great unfinished business for our nation.”

You are on the right track, there will be unexpected obstacles along the way but great opportunities as well.

Keep the faith, advance Australia, up the republic.


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