Address to The Age Vision 21 Millenium Series

2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998
Consumer Price Index – September Quarter 1999
October 27, 1999
GST Flexibility for Non-Profit Organisations
October 29, 1999
Consumer Price Index – September Quarter 1999
October 27, 1999
GST Flexibility for Non-Profit Organisations
October 29, 1999

Address to The Age Vision 21 Millenium Series




Is there an Australian who did not feel proud of the Australian soldiers in East Timor restoring safety, protecting lives and giving comfort to people who had been so brutally terrorised and looted?

When a humanitarian tragedy erupted after the United Nations ballot on 30th August it was Australia that opened its doors and airlifted 2500 people to safety in Darwin. When the United Nations authorised an international force to restore peace in East Timor it was Australia that assembled and led the force. Today thousands of Australian service personnel are putting themselves at risk and doing it tough in East Timor. This is a contemporary image of Australia: Major General Cosgrove in army fatigues sweating under a slouch hat in the heat of Dili.

Australias involvement in Interfet is solely on behalf of the people of East Timor. We seek no land, no tribute, no military advantage. We will leave as soon as we can. And this has been true of all our military commitments in Gallipoli, Korea, Vietnam, Borneo. We have never sought territory, military control, or war as a weapon of advantage.

We want to live at peace with all our neighbours and enjoy mature honest and good relations with them. Including our neighbour Indonesia.

One of the reasons Australia was able to help in East Timor is that we have a strong economy. Make no mistake. This will be a heavy financial commitment for our country. There are countries much larger than Australia that have been unable to make a comparable commitment. We have lived through one of the greatest financial crises of the age in the last two years. In our region Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Indonesia have all been in recession. And Australia has grown and strengthened and outperformed the region and in many respects outperformed the world.

When the Asian financial crisis occurred we were able to offer financial support to Thailand and Korea and Indonesia. We have just advanced loans to.png to help it stabilize a very dicey economic position.

In our region Australia has been a strong and positive neighbour.

The Australian economy is about the same size as South Korea with (46 million people) and nearly the size of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand combined (with 364 million people). We are about the 13th largest economy in the world much smaller than the United States and Japan – and about a third the size of the United Kingdom and France.

We have become a significant player in world financial fora. We are a member of the Financial Stability Forum comprising the Group of 7 nations (G7) plus only four others. We are a member of the newly formed Group of 20 nations considered to be systemically important to the international financial system. This group will meet for the first time in Berlin in December this year.

In the last two years our economy has outstripped most of the world. This is a sophisticated, prosperous, skilled nation. And it is still “young and free”.

So why do we spend time talking about National Identity?

Well we are not the only ones to do so. For example, Britain is having a prolonged and quite divisive debate on the extent of its ties with Europe. Should it adopt the Euro as its currency? This debate is in no small part a question of whether Britain sees its future as part of a European Union or a distinctive British nation. National identity in the European Union is a major issue for Britain.

Many of the Islamic countries are debating the extent to which their national identity should be framed by and governed by religion. Different shades of opinion are demonstrated by say Iran, Afghanistan and Indonesia and different opinions contend within these countries .

Other countries are wrestling with the question of national identity in the context of globalisation. The benefits from capital inflows the economic development, the rising living standards that come with it – mean that emerging countries are opening up to global companies, global products and global (mostly American) culture.

Australia has long debated this question of national identity from another angle. We have an indigenous people. They have an indigenous identity. Other than the indigenous Australians we are all immigrants. Our nation has its origin as a colonial settlement. Other nations in our region have been colonies Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor. But our nation began as an immigrant colony. We are not alone in this the United States is another example. New Zealand is another example of a predominantly English/immigrant colony. South American countries like Chile and Argentina are examples of Spanish colonisation.

Perhaps it is a feature of immigrants that they are always conscious that they once had roots somewhere else. And perhaps it is in this context that we look at National Identity. The Australian story is a story of immigration. And immigration is a story of generational progress. A person who is prepared to give up their home, quite often their family, and take a trip to an unknown place to start all over again is a bit of an adventurer. Quite often they do it for their children. They want them to have better opportunities. And for most of the people who have come here this is a land of opportunity.

I am not for a moment suggesting that there are Australians who do not have the opportunities they deserve the kind of opportunities we wish for them and should work to create. But I am saying that this is one of the more open, free and equal societies in the world. They get much worse comparatively.

Let me interrupt myself here. Someone is going to say to me that if we have a wonderful country with a wonderful history of peace and prosperity then why do you support constitutional change?

Well I support constitutional change not because I see it as a change of direction but because I see it as the recognition of a direction already taken.

In 1901, six colonies British Colonies adopted a Constitution to become a Nation. In 1931 Westminster enacted a statute providing its laws would not extend to Australia. In 1942 that was adopted by Australia. In 1948 Australian citizenship was established. In 1968 appeals to the Privy Council were limited. In 1986 they were completely abolished and it was made clear the United Kingdom had no responsibility for the government of any state. Throughout that period we have remained under the Crown although the Queen by legislation became the “Queen of Australia” (rather than “Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia and her other Realms and Territories”) under the Royal Style and Titles Act 1973.

But separate to these legal developments have been changes of sentiment. Our Governors-General were all English apart from Sir Isaac Isaacs (1931-1936) and Sir William McKell (1947-1953) until 1965. Since 1965 it has been accepted that the Governor-General should be Australian. Our National Anthem was God Save the Queen until 1974. And our last Olympic Games 1956 (Melbourne) were opened by Prince Philip.

Public opinion has changed. I do not think the public would regard it right for the Queen to open the 2000 Olympics. But the Queen is our Head of State. She is also Head of State in the United Kingdom. She would open, say, the London Olympics. Why not Sydney? What is different is that we have changed. The notion of monarchy jars against reality in Australia. In reality we now think of ourselves as republican.

I have been surprised how evident this has become during the current Referendum debate. The official “No” Committee has the slogan “Vote against this republic”. This of course is designed to make people think that they are not against a republic generally just this one.

But of course Monarchists are against all republics by definition. They support a Monarchy. And there is a respectable argument for monarchy the whole idea of it is that someone is above politics so above politics that they cannot intrigue for the office which is determined by birth that they become a symbol of National Unity, continuity, and in our case an inextricable link to the United Kingdom.

The reasons you do not hear this argument from the “No” Committee is, presumably, that research tells it that few Australians find it that persuasive. And if few Australians are convinced by it this confirms my view that somewhere, as times changed, we came to think of ourselves differently. Our identity is no longer wrapped up in monarchy. If you were asked the question: “What makes England England?” You might answer by saying “The Queen” or “The Monarchy”. You are unlikely to hear that answer to the question: “What makes Australia Australia?”

Now if I am right that sentiment has changed, we can ignore it or fix it. I happen to be in the latter camp.

Of course the principle argument in the “No” case referendum pamphlet is that people should “Vote No to the politicians republic”. Again you will note that it is not a republic they are against just a politicians one. As if there is some other republic around the corner that will shortly materialize without politicians. Now this statement would really test well in the research. As we know politicians rate lowly on scales of integrity. And to identify something with them is to really blacken it.

The “No” case pamphlet is written by politicians however. And in this case they are urging you not to trust them. It is rather delicious to think about whether you can rely on such a statement!

But I find it a curious way of defending the current constitution. The current constitution is written to put power in the hands of elected members of Parliament power to make laws for treaties, for tax, for spending taxes, power to form Governments, to send troops to war.

This current constitution puts very considerable powers in the hands of the elected representative. It strikes me passing strange that in defence of that constitution you would cite the untrustworthiness of the elected representative. It is a little like the famous statement made during the Vietnam War “we had to burn the village to save it”.

Perhaps on both sides of the argument silly claims have been made. And I think a lot of the claimed weaknesses in this model arise from the fact that it replicates the existing system. It is easy to dismiss a President under this model because it is so easy to dismiss a Governor-General under the existing constitution. And this model was drawn (in my view rightly) to preserve the current situation the primacy of the Prime Minister.

So at the end of the day when I compare the existing system with the proposed one I see many similarities but one big in principle difference. And on the big issue I think we are republican.

It is not a question of how we want to change but more a question of what we have become. If I am right about this then a “No” vote on 6 November is much more likely to lead to identity questions than a “Yes” vote.

I think that a lot of argument will break out as to what a “No” vote actually means if it prevails on 6 November. Some will take it as confirmation that our identity is entwined with monarchy. Others will take it as a repudiation of minimal change and a mandate for massive restructure of the political system. There is likely to be a lot of dislocation amongst current allies.

I think that either way we must accept the result and move on. We have other tasks before us A New Tax System, welfare reform, environmental protection. We are about to start the second Century of Federation. We are well placed to realise improving living standards, more jobs, better healthcare and better opportunities for our citizens.

We must think about Australias strategic place in the world. The European Union comprises 15 countries, 370 million people, GDP of A$11 trillion and just under 40 per cent of world trade. It has free trade, and a single currency. North America has a free trade zone, Latin America is moving in that direction. WE must continue the work to secure our place in the free trade zone proposed by APEC in the Asia Pacific. We must continue our co-operation with neighbours in the region. We must keep our economy strong to take our place in the region and to offer opportunities to our citizens all our citizens to which they are entitled.