Labor for an Australian Republic

There is a little fibro home in my electorate – 3 Marshall Street, Bankstown where Paul Keating was born and grew up.

I know Paul wouldn’t want it – but I think it should be protected and preserved like Curtin’s in Cottesloe and Chifley’s in Bathurst.

I think of Keating as the father of 21st Century Australia.

Our economy and the prosperity we all enjoy are largely because of him. He also changed the way we think of Asia and our place in it, and laid the foundations for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

A lot of what we are today stems from him.

And then there is the Republic – still unfinished business.

Keating was not the first to talk about a Republic. We have been talking about it for over 150 years.

Henry Lawson’s first poem in The Bulletin published in 1887 was a ‘Song for the Republic’.

It talked about “the old dead tree and the young tree green”.

At one of the early meetings of the Australian Federation Convention the idea of a Republic was described then as ‘inevitable’.

That was 123 years ago. And we are still not there.

In some senses it’s hard to understand why – it’s such a simple, uncontroversial idea – that the Head of State of Australia should be an Australian.

It’s a pretty simple idea. Hard to argue with.

It fits in neatly with our egalitarian ethos – that you should get to where you are because of who you are, not who your parents are.

It seems even more obvious today then when Keating made the case for a republic 20 years ago, given how much more intertwined we are with Asia today.

But it hasn’t happened. Support in the community is the lowest it’s been in 20 years.

What can we do to change this?

There are lots of things we need to do, but tonight I want to focus on two.

First we have to convince our own supporters. One of the great ironies of the last referendum was that the people who vote for us, Labor voters – were the ones who voted against a republic.

At the last election, not a good one for Labor, the people of Blaxland voted 62/38 for us.

In 1999 they voted 52/48 against a republic.

A lot of that no vote came from multicultural Australia.

If we are going to be successful we need to change this.

That means a lot of work in our own backyard to build the case for change.

The second thing I want to recommend tonight is a bit more controversial – we have to work with the Liberal Party.

I don’t like saying this – because they are the party of the past and we are the party of the future.

They are the party that wants to take health and education policy back to the 1960’s – and bring back Knights and Dames.

But we can’t do this without them.

We need leadership on both sides. We need bipartisanship.

If Australia does become a republic I think people will look back and see Paul Keating as one of its fathers. But this is going to require a lot of mothers and fathers.

There is a lesson for us here in what our founding fathers did.

The people who came together to create Australia, to create the Federation, didn’t like each other much.

Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton two of the leading proponents of Federalism hated George Reid, one of the opponents of Federalism.

One of the reasons Federation happened is because Reid changed his mind and because they worked together.

And that’s what we need to do. One small thing we can do in that regard is setup a bipartisan Friendship Group.

To show you how difficult the task we have is I asked the question on my Facebook page the other day – whether people think it’s time we had our own Head of State.

I got some interesting answers.

Lots of different views and lots of fears and prejudices for canny politicians like Tony Abbott to exploit and divide us again. And he will. Or at least he will try.

This is an easy issue to scare, confuse and divide people on.

That’s why bipartisanship is so important. This will only happen if we work together. Labor and Liberal. All major political parties.

For what it’s worth, I do think it helps if the changes we make to the Constitution are small. What Bob Carr calls the extreme minimalist model.

That is: you don’t have a President. You keep the title of Governor General and don’t make any change to how the Governor General is appointed. We just make one very simple change to the Constitution to say the Governor General is the Head of State. That’s it.

So there’s some food for thought.

We have a lot of work to do. In our own communities and with our political opponents.

I am not sure when Australia will become a Republic.

But I do know it’s not inevitable.

The last attempt should teach us this.

It also won’t happen just because of some event or anniversary.

It will only happen if we make it happen.

If we work together

And if, as Keating said, we “have the courage to see beyond what is, to what can be.”