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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4066

Senator COONAN(8.27 p.m.) —I rise on this adjournment debate to speak about the forthcoming People's Convention and the regime proposed to allow half the delegates to be elected and half to be appointed. One of the government's key election promises was to provide an environment for the people of Australia to decide on the issue of Australia's head of state. The government has facilitated this process this year by initiating the Constitutional Convention (Election) Bill 1997.

It is an extraordinary phenomenon that, even though the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens express themselves to be avowed republicans, they are, nevertheless, critical of the very process that offers the best chance of Australia becoming a republic in the foreseeable future. There is a great deal, however, about the process to be positive about that I wish to address tonight.

Firstly, there has been unwarranted speculation that the parliamentary delegates will be stacked with pro monarchists by virtue of nothing more than the fact that the number of coalition federal and state representatives will outnumber those from other parties. This, of course, assumes wrongly that every such delegate is an entrenched monarchist and incapable of bringing an independent mind to bear on the issue of Australia's head of state.

Coalition representatives, just as the wider community, will have views from across the spectrum from those who consider that the symbols of our present system, if not the workings of our constitution, are outdated for a modern democracy, to those who believe that the present system has served us well and want to retain the constitutional monarchy, to those who welcome the opportunity to consider the issues carefully without preconceived positions. In short, there is a diversity of opinion within coalition ranks and a commitment to examine various arguments with intellectual rigour.

To assert that the coalition delegates, all of them, will represent a pro monarchist block, is both simplistic and insulting. The People's Convention is a historic opportunity to give a whole range of Australians from a variety of backgrounds right across Australia an opportunity to participate in the process of constitutional reform. The People's Convention is one of those rare occasions when party lines will blur and the process will have the underlying dynamic of ordinary Australians simply having their say.

The government has given an assurance that the appointed representatives will reflect broad community representation. One group I am particularly interested in is, of course, women. The government has said there will be gender balance in the appointed representatives. This is in stark contrast to over a century ago, during the time of the first people's convention in Bathurst, when women were excluded from participating in what was clearly seen as `men's business'. Back then, the participation of women extended to providing refreshments for the predominantly male delegates and participating, no doubt, in related conversations outside the space of formal debate.

The participation of women in the 1997 People's Convention will reflect the signifi cant and obvious contribution made by women to Australian society. A hundred years ago Australia was, in every respect, a colonial outpost. Back then our population was just 3½ million. Only two per cent of our population was born outside Australia and Britain, and our biggest trading partner was, of course, England. Today we have a population of 18 million comprising over 150 nationalities. Consistent with this reality, the government has committed itself to ensuring that cultural diversity will be reflected in the composition of delegates.

For really the first time in our nation's history, indigenous Australians will have an opportunity to contribute directly to discussions which will affect the future of how we are governed. The recognition of indigenous Australians as the original inhabitants of this continent reflects not only the need to address past injustices but also the need for simple equity in participation in the events that shape our national identity.

The government has ensured that at least 10 per cent of delegates will comprise young Australians between the ages of 18 to 25 years. Irrespective of the outcome of the People's Convention, young Australians will inherit the model prescribed mainly by decision makers of our generation. There are many complex and compelling issues facing our youth, from unemployment to unprecedented numbers of young people who are suicidal. For many young Australians, constitutional change symbolises a direction for the future: an assertion of independence and confidence about Australia's place in the world. It is therefore vital to include young people in the process and allow them to express their views on issues which will affect them in the long term.

Older Australians want and are entitled to hear from those who seek constitutional change that the values and traditions they hold dear will not be eroded. Some older Australians may see constitutional change as somehow reducing the contribution they have made to Australian society during their lives. This situation is not assisted by some advo cates of constitutional change who have sought to extend the simple head of state issue by seeing it as an opportunity to change a lot of things in the constitution and some of the most fundamental aspects about Australian society. By doing this, they have fuelled suspicions of a general population which has proven to be conservative on the issue of constitutional change. Only eight of 42 attempts to alter the constitution under section 128—referendum procedure—have succeeded. By concentrating only on the issue of whether Australia's head of state should change, the general public can remain confident the result of the convention will not result in an entire overhaul of Australian society as we know it.

Cultural diversity, a fair go, achievement through hard work and determination, egalitarianism: these are core values of our nation which we must sustain. They are also, I believe, compelling reasons for us to be questioning the appropriateness of having an Australian head of state.

The views of Thomas Jefferson on the issue of constitutional change strike a familiar chord. He said:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes to laws and constitutions, but laws and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind, as that becomes more developed and enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions changed. With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy, as require civilised society to remain under the regimen of their ancestors.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the underlying aim of the convention is to assemble a group of people with the capacity to make a genuine attempt to evolve a proposal that will be as good as or better than our present constitution—one that is clear enough to be understood for the purposes of either a plebiscite or a referendum, or both.

I think this is truly an exciting challenge. All Australians, directly or indirectly, by electing the delegates of their choice, will have the opportunity to participate in informed debate on the fundamental issue of constitutional change. I look forward to doing my bit to ensure the wider community is kept informed of the processes leading up to the convention.