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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1722

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (13:45): I congratulate David Morris on becoming the new National Director of the Australian Republican Movement. He is a former diplomat, senior political adviser and senior public servant and recently became the government relations director at the University of Sydney. I am extremely confident that David is the right person to prosecute the case for Australia to make the historic move to become a republic.

It is wonderful to see that Mr Morris has hit the ground running. Already, this week, he has published a relevant piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it he admits that the case for Australia becoming a republic has taken a backward step in recent years but that it is a temporary silence and the issue will not go away. He says:

"It's something the community should decide."

… … …

"People might want to call it governor general, they might want to call it president, we might come up with our own indigenous title.

"But the person who has that role should be Australian."

I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments.

The next great step in the growth and maturity of our nation is to reform our Constitution and government structures to allow our country to become a republic. As the father of two young daughters, I despair that they cannot aspire to be our nation's head of state. I am bewildered by the fact that we do not recognise or place faith in the ability of our own citizens to determine our destiny through our Constitution. Our Constitution is the written embodiment of who we are as a nation and how we determine our future, yet our current Constitution is a symbol of the lack of faith in our own citizens to hold our country's pinnacle office. We need to reform our Constitution. I believe it is time that Labor ignited a discussion and campaign in the Australian community for constitutional reform, with the ultimate goal of our nation becoming a republic.

Last year I had the opportunity to launch a campaign for the Queen's Birthday public holiday to be scrapped in New South Wales in favour of a day that celebrates who we are as a nation, as a people, and where we are going. Let me be perfectly clear. My proposal does not involve reducing the number of public holidays in New South Wales; it simply involves replacing the Queen's Birthday public holiday with another public holiday that is more relevant to the people of New South Wales. I believed then, as I do now, that ridding ourselves of this archaic holiday could be the first step in a new discussion on constitutional change in Australia with the ultimate goal of becoming a republic.

It was once a quaint notion to celebrate the birth of the monarch, but this day has no significance and is now outdated and irrelevant to the lives of average people in New South Wales. It would be of greater meaning if we replaced the Queen's Birthday public holiday with a day that had some significance to the community. This could be a day that we take pride in, a day that celebrates who we are, what we have achieved, what we value and what we believe in. New South Wales should take this important first step in re-engaging the community about Australia becoming a republic.

Our current structure, with the Queen of England as our head of state, in many ways is the complete antithesis of our laws and society. A good example is in section 116 of our Constitution. We are a sectarian nation. Our Constitution states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Yet this fundamental freedom, this important human right that is enshrined in our Constitution, is observed in every respect in our nation except in respect of the selection of the most important position under our Constitution: the head of state. Only the King or Queen of England may hold this position and only an Anglican may be the King or Queen of England. This is a clear example of the fact that the monarchy no longer represents our democratic ideals. Our Constitution no longer reflects our beliefs and our values.

We have also matured as a nation and come a long way since federation. It is time our Constitution and our head of state accurately reflected the growth and maturity of our nation as well as our future. We are one country, one continent, and our head of state should be one of us. It is time we placed faith in one of our own citizens to hold the pinnacle office in our federation.

I readily admit that if the question of our nation becoming a republic were put to the Australian people this weekend it would unfortunately be defeated. It would be defeated because, in recent times, we have not presented our case for reform. We have not made the argument as to why reform is fundamental to who we are and how we determine our future. I was part of the republic referendum campaign in 1999. It was a hard-fought campaign with many passions expressed about the reform. However, one of the problems of the campaign was that it suffered from the perception it was elitist—run from the boardrooms, think tanks and academic journals of our nation. It was not effectively argued in the places that count: in the suburbs, in the local workplaces, in the community groups and in the homes. It failed to grasp the magnitude of the task of winning a majority of votes in a majority of states. It failed to comprehend what a successful campaign like the Rights at Work campaign showed us—that local campaigning matters.

It is important that we learn from these mistakes. I did not for a minute believe that we would ever get unanimous support for reform such as this. No major change ever does. But this should not mean that we abandon discussion of an issue that is so important and so fundamental to the future direction of our nation. It is for this very reason that a key part of my campaign to replace the Queen's Birthday public holiday has involved the community having a say in what they would like to celebrate in its place. Suggestions have included a date that represents the first independent law-making body in Australia—the New South Wales parliament, sitting on 21 August to determine laws in its own fate—symbolising the day that we began to determine our own destiny, who we are and where we are headed, or simply a family day or a community day, a day for workers to take a break from their increasingly hectic working lives and spend some quality time with their families. I am not presuming to tell the community what a replacement public holiday should be for the Queen's Birthday. That is why I have launched a survey on my website to seek the community's views about a suitable replacement holiday and to give everyone the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

When our nation began the process of moving to federation it was New South Wales that led the debate through the constitutional conventions and public debate to see our country unite as an economy, as a society and as a federation. The time is again ripe for change. Our nation's constitution and our government structures should reflect who we are, our values, our beliefs, our laws and our aspirations. The road to this goal is a long one and we have already had one failed attempt. We must not fail again. To ensure success, we must again set out on the journey and learn from the mistakes of the past. We must engage with the community and argue what it will mean to make this change and why it is required. I believe that becoming a republic is a natural symbolic step this country must and will take in due course. We are one country, one continent, and our head of state should be one of us. We are a great nation, but to become even greater we must step out from the shadows and become an independent nation ready to lead, not follow, in this new and exciting global era.

Sitting suspended from 13:54 to 14:00