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Thursday, 6 March 2014
Page: 1959

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (10:22): I rise today, conscious of the symbolic importance of speaking in this chamber. We have heard contributions this week on issues large and small, from the future of Australia's biggest airline to the work of our nation's volunteers in festivals around the country. All members who have spoken in this place of the contributions of their communities know how symbolically important acts of recognition are in our system of representative democracy.

Symbols matter, and the symbols of our Australian democracy matter a great deal to our identity. They form a prism through which we see ourselves and through which we see the rest of the world. So it is important that these symbols represent the Australia that we live in today. It is also important that these symbols change over time as our nation changes.

I would like to examine three symbols of our nation today to demonstrate this. The first is the Australian flag. Our flag is a powerful symbol of Australian identity. Its place in the Australian consciousness is now so strong that to many it feels like an unchangeable part of our national identity, but if you look at Tom Roberts's iconic big-picture portrait of the opening of the first Australian parliament in 1901 you will see three flags in use: the Union Jack flag, the Red Ensign and the Blue Ensign. Through the early years of our nation there was confusion over who was permitted to fly which flag and when they were able to do so. As a result, the Australian Red Ensign was commonly flown by Australians until 1953 when Prime Minister Menzies passed the Flags Act 1953 and made the Blue Ensign the national standard. It is notable that our conception of something as seemingly unchanging and fundamental of Australia's flag has actually changed substantively over the last 100 years of our nation's history.

The second symbol that I want to discuss today is perhaps the most important symbol in our system of government: that of citizenship. The concept of citizenship, the right to be a full participant in our community and our democracy has also changed significantly over time. In 1901, down the road from the opening of the federation parliament in Melbourne, in Little Bourke Street's Chinatown, there was another celebration to mark the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York in Australia for the opening of the federation parliament.

The Chinese traders of Little Bourke Street decorated Swanston Street with flags and lanterns and a Chinese arch, with two pagoda-style towers, was adorned with a banner for the royal party, which read: 'Welcome by the Chinese citizens'. Unfortunately, despite their obvious civic pride, this banner was erected more in hope than in truth as at the time the vast majority of Chinese Australians were not Australian citizens. Before Federation, most Australian colonies passed laws banning Asians from being naturalised in Australia, and post Federation this position was formalised through the Naturalization Act 1903. No-one in this place today would deny that Chinese immigrants deserve the right to be recognised as equal Australian citizens. Yet it was not until 1949 that a legal mechanism to do so was introduced.

What these examples show is that the symbols of our nation and our system of government have naturally changed with the changes in our society throughout our nation's history. They give lie to the conservative claim that our national symbols, our democratic symbols, are somehow immutable and that the concept of what is Australian is set in stone. This brings me to the third symbol that I want to speak about today—a symbol that requires further political change in order to reflect the changes that have already occurred throughout Australian society. I refer to our outdated constitutional ties with the British monarchy.

Australia's British heritage will always be a major part of our cultural fabric. This is overwhelmingly for the better. Our Westminster tradition is a gift beyond measure for our nation. But as the symbols of our nation and our democracy have changed with society since Federation so too must the ultimate symbol in our system of government—our head of state. The push for a republic is not a repudiation of our roots any more than adulthood is a repudiation of childhood. The ethnically and culturally diverse Australia of today looks very different from the official white Australia of Federation. Is there any among us who would say that this is not for the better, that the Australia of the start of the 21st century is not a far greater nation than the Australia at the start of the 20th century? Is there anyone among us who is not proud of how far we have come as a country since the days of Edmund Barton?

If we can recognise that our nation has changed and changed for the better, we should also recognise that the symbols of our nation that have become outdated as a result of this change should also change. The British monarch is no longer the single thread that unites us as a nation. It is at best an irrelevance and at worst a symbol of our inability as a nation to recognise who we really are and who we have become.

I speak today to keep the embers of an Australian republic burning in this place, to make a symbolic contribution recognising and acknowledging that our identity as Australians is a living thing. Over the past 100 years, our identity as Australians has grown more independent, more diverse and more confident. It is time we had a system of government that recognised this.