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Wednesday, 9 May 2001
Page: 26647


The PRESIDENT (2:05 PM) —Your Excellency, Mr Speaker, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Senators and Members meeting here today as the joint commemorative sitting of the 39th Parliament: I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, on whose land we meet today.

When the 111 members of the first Australian parliament met in this place on this day 100 years ago, 12,000 Australians, representing a fair proportion of the 3½ million people of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia, witnessed the event. Proceedings were illuminated by natural light alone. There was no amplification; each speaker's words carried only as far as the strength of his voice would allow. There were few cameras to capture images of the solemn and significant ceremony that occurred in this room—the opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

They met here because the Australian people, after more than a decade of debate and discussion, had chosen to create for themselves a country out of a continent, a nation out of their separate colonies. Thirty-six men, six from each of the six states, elected on the basis of a first past the post ballot, made up the first Australian Senate. They were all men. Only women in Western Australia and South Australia were eligible to stand for election, and no women were eligible to vote. It is well to remember, though, that there were many outstanding women of considerable influence in public life during the 1890s.

The founding fathers recognised that, for the new Commonwealth to be effective, those from the small colonies must feel as much a part of the new nation as those living in the thriving cities of Sydney and Melbourne. They wisely understood that the success of the new Federation would depend upon a Senate able to offer a balance to the weight of numbers in the House of Representatives. And so the first Australian Senate was born—inspired without doubt by overseas example but, from its inception, enshrining the notion of fairness so valued by those it sought to serve.

To further this principle, the method of election for the Senate was changed at the 1949 election to one in which senators are now elected by proportional representation. Perhaps this has been the most fundamental change since its creation. In 1975 senators were elected to represent the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Electoral Act has since provided for those senators to represent the external territories. The Senate has changed, and evolved, over 100 years. In addition to today's 76 senators, 406 other Australians have served as senators. The most significant change has been the election of women. Surprisingly, not until 1943 was the first woman elected to the Senate, Dorothy Tangney from Western Australia. At the same election, Enid Lyons was elected as the first woman to the House of Representatives. Presently, there are 22 women amongst 76 senators.

The words spoken here today will be broadcast throughout Australia, using technology that did not exist 100 years ago. So, too, images of the history being celebrated and the history being made today can be seen by millions of Australian men, women and children. Yes, some things have changed; but some have not. Words like service and selflessness, respect and commitment, judgment and justice were used 100 years ago to define the obligation owed to the Australian people by those like us who have the honour to represent them. The meaning of those words and the commitment implicit within them remains as relevant now as it was then. In 1901 the parliamentarians assembled here were reminded of that important and fundamental obligation by Australia's first Governor-General. One hundred years later, I am pleased to welcome his successor, Australia's 21st Governor-General, Sir William Deane.