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Thursday, 10 May 2001
Page: 26663

Mr SPEAKER (11:03 AM) —Echoing sentiments already expressed, I believe it behoves us all—and I would have thought all of us do this—to be conscious of the fact that not only are we very fortunate to be here on the occasion of the centenary of the first sitting of the Commonwealth parliament but also that it is very much a matter of chance, rather than design or even talent, that has brought us here; that it is in fact the chance of a number of ballot boxes in a number of venues that has made possible our occupancy of this place. No-one is more acutely aware of that than am I.

I stand here as the Speaker with mixed emotions because, as you all know, by pure chance the first member for Wakefield also became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives, and in this chamber the first Speaker of the House of Representatives collapsed—not in this chair but on the front bench—and subsequently died of a cerebral haemorrhage. This week has been for me an opportunity I had not previously had to meet some of his descendants and to meet old friends who have been part of the parliamentary process over that portion of the 100 years that those of us who are here can reflect on.

That has been an experience for members on both sides of the House. For most of this week there has been an opportunity to renew former acquaintances and to meet up with people who have made possible what has happened in this parliament. It has been an opportunity for all of us to reflect on those who, because of their dominance of this parliament 100 years ago this day, made possible what is our heritage. The Bartons, the Deakins, the Forrests, the Griffiths, the Turners, the Watsons and the Reids—the list goes on of people who have been acknowledged for their role in making our great heritage possible.

It struck me, my friends, that we would do well this morning to recognise that the success of these celebrations has also been the result of some very prominent people who have made possible these celebrations and in fact engineered the way we have gone about them. We should recognise the role played by Minister McGauran, the role played by Minister Delahunty and the role played by Sir Gus Nossal and Mr David Pitchford. We should also recognise the roles played by thousands of other people, whether they were the ushers, the event organisers, the security people or the drivers, who have all made possible what has happened this week. The same analogy applies to Federation. The success of Federation was not simply due to those who, because of their dominance, were seated in this chamber 100 years ago; the success of Federation was because there were Australians in all walks of life who believed in Federation and who wanted to see it happen. It was those Australians—our predecessors—who made this possible.

I will refer to just one of them: William James Farrer. William James Farrer was born in 1845 in England and was a graduate of Cambridge. He came to Australia and was employed as a surveyor; he was not a politician. At 45 he acquired a property called Lambrigg on the Murrumbidgee River—in a delightful coincidence, about where Canberra now stands. There he took up the task of breeding wheat. He was not, as I said, a parliamentarian. In 1901, as a result of having crossed a `Purple Straw' variety 14A of wheat with another variety called `Yandilla', he suddenly found he had a new variety of wheat that showed real promise. So, sharing the optimism of the day that was a part of all that was happening in 1901, he called that new variety `federation'. This federation variety proved to be an early maturing wheat which was also rust resistant—though the wheat growers here will tell you it was rust resistant because it was early maturing, but let us not go into the detail—and drought resistant. The significant thing was that this wheat, created in 1901, ensured that by 1912 Australia had for the first time become a wheat exporter. Of course, it has remained a dominant wheat exporter ever since. By 1925 this was the leading variety being planted in Australia. It proved a variety of some longevity, because it was still being planted in 1938 when, even here in the state of Victoria, 10,000 acres of it were being sown.

Why do I make that point? Because I think there are some parallels to be drawn between the wheat variety optimistically and appropriately named `federation', created in 1901, and all that happened in this chamber on that day and subsequently. You see, `federation' in both senses proved to be right for Australia. Whether in wheat varieties or in a parliamentary and constitutional sense, both forms of `federation' have served the nation well.

Both were hybrids. We as a parliament have inherited the delightful hybrid of the British House of Commons, grafted, as it were, onto the American system, just as Farrer found an appropriate way through a hybrid to find a new variety of wheat that would make such an impact on the future of Australia's primary industry. Neither was perfect; neither was without its faults. Both the parliamentary form and the grain form fostered Australia's economic growth and independence. Both proved to be enduring. While I suspect not much federation is grown now, there is no doubt that the work done by Farrer has had a real impact on the wheat breeding and production of Australia right through to 2001. Both were changed over time, over 100 years, to meet modern conditions. Both have evolved.

As the 39th Parliament, I think we need to be saying to the Australian electorate: `Much has changed in the way the parliament conducts its business.' It, too, has evolved over time and it continues to change. Have a look at the standing orders and the way they have changed. On this day 100 years ago it was the standing orders that caused the most rambunctious debate that occurred in the chamber on that day. Not only have the standing orders changed but, as other speakers have said, we have a very different parliament in that we have a parliament which is now appropriately comprised—I would freely concede not sufficiently comprised—of women, as the parliament 100 years ago was not. The parliament 100 years ago had a non-compulsory voting system. As all members have said, Aboriginals were denied a vote on that occasion and it was not until the 1967 referendum that the vote that had been offered to them was entrenched in a constitutional form.

The parliament 100 years ago was eurocentric. Sixteen of the 75 members in the parliament 100 years ago were born in Scotland. Nine had names that began with `Mc' or `Mac'. The parliament today is a much more multicultural parliament, reflecting the society of the day. This parliament has evolved, recognising appropriately that it is no longer proper, and probably never was proper, for there to be the level of sectarianism that once existed in Australian society. I am pleased to say that not only does sectarianism scarcely exist in society today but the children of each of us scarcely know what the word means.

This is a parliament which has evolved over time—and we ought to be prepared to acknowledge this as well—and which is now dominated by political parties so much scorned by the Australian media and frequently by the Australian people. But those same parties have given a certain stability to our political system and a capacity for the parliament to make unpopular decisions because it is much easier to make them in a corporate than in an individual sense.

The parliament has also changed in recent times. We now have a second legislative stream known as the Main Committee. That second legislative stream has proved so popular that the so-called `mother parliament' in Westminster not only has come to see how it works but has invited our Clerk to Westminster to implement it as part of the Westminster tradition. We now have a greater opportunity, thanks to the role of previous Speakers and of previous procedure committees, for private members business. We now have a Parliamentary Education Office which endeavours to ensure that the lack of knowledge about the parliament and Australian history that so characterised my generation need not characterise succeeding generations. Members may be interested to know that it is the goal of the Parliamentary Education Office in this year, 2001, to ensure that 200,001 students have the opportunity to visit the parliament in a subsidised way.

In 1901 our forebears sat here facing enormous problems. They were isolated from the rest of the world. They had none of the modern communication that we take for granted. This was a young country. It faced, from time to time, all sorts of epidemics, such as smallpox and bubonic plague. In the year 1901 tuberculosis claimed the lives of 3,500 Australians. Today we do not face the same health challenges. We are a country no longer isolated from the rest of the world but exposed to the rest of the world, and that brings challenges all of its own.

The same underlying optimism that dominated this chamber in 1901 ought characteristically to be part of this chamber in the year 2001. All previous speakers today have referred to the deterioration of trust and goodwill and to the cynicism that seems to surround all that we do. May I suggest that it is appropriate for us to look again at the way we conduct ourselves as parliamentarians. When my predecessor, the first Speaker, was in this chair 100 years ago, he was asked what were our obligations as parliamentarians, and he responded by indicating that the Australian people had shown faith in the parliament by asking the people who were there to represent them. He called on parliamentarians to deal with each other in such a way as to generate respect. In response, Prime Minister Barton said:

... I am one of those who believe that courtesy is the first condition of dignity, without which dignity the respect of a great, free, representative assembly cannot be commanded.

Much has been done by this parliament which has been too little recognised by the Australian people to ensure that we are recognised as responsible decision makers. The plea that we face today is to extend to each other just a little more courtesy.

Before I adjourn the House, I wish to draw just two matters to the attention of members. First, allow me on behalf of all members to express our great appreciation to the Victorian parliament, and particularly to Speaker Andrianopoulos, for the hospitality they have extended to us. Speaker Andrianopoulos has been very generous in ensuring that whatever particular needs or concerns we had were met immediately and has been personally generous to me in making the facilities of his office and his staff available to me. To the Victorian parliamentarians and to the staff of the Victorian parliament, may I extend through you, sir, our thanks for all that has been done to allow this centenary sitting to occur.

Secondly, could I invite members to remain seated following the adjournment of the House for approximately five minutes to allow a photographic opportunity to occur and to take, as is appropriate, directions from the Clerk in order to be assembled in a convenient position for that photographic opportunity.