26 August, 2015, National Press Club, Canberra
Thank you for the warm welcome. I'm delighted to be here. I wanted to begin by saying I am, you are, we are Australians. I feel that and I'm deeply honoured to be asked to address you on such a great Australian occasion, discussing this most important of Australian subjects, and from such a podium as this.
I've loved myself being part of the press for the last 30-odd years. I couldn't say exactly when I was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, but I think it was 30 May 1986.
To be given the chance to speak in such a forum is as humbling as it is thrilling. I note the presence in the audience of many of my colleagues from the press and some of my rugby mates and I thank you for turning up, as I thank all of you for turning up and people watching at home. You will be pleased to hear I don't intend to deliver a dry dissertation on the legal niceties of changing the Constitution, me talking in a learned fashion about constitutional law would be rather like the favourite line I have from an American comedian Richard Little who once said Jimmy Carter as President is like Truman Capote making love to Dolly Parton - the job's just too big for him.
That is not my strength. For my money, if the Republican movement has suffered from one thing over the years it's been a surfeit of deadly earnestness, of high brow wordiness. We need high brow, we have high brow, we have it in spades. But to this point the debate has lacked publicly expressed or low brow passion, and as low brow for me is a personal specialty, I hope you will stay with me. The key thing I wish to say today is we are putting the band back together.
A generation ago Australia had a go at becoming a Republic and for a variety of well documented reasons, most particularly including disunity, even among Republicans, and a Prime Minister who was a very good man but who didn't believe in the Republic. For those reasons, we didn't quite get there.
But that was then, this is now. It's our hope and belief that sometime in the next five years Australia can again begin the formal process towards becoming the Republic of Australia. A Republic that we deserve to be - an independent sovereign nation beneath the Southern Cross we stand, a sprig of wattle in our hand.
We respectfully submit that in the 21st century it is against the natural order of things that a mature and sophisticated nation, multicultural and independent as we are, proud of our egalitarianism and more than ever aware of our indigenous heritage, in this land, right here, not a nation with a history of 114 years or even two centuries, but more like 40,000 years, should still be finding our Head of State from one family of English aristocrats living in a palace in England. Please.
In every other part of our national life we honour those who have a go you mug, who rise on guts and gumption, their talent, their application, three parts elbow grease, two parts sweat off their own brow. We exhort the whole idea of the fair go.
There is only one part of our nation life, one sole part do we say no, no, no - no Australians need apply here, no Australians are good enough to get into this ultra exclusive Head of State job. This is reserved for the progeny of one family alone, not born in this country, not living here, and by hereditary right alone. Please, it does not fit in the 21st century. It is out of kilter.
And this I say, no matter how many of us might admire many members of the Royal Family, led by Queen Elizabeth the Second, we offer by the by sincere congratulations on the fact that Her Majesty will shortly pass Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch, and wish her many years of reign ahead in Britain. Britain needs reign, we do not.
It's time for us to be entirely self governing, and we believe it can be accomplished fairly simply, and with a bit of fun. We propose it starts with a simple question to be put before the Australian people some time in the next five years - do you support replacing the British monarch with an Australian citizen as the Australian Head of State. Bingo, simple as that. We reckon the yes vote for that question will look like Phar Lap at Flemington, like Bradman at Lord's, well ahead of the field and looking good.
Polling commissioned last week by the ARM and conducted by Essential Media show half of us are yaysayers, a quarter of us are naysayers, and another quarter say who cares. The polling shows that 57 per cent of Australians want to have that initial vote done and dusted by 2020, which ties in perfectly with our platform, and the answer to that basic question's always going to romp home as yes. And then we move to the next stage.
Through a process of political engagement with the public, perhaps a constitutional convention, a people's forum - the way they did it in Ireland - we come up with a model. And then simply we build towards a referendum to ask do you prefer the old model or the new model. At that point the situation will be more like Cathy Freeman coming into the final straight, Sydney 2000, say it Bruce McAvaney, she's got a lot of work to
do. We will have a lot of work to do. Cathy did it, she breasted the tape, she was the winner, the gold medallist, and I reckon we will get there at last our self with her as our model.
As to what the model of the Republican should be, I'm here to tell you the ARM, we are like a toy aeroplane convention at St Mary's Cathedral. We are a very broad church with lots of great models that will fly.
Our obvious challenge - once we have everyone inside our broad church is to decide and unite behind one model so we don't splinter like we did last time. As chair of the ARM I'm frequently asked my own view, and I thought you would never ask. It has no more weight than anyone else's, a member of the ARM, but here goes. It can fit into a tweet, but allow me to expand just a tad.
At the moment the system for selecting the Governor-General is very simple. The Prime Minister, the democratically elected leader of the Australian people, makes his or her choice and then writes a letter to Her Majesty the Queen, sends it 15,000 kilometres away to London, seeking from the hereditary head of Great Britain, occupying the most entrenched position of elitism in the world, her approval for this decision made by a democratically elected head of Australia.
I personally propose a single change - the minimalist model with no bells, no whistles and no postage stamp. I say everything stays the same, starting with the title of Governor-General and including the convention that the Prime Minister chooses that position, including their reserve powers, and including the writing of the letter seeking position. But here is the rub. We simply save the price of the postage stamp. Instead of sending that letter external mail to the Queen of England saying Your Majesty is it okay with you, we send it to the Parliament of the people to get a two-thirds majority, to say will you sign off on this.
I believe, when properly presented, my minimalist model - and it is mine, not the ARM's, plenty of people with- this is only my view - is the most likely to succeed as it addresses the foremost concern of the if it ain't broke, don't fix it crowd. Because essentially we are not fixing it, we're just doing one thing. We would be snipping one unsightly apron string that runs all the way around the globe, making sure the whole shebang resides holus-bolus beneath the Southern Cross.
Others within the ARM prefer other models, including having no Governor-General at all, and then of course there are many direct election models. Should the model that I and many prefer gain the adherence of the majority of Australian Republicans, that will be wonderful and it will be hoped those who like other models will fall in behind, and versa. If the direct election model gets up, we will fall in behind them. The important thing is to have unity, I might note, in the presence of Australia's Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Noel Stewart, you know I was talking last night about how well their direct election system works in Ireland. At all costs, this time we must avoid a damaging division.
The only thing I would note about the direction election model is that in Australia, it's frequently opposed by those who say they don't want a politician's Republic. And yet by making the Head of State an elected position, automatically for me that makes it a political position, and the Head of State a political figure.
Does anyone think, - if you look at our most beloved recent Governor-Generals, they've all been good. For me personally, two standouts are Sir William Dean, Dame Quentin Bryce - anybody thinks they would have won a direct election? Would they even have put themselves forward? Personally, I doubt it. But by embracing the minimalist model, we make the person holding that position entirely apolitical, above the political fray. I've always loved that line of Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, who said “de Gaulle n'est pas de la gauche, de Gaulle n'est non pas de su-
de Gaulle est au du sud ...” oh, I mucked that up. “de Gaulle n'est pas du gauche, de Gaulle n'est pas de droite, de Gaulle est au de sur”. De Gaulle is not of the left, de Gaulle is not of the right, de Gaulle is above. And for me, that's my vision, for what it's worth, that our Governor-General should be above the whole thing.
So we're now at the beginning of a great new push for the Republic of Australia to actually make it happen. I say we must do it like Ireland did, with the whole issue of same-sex marriage - house by house, street by street, suburb by suburb, powered by the passion that we have for the course, sustained by the logic of our argument. And that argument is that Australia is mature enough to run our own affairs and must be seen to be so.
And it could be fun. Instead of narkiness, going at each other and going at each other, it could be a wonderfully fun thing to do. When I was speaking to the Irish Ambassador's wife last night, Nessa Delaney, she talked to me about the program in Ireland that they had which was phone your granny. And the idea was the young people of Ireland phoned granny and tell her, this is going to be okay, same-sex marriage is going to be work, it can work. And there was this sense of fun, and how inspirational was it, what happened in Ireland?
At the moment we sense the goodwill of so many of our fellow Australians but I'm here to say one thing today - it is that goodwill, your goodwill, is not enough. We need people's active engagement. We need you to sign up to membership, to donate money, to help convince the naysayers this really can work, really be a phenomenal time in our national history. Let a thousand flowers of the Republic of Australia bloom.
From Penrith to Perth, from Darwin to the Derwent, Kununurra to Coonanbarrabran, let everyone who can help come forward, put your shoulder to the wheel, move the whole thing forward. If we have a plea in this coming debate, it is that it would be wonderful if we could be more gentle than last time in 1999.
Back in 1987 when John Howard lost that election to Bob Hawke, I never forget a wonderful concession speech that Mr Howard made. He said I may have lost tonight, but the things that unite us Australians are greater than the things that divide us. And it was true at that time, and I think it's true for most of our history. But I'm not 100 per cent sure that it is true right now.
When I launched the biography of my friend Joe Hockey last year, I was critical of what I called the mad march of Australian politics - left, right, left, right, left, right, I'm left, you're right, I hate you, you hate me. All of that narkiness is so often duplicated in so much else of our discourse. In so many areas we're divided up into the McTavishes and the McTears, the Murdochs and Fairfaxes, the Liberal and Labor supporters, the warmists and the denialists, the believers in same-sex marriage and those who are traditional proponents of traditional marriage.
Couldn't we have just one thing, we Australians, just one thing, where we look forward to the quite reasonable goal - becoming the quintessence of a mature nation, which is to manage our own affairs within our own borders and just agree this is where we are going to get to and just hold hands gently, move forward, get there together as an issue where we first turn to each other and not on each other. Where we nut it out in the great Australian fashion together. It can be done, on this issue, above all issues, and there are already signs that Australia is tiring of the consistent divisions and want to get back to I am, you are, we are Australian.
Last month I was thrilled that for the first time in the not always friendly history of the Murdoch and Fairfax press, the two media empires jointly ran an op-ed piece I wrote calling for exactly this unity on public. My piece ran in the Daily Tele just below Andrew Bolt's piece, together. Brothers together.
I have been thrilled with since with the offers of support that have come from everywhere, from people in all walks of Australian life and across the entire political spectrum wanting to help. One of them was from our Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, who I'm pleased to reveal will be the co-convener of a new parliamentary friendship group for an Australian Head of State joining former ACT Chief Minister Senator Katy Gallagher. We thank them both. Kate, Joe and I go back a long way. As my wife Lisa knows, when I die, Joe will be one of the eight men that carries my coffin, and if Joe dies before me, I will be one of the 24 men that carries his.
I will allow Joe to speak for himself on his passion for the Republic, but I might note, quite seriously, that he is only one of many, many in the Coalition with such passion, including Christopher Pyne, who has given the most eloquent speech I've ever heard on the Republic. Malcolm Turnbull, who was of course the driving force of the Republican movement, a man to whom the Republican movement owes great debt. Senator Marise Payne, who's a long time activist for the Republic, and the torch bearer of the Republic for the rising generation of Australian politicians, Wyatt Roy, who is the youngest Member of Parliament. Many, many more. I'm also heartened by how many influential and conservative newspaper columnists who've tell me they are of the faith, they believe in the cause, and want to push it this time. This is going to happen.
There are more and more Republicans across the spectrum - politically, in the media, among the public, and not just in the so-called elite but everywhere - rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Tinker, tailor, sailor, py, settler, farmer's wife on a dry and barren run. I was trying to think of, you know, female examples, but you are very sexist if you don't think the tinker, tailor, soldier and spy, they were all women.
Watch this space, we are moving forward. How exciting would it be too, if 50 years from now, that you could look back 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, look back upon the time when we became the Republic of Australia and say I was there, I did my bit. I put my shoulder to the wheel on that pivotal moment in the nation's history and helped turn that wheel forward.
And yes, of course, there will be committed naysayers. There will be nervous Nellies and nattering Neds who insist we can't do this, we shouldn't do this, we don't need to do this, we can't do it at this time because there are more important things to do first et cetera.
Those naysayers have been there through all of our history and we love them too because they are part of our history. But they were there in the 1890s when the first real push, serious push came from federation - there were so many who said no no, we can't do that, we can't be more than six colonies of Great Britain on this brown and pleasant land we live in. The nation rolled up its sleeves anyway, they got on with it. They demonstrated we could be more than that.
The nervous Nellies and nattering Neds were horrified in 1931 when the Prime Minister James Scullin would for the first time in our history install a home grown Australian Governor-General in Sir Isaac Isaacs, and not a British aristocrat as was the long tradition. Disloyalty they cried, rudeness to the monarch. Nevertheless, Scullin's home grown Australian choice proved brilliant, it went on.
You know, we used have the Queen on all of our postage stamps, just the way it was in New Zealand. My dear friend Eric Rush, the All Black winger, said he grew up with the Queen on every postage stamp. When he met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, he said I was not sure whether to shake her hand or lick her on the back of the head.
But we grew up with that, and when we first came and- he said that very respectfully, as I do too. But we grew up in the late 1950s, 1960s Australia, up until 1971, everywhere we looked, and when we changed it we started putting Australian symbols on it, there were people shaking their fists, you know, saying that this is not right. The same with the national anthem when we moved from God Save the Queen to our own, there were those saying no, no, we can't do this. We persisted anyway, we got there.
When Gough Whitlam started the process to say about the privy council -here's an idea - maybe our own judges, our own Australian judges can be as good as the English Law Lords, as the British Law Lords. And it took a while, a decade to go through, but there were those who saying if we cut the right to appeal to the privy council, there will be chaos. The answer is, for 30 years we've run our own show, and we've done it very well without problems.
My point is this, that every step along the way of separation, there has been those predicting catastrophe and there have been those who say - as they are saying now - not now, we can't do it. In the end we persisted anyway, and we got there and we have proven we can do it as a nation on our own. This time Australia should no more listen to the naysayers than we did in the past.
The thing that most stuns me in the argument against us becoming a Republic is the notion like the flag debate - which I note is entirely separate from the ARM umbrella - that separating our self from Great Britain disrespects our history. Please.
This is as nonsensical as the notion that the push for the Republic was just a 1999 phenomenon and therefore should never be visited again because we have settled that.
But while it's true that this debate was at its most fierce in 1990 - I prefer not to say 1999, I say before the turn of the last century. In fact, the push for a Republic goes back a lot further than that, even well beyond all the examples I have listed about. And rather than disrespecting our history, Australia becoming a Republic would actually be a wonderful blooming of our history. A quintessentially Australian story of an underdog struggle against long odds, against an established top order, coming good in the end, go Cathy Freeman go, as the British Crown gracefully recedes, an Australian crowd rises and roars.
In fact ,the early settlers in Australia were keenly aware of the American and French Revolutions which we in the air at the time of settlement. The battle of Vinegar Hill in 1804 had a strong Republican favour. Horatio Wills, the great pastoralist who always wrote in his journal, The Currency Lad, 1832, that was all about the Republic - 1850s, Reverend Dunmore Lang and Henry Parkes campaigned for a Republic. The wonderful one when William Wentworth proposed a hereditary upper house in New South Wales and Daniel Deniehy said “what, a bunyip aristocracy?” Australia rolled with laughter, the very idea of Australia creating their own knights and dames was just the most unheard of thing anybody had ever heard of.
Even Ned Kelly's Jerilderie letter had a fair streak of Republicanism in it, and in the 1880s there were 15 Republican organisations across the land. The great Henry Lawson, Song of the Republic –
Sons of the South, awake! Arise! Sons of the South, and do,
Banish from under your bonnie skies those old world errors and wrongs and lies …
Sons of the south make the choice between, Sons of the South choose true,
The old dead tree and the young tree green …
The Land that belongs to the Lord and Queen and the land that belongs to you.
So often another reason given against change is that our fought for King and country and flag. But let the record show it was not always the case. I'm coming to the end of a book that I'm writing on the Battle of Pozieres, and there is a scene at the end of Pozieres, we lost 30,000 men, casualties in the space of six weeks. And as they're coming out, there is King George and the Brits fall back as they do in awe and most of the Australians do too, but one of the Australian soldiers calls out “G'day George, g'day George, hello,how are you, good to see you!”
And you know, there is immediate “what's going to happen here?”, and the King was gracious enough to smile, and everybody smiled, and they would move on. But he then- this digger made a dissertation to anybody that wanted to listen, how it wasn't that a man was born in a palace that he was a better man than anything else, he was just a man.
I love the fact that came out in a diary. Republicanism is in our DNA, it's in the very marrow of our bones. It's always been there, it's just that we haven't got there yet. Now this year in the centenary of Gallipoli, there has been discussion about whether we can do better for a founding story than a defeat where we lost 9000 brave soldiers, killed for no ostensible gain. Some people say that we should - I think Paul Keating is on the record as saying maybe federation. Now for me, if you are going to have a founding story, the key has got to be, the starting point is it has to be a great story, that's your starting point, is a great story. The problem with federation as a founding story is that when you get to the climatic moment, what is the climactic moment? And then the Governor-General, he took out his pen and he signed the bastard, how about that?
What about that? And you know, for me, it doesn't quite get over the line as an inspiring story. Well it is inspiring, but in a different- I don't think it will bring the masses and those of us with low brows.
But for me, I love - in terms of if we were to become a Republic - the story of Eureka is absolutely tailor made. I wanted to have here Professor John Maloney, the author of the greatest book on Eureka that's ever been written, and it's just a killer story. And I'll do it- I had to cut this back from ten minutes because I get carried away with it. But the guts of it is - 1830s and 1840s you've got rising Liberal democracy across Europe, it's pressed down, where do they go? They could go to the Sierra Nevada, to the California goldfields, they go to Bathurst, they go to Ballarat. 1854 you've got this collection of all these great activists for liberal democracy gathered in Ballarat in the one place at the one time, and on 11 November 1854 the Ballarat Reform League makes its claims, and it's got the six basic tenets of Liberal democracy - they want the secret ballot, they want the mail franchise, they want paid Parliamentarians and of course the red coats come for them and they haul up the flag on 29 November, the Eureka flag, and a wonderful story of Peter Lalor, the Irishman who stands up and he makes the great speech.
He gets onto the top, he climbs onto the stump, he sees the sea of faces drawn from all over the world, what you and I would call multicultural, but just for them it was a sea of faces drawn from everywhere. Lalor says I looked around me, I saw the brave and honest men who had come thousands of miles to labour for independence. I mounted the stump and proclaimed liberty. Killer story.
That night 2000 diggers marched on Ballarat. They sang La Marseillaise as they marched through the Australian bush. The next day, the Friday, we had in our history a declaration of independence. Now the Americans have got this beautiful prose, wonderful copper plate writing for their Declaration of Independence, it's under thick glass at the Smithsonian Institution. Ours wasn't like that. Our was a bit of a drunken ramble written on the back of a scrap of paper and nobody quite understood it, but it was a declaration of independence. So the next day, in the greatest Australian tradition of all, the diggers lay about, they drank too much, and they sort of fell into a drunken slumber that night, at which point the red coats attacked.
But it is- it's a great yarn, and after Peter Lalor, who was the one pursued as a traitor, 500 pound reward on his head, he lost his arm in the actual battle. I describe him in my own book as Australia's first one armed bandit, fleeing the red coats who were trying to get him. Within a year he was being sworn into the Victorian Parliament. He had not changed. Australia had changed, the world around him changed. The whole Eureka thing is a light on the hill for Liberal democracy around the world. As Gerard Henderson - a conservative commentator - has pointed out, it's surprising the conservative side of politics in general hasn't embraced this, given that one way of looking at it, the whole uprising was a collection of small businessmen and entrepreneurs rising against the iniquitous over-regulation that was stifling their creation of wealth. This is right up the Libs' alley.
This is wonderful, it's a wonderful story, there's something in it for everyone. So that's what we want, a free standing Republic beneath the Southern Cross with an authority resting solely on the democratic will of the Australian people. Egalitarian, home grown, dinkum, multicultural inspiration. I repeat, the way ahead doesn't have to be dreary and controversial, filled with bitter clashes as it was back in 1999. This could be fun and inspiring. We don't have to storm the Bastille, we don't have to forge the Potomac to take on the Brits.
We Australians of the 21st century don't have to do anything so dramatic. We have to first and foremost get through the apathy, the notion that it is inevitable this is going to happen. No, it won't happen, not without the energy of the people that believe to actually put your energy in, to sign up, to do your bit. And this idea that it's inevitable, it's been going back through our history, the Sydney newspaper, The People's Advocate in 17 June 1854, the independence of the Australian colonies is not a mere abstract idea, it is certainly approaching- it is as certainly approaching as is the dawn of tomorrow's sun.
Again and again and again, decade after decade, it arises, it's inevitable, it's inevitable, it's inevitable. Bob Hawke, 1991, said the Republic is inevitable. Even John Howard said we'll have it in 50 or a hundred years, just not now. You will be pleased to hear I approached John Howard two or three weeks ago, and I said what about you as our patron. I'm pleased to say he considered it, I think for about half a second.
Half a second, but he didn't immediately just say no, under no circumstances. He considered it, because I thought if we can get John Howard on board, you know, it would be game over.
We Republicans, what we need, it's not inevitable and merely wanting it to happen will not make it so. We need engagement. Camera one on me - we need engagement, okay? Email us, write us, tweet us, get on with it, send us your money.
Your membership. But ... we need to achieve the critical mass of engaged Australians and ideally non-critical mass media to make it happen and make it a political imperative. The ALP has committed to putting the Republic question to the Australian people which is a great start.
We don't know if the current PM - and he's a friend of mine, he was my rugby coach, and I like him, I get on well with him, we have never agreed politically - but I don't know if Mr Abbott will be there ten days, ten months or ten years. I wish him well.
But you know, I do believe that he will be our last Monarchist Prime Minister. Not definitely, but most likely. And after that, we'll hopefully get the stars that will align and we will get an Australian Prime Minister and an Australian Opposition Leader who are both Republicans. And at that point, how wonderful would it be if they go hard at each other on every other thing in politics, but just on this one thing, just on the Republic, how wonderful would it be to see the two of them coming together to say no politics on this one, we will just go forward together.
The other thing we have to get through I think is the celebrity worship of the Royals. You know, it's fine to -well, none of my business. If you want to get into all that stuff, go for your life, go hard. But the point is, it will go on. Don't get that mixed up with the governance of our nation. You know, look at Princess Mary in Denmark, can't read enough about her myself, love it, wonderful woman, came from Tassie. But you know, nothing to do with our governance, and the same - should we become a Republic, the Royals aren't going anywhere, they will still visit us, I would hope, like they do the other 32 Republics that there are in the Commonwealth of nations.
None of these need be disrespectful to the Queen and her family, including the latest additions Prince George and Princess Charlotte. This is not a rejection of them, it's an embrace of the idea that Australia is no longer derivative of another nation dependent on the Government of a motherland far over the seas.
For ultimately, it's not about the Royal Family and their children, it's about our Australian family and our children. In the 21st century it is ludicrous that we still have a system whereby none of our kids will ever be good enough to fill that role because they are not born to that family. I am, you are, we are Australian. We must call it for what it is - not right, simply not fair.
Let's do this. If not us, who? If not now, when? We want not just your goodwill but your active engagement. We want you to join up with the ARM.
We thank you, I salute you. Vive la republique, allons les enfants d'australie, and let's bloody well get going.