Address to 2001 People's Conference
Given at Corowa, Australia on December 1, 2001 by Richard J. Wood
Motion: That processes should be initiated to achieve an early resolution of the issue of the Head of State of Australia in the event that the Commonwealth of Australia separates from the monarchy
Mr Chairman, I rise to speak against the motion:
Alistair McGrath, referring to those who chose the glorious words of the King James Bible, but who relied so much on their predecessors, likens them to dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants.
He cites John of Salisbury who wrote eight centuries ago:-
"We are like dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things more distant than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their stature add to ours".
So we are today, at best, dwarves sitting on the shoulders of our Founding Fathers.
And the giant we honour first and foremost today is Sir John Quick. While the rule of law, self-government, democracy, the Westminster system under that ancient institution beyond political capture, the Crown, were all inevitable, Federation never was.
We must thank Sir John Quick, and those other giants that it was achieved, the first of a whole continent, and one of the world’s most successful.
We must thank them that our Federation - unlike all the others - was the result neither of fear nor war, but, as Quick pointed out, because of the people’s intellectual conviction of the folly of disunion and the advantages of nationhood.
And we must especially thank Sir John Quick that it was the first federal constitution to be approved by the people. Moreover that this was through a referendum with all the details on the table, and not through the totally discredited constitutional plebiscite which asks the question first and gives the details later. The Founders well knew the plebiscite as the tool of a succession of deceitful governments, intent on obtaining a blank cheque from the people for nothing more than the abuse of power.
And consistent with their wish not to hoodwink or deceive, the Founders insisted that the method of constitutional change - the sole method - should be the constitutional referendum with all the details on the table.
This was to have particular application for any proposal to change the core of the new entity - the "indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown". They considered such a change most unlikely. As Quick himself pointed out that "not a solitary public writer or speaker seriously proposed the possibility, much less the probability" of its separation from the Crown.
For the Crown was identified as that great heart of the political system, - state and federal, a principal check and balance against the abuse of power by politicians and by political parties. To the Founders, it was a major part of the answer to Acton's warning that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But Sir John Quick himself did not see this as freezing the Constitution in aspic. He saw the referendum - with all the details of change known by the people before, and not after the vote - as not being there to prevent or indefinitely resist change.
It was there for one reason, and one reason only. It was to prevent those evils of change being made in haste or by stealth. It was there, Quick emphasised, to encourage discussion, and to delay change until there was "strong evidence" - strong evidence - that the change proposed, and minutely detailed - was "desirable, irresistible and inevitable".
The delegates today should carefully note this threshold, this onus prescribed by Quick himself - strong evidence that the change is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.
I ask whether the proponents of the motion have satisfied the burden that is placed on them.
The clear answer is that they have not. They have not even got to first base!
We do not even know what change they are proposing. In fact, we haven’t got the foggiest idea.
But Mr Chairman, its worse than that. Neither do they, unless of course they are hiding their hand, which I hope they are not.
The proponents of this motion have had the better part of a decade to do this. They have produced two official and several other models. The latest - their preferred model - was supported by most of the politicians. It was supported by one of the major parties, the greater part of the organisation of another and the ACTU. (But not, it seems, by their members). It had the support of the gallery, most of the political journalists, and the press. It had great wealth behind it. It had all the deadlines of the new Millennium, the Centenary of Federation, the Olympics with the threat that if we kept our constitution and our flag we would be, as one university Vice-Chancellor declared, "an international laughing stock".
But every State and the Northern Territory voted No. Seventy two percent of electorates, rising to 93% in the states furthest from Canberra, noted No. And those electorates represent more than 99% of the landmass of Australia. In other words, a landslide.
While a small and wealthy elite had succeeded in diverting millions and millions of dollars from the taxpayers funds, from schools, hospitals and aged cared - into their obsession, and while politicians across the Commonwealth had been diverted from their core functions - law and order, border control, the economy, as well as schools, hospitals and aged care, the people had clearly spoken.
And now a mere twenty-five months later, at a time when the nation least needs to be divided, the elite are at it again.
Mr Chairman, I continue to search for, yet I cannot find the strong evidence that this change - unspecified, undefined and unknown - is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.
No wonder then that we see the desperate insertion into this debate of that diplomatic term, unknown to any of our constitutions, any of our several constitutional documents, and unknown, at least until a few years ago in ordinary parlance, the term "Head of State". What a pity then, that Mr Keating himself had not only held out the Governor-General as Australian Head of States to foreign governments, the United Nations and to all the world, he actually officially declared him to be so.
Rather than having strong evidence for change, the proponents of this change cannot even agree on what they are talking about, Mr Keating not even agreeing with himself.
It is a reminder of the occasion when to the great amusement even of the republican press, Mr Turnbull and Mr Barns sought to have two words removed from the referendum question in 1999 - the words "president", and believe it or not, the word "republic". Was it that Australia is already a republic? Or was it that voters linked the word to some unsavoury republics?
As a last resort, we are told the evidence is in the polling. Some evidence! Polling funded by organisations with an agenda! Polling with words which are unknown, foreign to our constitution, words and notions which are vague, imprecise and undefined, Alice in Wonderland words! There’s a term for this. It is little more than push polling.
If the proponents of this motion were bona fide, they would commission two questions.
First, do you, the Australian people, want more money diverted from schools, hospitals and aged care into some vague, imprecise, unknown and unnecessary constitutional change?
Second, do you, the Australian people, want the members of all the state and federal parliaments to be diverted from their core functions -from defence, from border control, from law and order, from the economy, from schools, hospitals and from aged care - into a search for vague, imprecise, unknown and unnecessary constitutional change?
The answer is of course obvious. As Mr Turnbull confided to his diary four months before the referendum, "We have Buckley’s chance of winning. Nobody is interested".
No body is interested.
Mr Chairman, the "No" case of which I had the honour to direct its campaign in Queensland in 1999 had as its mission, the preservation, the protection and the defence of the constitution of this indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown, our National Flag and our heritage. Without the luxury of calling for foot soldiers from the ALP and the ACTU, and without being able or wanting to pay them, the "No" case still managed in the referendum to field an army of over 50,000 volunteers across the length and breadth of the Commonwealth. That, and the result, means we represent a considerable voice, whatever our numbers at this conference.
It would make my path easier and it would greatly assist the "No" case if the conference were to pass this motion. For by passing this motion the conference would demonstrate, to the nation and to the world, that it is completely out of touch with mainstream Australia.
But notwithstanding the great advantage you would give us, I ask you to pause, and to reflect on what you are doing and if not to vote in the negative, at least to abstain.
For in this motion you are passing judgement on one of the world's most successful - if not the most successful constitution. You must now know it will be difficult, if not impossible, to graft some new model republic onto our constitution and yet maintain its strengths. Yet you are in effect doing what no reasonable American or Canadian would do: you are passing a motion of no confidence in the Constitution of our Commonwealth without having the foggiest idea of what is to replace it. And you will be asking the Australian people to do likewise, of which, in Mr Turnbull’s own words, there is Buckley’s chance.
Remember three things. That first that at most we are like dwarves on the shoulders of our Founders; and that secondly, we are living under one of the world’s most successful constitutions, and thirdly, in John Quick’s own words, change must be delayed until there is strong evidence that change, in all its details, is desirable, irresistible and inevitable.
And to those still committed to change for the sake of change, to use the words of that more reluctant republican, Oliver Cromwell, I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
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© Richard J. Wood