The creeds which we should hold in common are to be found in the core values which all Australians have inherited, and which were instrumental in the formation and the maintenance of our Commonwealth of Australia. We cannot and should not invent new values in substitution of these: we are the products of our history and our society, which by its nature mandates evolutionary and not revolutionary change.
After all, we are not a nation like Nazi Germany whose ideology led to defeat and ignominy in 1945. Our inherited values have served us well. We are, and have consistently been, a remarkably successful nation. Indeed we are one of the six or seven oldest continuing democracies in the world. Australia is one of the most successful and most socially advanced and democratic countries in the world.
And at the same time, Australia has long been prepared to make real contributions to the freedom of others. As long ago as World War I our contribution has been extraordinary – then we lost more soldiers and sailors than even the United States of America. We are the product of our past and of those who have gone before us, and we should not forget that.
What are those those values? I would argue that they are not to be found in some common denominator, some melting pot of cultures, or in cultural relativism. Rather they are the values which necessarily flow from the pillars upon which our nation has been built. This would exclude passing policies, even those which enjoyed high levels of support at the time, but which eventually proved to be ephemeral and were opposed to those values.
An example was the White Australia Policy. The context of its adoption was a considerable influx of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century gold rushes. This led to the rise of a white supremacist movement which argued that Australia should declare an independent white republic. This was a theme which dominated the columns of The Bulletin, which became the standard bearer of white supremacy.
While the move to federation eclipsed republicanism, the White Australia policy, promoted most strongly by the labour movement and the infant Labor Party, was adopted by the new parliament early in its life. While the economic arguments for the policy were understandable at the time, the policy conflicted with the Judeo-Christian values which we had inherited. So did the exclusionary policies applied against the Aboriginal people. Both policies shocked the imperial authorities, but had to be accepted as an undesirable byproduct of the grant of self-government and federation. On the other hand another measure of the new parliament was fully in accord with those values – a totally male parliament granted the right to vote to women.
My argument is that the core values of the Australian nation flowed from and still flow from the six pillars upon which our nation was built.
Four of these came with the settlement in 1788. To say that is not to denigrate the Aboriginal history of this continent or indeed the Aboriginal people. But modern Australia began with the settlement which had both harsh and good consequences for the Indigenous people. European settlement was inevitable, and the fact that the acquisition was British was, on all historical evidence and comparisons with other places, the best outcome.
The first pillar, the first gift of the British, is the English language, now the leading language of the world, which gives Australians extraordinary advantages in all international activity. Its supremacy in the nation is of course under no threat from the use of other languages by immigrant communities. But we have an obligation to ensure future generations are highly educated in our language and our literature and that immigrants are prepared to master it.
The second pillar is the rule of law. Governor Philip was no dictator and the penal colony was no gulag. Philip came with a charter of justice and governed under the law. We had the good fortune of inheriting the common law, probably the legal system best suited to governmental stability, the guarantee of freedom and the protection of life, liberty and property.
We also inherited a belief in limited government – not as limited as the American colonies – but limited to the extent that it was understood that people should be left to run their own lives, while government concentrated on its core functions. These were the defence of the country, the provision of law and order, providing sound property and contract law and a stable currency.
The third pillar was our oldest institution, and one above politics: the Crown. Today this remains as an important check and balance at the centre of our constitutional system, which does not mean that Australians should not, if they wish, propose a republican form of government. But it does mean that republicans have to devise a system of constitutional government which is at least as stable and as workable as the present system. They must persuade Australians that this change crosses the constitutional threshold – that it is “desirable, irresistible and inevitable”.
This is reflected in the requirement for both a national and a federal vote in support of the change proposed. Equally, republicans must understand and demonstrate they understand the system of government which they wish to change. It became clear in the 1999 referendum campaign that the republicans were less informed than they should have been. For example, even the minister in charge of the process did not seem to appreciate the way in which a republican Australia could continue in the Commonwealth of Nations.
Today, few republicans seem to appreciate the role of the Crown in the Australian constitutional system. Not so long ago, a former head of two government departments, criticising the governor-general in an opinion column in a leading newspaper, demonstrated that he did not understand the role and function of the Executive Council.
The fourth pillar the British brought is in our Judeo-Christian values. This was expressed in powerful terms in the very first sermon delivered in this land. In it, the Reverend Richard Johnson said:
I do not address you as Churchmen or Dissenters, as Roman Catholics or Protestants, as Jews or Gentiles, but I speak to you as mortals though yet immortals. The Gospel proposes a free and gracious pardon for the guilty, cleansing for the polluted, happiness for the miserable, and even life for the dead.
This eloquent and poetic theme has resounded through the history of our nation and is deep in the hearts of the people. It is there offering spiritual strength in times of trial and reinforcing our lives today. As Edmond Burke said: “We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, and that religion is the basis of civil society.”
That theme that Richard Johnson enunciated is seen again at the time of the achievement of that last great pillar of our nation, our federation. In the meticulous drafting and approval of our constitution, the Australian people were more involved than had ever occurred in the formation of any other nation.
It is appropriate to recall that the theme that caught the greatest interest and strongest expression of public support was that the constitution should be adopted with a reference that what man does is done under God. This does not mean that Australians must belong to any particular religion, or indeed, any religion. But those values are at the basis of our legal social and ethical system. The obligations we have to one another come essentially from these values – honesty, compassion, charity and the acceptance of personal responsibility. They must be preserved.
But before I discuss federation, I should refer to the fifth pillar, which came as a gift from the British. They were the only colonial power which gave this to their colonies, indeed most imperial powers did not enjoy it at home. This was responsible government under the Westminster system. This brought self-government to each of the Australian colonies. Even today, it is unlikely that Australians will move away from this system.
The only realistic alternative is the American system, which has never been successfully exported. The greatest challenge to the Westminster system comes from republicans who wish to preserve it but also wish to remove the Australian Crown from it. The model they preferred was not approved by the Constitutional Convention, but the prrime minister still allowed it to be the subject of a referendum in 1999. While it was strongly supported by the media and the political establishment, it was rejected nationally and in every state. The alternative model, that of an elected presidency would in the view of conservative republicans, sabotage the Westminster system by changing the head of state into a political rival of the prime minister.
In any event, it is through the Westminster system that our common law right to free speech is constitutionally entrenched, at least to the extent that there is a constitutionally implied freedom of political communication. This is not a personally enforceable right, but one which acts a constraint on the law making by our parliaments.
The final pillar of this nation is federation. Not only is federation a pillar, the way it was achieved is unique and is testimony to the political sophistication of the Australian people, the freedoms which they had inherited, and of the wisdom of the colonial authorities.
Our nation was born without war, loss of blood or violence. That great founding father, Sir John Quick, who played a crucial role in achieving federation, wrote (with lawyer Robert Garran) that:
Never before have a group of self-governing, practically independent communities, without external pressure or foreign complications of any kind, deliberately chosen of their own free will to put aside their provincial jealousies and come together as one people, from a simple intellectual and sentimental conviction of the folly of disunion and the advantages of nationhood.
The States of America, of Switzerland, of Germany, were drawn together under the shadows of war. Even the Canadian provinces were forced to unite by the neighbourhood of a great foreign power. But the Australian Commonwealth, the fifth great Federation of the world, came into voluntary being through a deep conviction of national unity.
We may well be proud of the statesmen who constructed a Constitution which whatever may be its faults and its shortcomings has proved acceptable to a large majority of the people of five great communities scattered over a continent; and proud of a people who, without the compulsion of war or the fear of conquest, have succeeded in agreeing upon the terms of a binding and indissoluble Social Compact.
The preamble to the Constitution Act the British Parliament passed to give effect to our constitution – with some minor changes – expresses the nature of that compact. It recites that the people of the several states, “… humbly relying on the blessings of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown … and under the Constitution hereby established.”
Those words set out the essence of our federation, which was truly the success story of the 20th century. This is the context of our nation. Just as the United States was formed and still lives under its constitution, so the Australian nation lives under and still operates under the pillars of our nation which include our constitutional system.
The values which flow from the six pillars of our nation remain relevant today. They are the creeds which Australians have long held and should continue to hold today.