Baroness Thatcher, who has just passed away in London, made a particular point of attending the central event of the Australia Week celebrations in 2000. Of all politicians, Lady Thatcher was known across the world not only for what she believed in, but also for so unswervingly following her beliefs.
Her attendance indicated her great respect for Australia and above all for our great contributions to the Commonwealth, the English speaking countries and indeed, to freedom itself.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900 through the British Parliament, and Australia’s undoubted contribution to the Commonwealth, the British Parliament, House of Commons and House of Lords, and the government had invited Australia’s leaders, state and federal, to a week of celebrations in London in 2000.
There was some considerable opposition to this in Australian media and political circles. This was because – much to their surprise – they had just lost the 1999 republican referendum. They certainly did not want any celebrations of the way in which our federation was achieved, particularly the fact that this had the strong support of the then colonial power. Nor did they want it stressed that we had long been practically independent at least internally.
The republicans thought the peoples’ mistake in 1999 would soon be corrected, and they didn’t want any distractions.
But the Howard government accepted the invitation, as did every Premier and every former Prime Minister, except Paul Keating.
Apart from a thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey attended by The Queen of Australia, the major event of Australia Week was a reception in the magnificent Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Lady Thatcher was an honoured guest.
There were three processional entries. Each was preceded by a superb trumpet fanfare.
The first was by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair and John Howard. Then the Speaker, with her train carried by an elderly and gallant footman, wearing a sword. Then the Lord Chancellor, wearing a full bottomed wig, a black and gold gown with a train, and knee breeches.
The four delivered speeches. And contrary to some media reports here, Mr Howard’s was excellent both in form and content. The participation of the Speaker, the Lord Chancellor and the British Prime Minister emphasised the fact that it was the British Parliament had issued an invitation to Australia.
This was that we allow them to celebrate, with us, not only the centenary of our Constitution but also our role in and contribution to the life of the Commonwealth of Nations over that century.
In discussing her interest in and respect for Australia, I mentioned that the first two acts of the newly federated country were to give the vote to women and to impose a White Australia immigration policy.
“Because the British government was so opposed the Australian politicians disguised the White Australia Policy by camouflaging it with a dictation test, one which my grandparents managed to pass.”
Lady Thatcher replied: “Dictation test? When I was education secretary I insisted on the use of dictation in the schools” As I moved the subject back to immigration, we were interrupted by Bob Carr:” Lady Thatcher – did you receive the wine I sent?”
She looked at him with an air of distinct reserve. :