NEVILLE BONNER ORATION
THE HON. JOHN HOWARD AC
TO AUSTRALIANS FOR CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY
ON THE OCCASION OF THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF
THE REPUBLIC REFERENDUM
5 NOVEMBER, 2009
THE CROWNED REPUBLIC
[Mr Howard was introduced by Professor David Flint AM, National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.]
Thank you very much David. Alan Jones; former Parliamentary Colleagues; many friends; most importantly and collectively, my fellow Australians:
It’s a huge privilege for me for two reasons. It’s a great honour to say something about an old friend of mine who is no longer with us and that is Neville Bonner. Neville Bonner was the first aboriginal member of the national Parliament. He was a great Liberal Senator from Queensland. He was a very passionate Australian. And what I liked about Neville Bonner more than anything else was that he symbolised what should be the future for the indigenous people of Australia, and that is a capacity to become part of the mainstream of our community, to shape the laws and shape the direction of our community along with his other fellow Australians and yet preserve his distinctive aboriginal identity. Neville Bonner was a lasting refutation of the proposition that we should have separate development in this country. He was a living embodiment of the proposition that first and foremost we are Australians together. whatever our background may be. But in representing that and embodying that, Neville Bonner never abandoned his indigenous roots. He was never disloyal to the Aboriginal cause. He was an articulate exponent of the cause of the indigenous people of this community. Yet he did it where it had most impact. He did it within the forum of one of the mainstream political parties and he did it within the Parliament of the nation. Neville Bonner was a terrific colleague. I counted him as a friend and I honour his memory and I honour what he represented to the first Australians, and I thank him for the service to the political party that I had the privilege of leading for just under sixteen years.
Today, as David has said, we mark what will be the tenth anniversary of the Referendum to convert Australia into a republic that was held in 1999. When I look back on that Referendum, I think the most distinctive feature of it – and the fundamental reason why it failed – was that it was a citizens’ rejection of an elitist proposition, which was endeavoured to be foisted on the Australian people. Now as a matter of fundamental fairness and intellectual honesty, the most passionate constitutional monarchists must recognise that there are arguments for change. I don’t share those arguments – and I don’t think many people in this room would share them – but there are. And, of course there was a recognition that there were arguments for change as well as a recognition that there were arguments against change. The fact that that fair minded view was rejected by the drivers of elite opinion in this country, I think that as much as anything else was the reason why the referendum was defeated. I can’t think of a proposition in my political life that attracted the overwhelming support of elite opinion, almost universal (there were some remarkable and very honourable exceptions to what I am about to say) almost universal press endorsement – the ABC, the Fairfax Press, the Murdoch Press universally. There were some brave souls, whom many of you know, who had a powerful and very impactful dissenting view within the Australian media, and I honour one of them who is with us today and you know whom I am referring to. But overwhelmingly you had this extraordinary unity of elite opinion, you had so much of the media, and you actually had near to two thirds of the members of the National Parliament, because the Labor Party, although it said it allowed a free vote, in reality I don’t recall any member of the Labor Party in the National Parliament who voted in favour of the status quo; and close to 40% of my own Party, the Liberal Party, including three out of the four members of the leadership group, were also in favour of change. Now we allowed a free vote from the very beginning and there was a genuine exercise in a free vote and I think it was one of the things that ennobled the whole process, that the Australian people could see a great democratic party in government with its leader advocating the status quo, its deputy leader advocating change, and the leader and the deputy leader in the Senate also advocating change. It was quite an armada that gathered in favour of change, a very impressive armada and an armada that was very confident when the campaign began.
Why did the Australian people reject it? Well the common explanation given by those who were in favour of change is that it was rejected because of division within the republican camp and because people were confused. There was division within the republican camp. There’s no doubt about that. And there is division amongst those who today want a republic, between those who want a so-called minimalist republic where effectively you white-out references to the Queen and Governor-General and you insert reference to a President and you leave everything else exactly the same. And on the other hand there are those who favour directly electing a President. Let me say what I said 10 years ago, and I’ll say while ever I draw breath on this subject, that if the Australian people were to decide – which is their democratic right – to change our Constitution, and let’s understand this is our gift, it is not the gift of history, it is the gift of any generation at any time to change the constitutional arrangements and while ever we understand that, we will have greater acceptance in the Australian community of our point of view. But if the Australian people were to decide to change our Constitutional Monarchy and have a republic, I could not think of a more destructive alternative than a directly elected President because it would fundamentally alter our system of government – even more dramatically than to have a change from a monarchy to a republic – because it would establish two rival power centres. As an elected Prime Minister of just under 12 years doing battle with a directly elected Governor-General or President would be an entirely different world than the one in which we now live and those who argue in favour of change and who want that change – as much as those who, like most in this room, are against change – would understand how fundamentally destructive to our current system of government that a directly elected Presidency would be.
I think the referendum failed because the Australian people were unconvinced that we would be better off with a different system of government. Now there’s a lot to be said for what historians and constitutionalists call “Burkean conservatism”. Like Edmund Burke, we don’t change our institutions unless we are satisfied that a change is going to bring about improvement.
Throughout the whole of the referendum campaign we were regaled with declarations of inevitability. The longer I stayed in politics, the more persuaded I became of that great declaration of Benjamin Franklin that there are only two inevitabilities and those are death and taxation. [Laughter]. And whenever I heard people say something is inevitable, I automatically recoiled thinking of all the things over the years that I was told were inevitable. I mean people told me that a second airport in Sydney was inevitable when I became Prime Minister. [Aside] I don’t think so! I was told that it was inevitable that we couldn’t achieve the common foreign policy goals of an even closer relationship with the United States and a closer relationship with China. I was told that so many things were inevitable. Nothing is inevitable and the question of whether this country changes its governance arrangements is something which is always within the gift of the current generation of Australians.
My assessment is that there is less passion for a republic now than there was 10 or 15 years ago. That is my assessment. That doesn’t mean though that it won’t come back and those of you who don’t want this would be foolish to imagine that because there is less passion for it now that it won’t come back. I don’t think there is any serious likelihood of the issue being well and truly back on the agenda while ever the current Monarch remains on the throne. She is an exemplary example of constitutional propriety. She is a better informed person in statecraft than anybody else I have met in my life, and when you think of the extraordinary experience since she came to the throne – let us think in 1952 Bob Menzies was Prime Minister of Australia, Winston Churchill had just been re-elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harry Truman was President of the United States and Joseph Stalin was still the dictator of the Soviet Union, and Australia still had the Ashes! [Laughter, Applause] It is a very long time ago and she has accumulated a great deal of experience, but very seriously I don’t think the issue will come back and that is incidentally a view that I share – and I don’t often share views with Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam – and both of them, the former consistently, the latter more recently, have also made the same observation.
The other argument that was frequently advanced in favour of a republic is what was known as the identity argument – that we got confused, that we caused confusion rather when we travelled in Asia in particular. Now I travelled in Asia a fair bit when I was Prime Minister. In fact I calculated that in the first eight years of my Prime Ministership I had met the then President of China, Jiang Zemin, more frequently than any other Head of Government, and he received me courteously on each occasion despite the fact that my predecessor had said that I wouldn’t be dealt with by leaders in Asia. And I never found that I was confused with the Prime Minister of New Zealand or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or the Prime Minister of Canada, and he could speak a lot better French than I did! I was never confused with any of these people. I never found the fact that when I sat down to the final stages to try to accelerate and bring to fruition the negotiations between the Australian consortium and the Guangdong province of China of a $25 billion LNG deal, I never found that the presence of the Union Jack in the corner of the Australian flag was an impediment to that negotiation. [Laughter, Applause] I can well recall John Dawkins, who was Treasurer in a former government, arguing very strongly that “y’know, one of the reasons we needed to change the flag was so that we would be more readily accepted in Asia”. The independence/identity argument can I tell you is a total “furphy”. There has never been any doubt about the distinctive Australian identity and the fact that we share a legal Head of State with a number of other countries does not detract in any way from our independence and I will remain a supporter of the current arrangements indefinitely – the current constitutional arrangement – because I believe that it has helped to deliver a remarkably stable system of government. I don’t believe a change would make it even better. I don’t believe our current independence and national identity is in any way compromised. And believing all of those things I cannot for the life of me see why we should vote to dissolve a link with the second oldest institution in Western civilisation. It makes no sense at all to me and I see no gain.
I do, however, in the remaining moments available to me want to address another issue, not entirely unrelated, but an issue which is really a more direct and immediate threat to our current governing arrangements than a debate about a republic – which I think is off the agenda for some years into the future. And that is the push within sections of the Australian community for the introduction of a Bill or Charter of Rights. This does represent a threat to the sovereignty of citizens and I find it quite interesting that on this issue you have many of the same suspects as the former republican cause. And I find it faintly anomalous that people who argue that you should have a republic because it will give more power to the people and remove an elite institution, also argue that you should have a Bill of Rights. And a Bill of Rights will undermine the authority of citizens and replace that authority by giving to unelected Judges – and I’ll come to the respect that I hold for Judges in a moment and I do, I think this nation has been very well served by its Judiciary – but if we introduce a Bill of Rights we will fundamentally shift power from citizens to unelected Judges. We will undermine the role of Parliament. We will diminish further its respect in the eyes of the Australian community. Now I think we should be more concerned as people who pray for preservation of a free and democratic system of government, we should be more concerned about the introduction of a Charter or Bill of Rights.
David talked about the fact that we shared the same year at Sydney University Law School. The year after us one of the very distinguished students was Michael Kirby. Now Michael has been a passionate supporter of the Constitutional Monarchy and there are many, many views that Michael holds that I respect and support. There are many I don’t. We agree on the Constitutional Monarchy. We part company on the Bill of Rights And there are some exceptions to what I said a moment ago when you often have the same suspects. The former Labor Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, is, as many of you know, a minimalist republican, but I am also very happy to say that he is a passionate opponent of the introduction of a Bill of Rights.
The campaign to have a Bill of Rights in this country is based on the completely erroneous notion that you sometimes have better outcomes for the people if you take power away from them to decide matters that affect them. I don’t find that either democratic, I don’t find it logical, and I don’t find it the least bit appealing. [Applause] The problem with the Bill of Rights is that the arguments sound so appealing, so beguiling. You write down in simple language all these very nice sounding rights – like freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. I mean they are obvious and they are so obvious that there is really not much doubt that they are fundamental to our existence. You write ’em down, you put them on a piece of paper, you give that some kind of sanctity, and then everybody lives happily thereafter. Now that’s the argument. The reality of course is otherwise. Nations that have done that – and those nations include the great nation of the United States – have not seen their citizens freer. In fact in many respects they have seen their citizens groaning under the frustration of things that affect their daily lives being taken from their authority.
I have never forgotten listening to a Baptist Minister from the south of the United States talking on radio about the last presidential election and he said that he was struck by the fact that Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States yet John Roberts was only the 17th Chief Justice of the United States, and he didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t remove Chief Justices in the way you could remove Presidents. Now to us in our tradition that sounds a bit revolutionary – the idea of removing Judges – because fundamental to our system is that you can’t remove Judges. They have life tenure or tenure until the age of 70. Whereas in the United States because Judges have so much power to determine things that are determined in Australia by Parliament, that people are growing restless with their security of tenure, and of course that carries with it implications for the respect we have, which is so important to our system of government, for the Judiciary. It is a mistaken notion to believe that a Judge has a better capacity to determine community values or community morals than any other citizen. [Applause] A Judge is gifted and qualified more than others to adjudicate on the meaning of the laws passed by Parliament. That is their training, that is their calling, and that is their solemn commitment as Judges. And one of the reasons why this country has remained such a robust democracy – and indeed one of the reasons why you could count on the fingers of both hands the number of countries that have been continuously democratic for the last 100 years, and Australia is one of them. One of the reasons for that of course is we have had a very well trained, highly qualified and incorruptible Judiciary. [Applause] We have been very well served. One of the reasons why the Judiciary, with some exceptions within the public of course, has retained high respect is that the Judiciary has been allowed to stick to its traditional task of interpreting the law and it has not strayed into areas which are not really the function of the judiciary, and that is to declare public morality and to declare national and community values.
And I’ve never forgotten a discussion that I had with the former Canadian Prime Minister, whom I liked very much, Jean Chrétien, and we were talking about this whole idea of the Charter of Rights. And Canada has gone down this path of having a Charter of Rights where if something is to be adjudicated and determined by the judge and if Parliament wants to it can overturn the decision of the Court. Now how confusing is that? To an Australian audience, to say that you can have a court saying this and parliament says “no we’re going to do it in a different fashion” in a combative way as distinct from the system which we have. And he had had a debate going on in Canada about the issue of whether you should have gay marriage, and I don’t want to debate the merits either way on that. That is another matter, another issue, another forum. But in Australia something like that is determined by Parliament as the representatives of the people because it is something that should be reflective of community views and the debate should be something in which people participate in a normal fashion, but in Canada that was left to the Courts to decide. I find that ludicrous and I find the notion that issues of that kind should be determined by Courts and not determined by Parliament to be completely unacceptable.
I think there are three things that make Australia a democratic country. The first thing is that for all its faults, we have a robust parliamentary system. I know people criticise it. I know it’s got flaws and I know some of the decisions fall short of community expectations, but can I say after more than 33 years in the national Parliament, that it is robust certainly, and it is a great democratic institution and at the end of the day it normally gets the important things right. I think we ought to give our parliamentary system a tick and we ought not to succumb to the tide of cynicism that comes and goes within our community. I think the second thing that keeps us democratic is that we have a free and sceptical press. Not always comfortable for people like me – very uncomfortable on many occasions, but absolutely essential, and I think the free scepticism of the Australian media is something we ought to celebrate and not restrict or condemn. Thirdly, we have an incorruptible and honest Judiciary. Take those three things and you don’t need a Bill of Rights. It may surprise you to know that the Weimar Republic that preceded Nazi Germany – had a Bill of Rights, the Soviet Union had a Bill of Rights, the Zimbabwean Constitution guarantees fundamental rights and so the list goes on. In the end it is the instinct for and practice of democracy. Democracy is a cultural instinct. It is not something that can be written down and legislated and the idea of freedom of the individual and the idea of the instinctive freedom of the individual is fundamental to our being and fundamental to our values.
Now can I say to you my friends, in marking and honouring the event ten years ago, let me say that the real live debate about changing our system of government now is not the republican debate. It is not to say it won’t come back and I counsel all of you against complacency on that subject but right now the proposal to introduce a Charter of Rights represents a more direct threat to our system of government. It represents a potential threat to religious freedom. I mean in Victoria where you have a poor man’s Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, there has been an 18 month campaign going on by all of the religious denominations within the Christian embrace – as well as the Jewish faith and the Islamic faith – to resist the attempts of the politically correct supporters of so-called human rights to deny those organisations the right of requiring people whom they employ to adhere to and support and propagate the fundamental tenets of their faith. I mean imagine the proposition that you might be forced to employ somebody who didn’t actually say your product was a good product. [Aside] Now I know under some of the unfair dismissal laws [Laughter] we have had recently that that does become a bit problematic. My proposition is fairly simple that if an organisation subscribes to the values of Judaism or Christianity or Islam and it requires of its employees at least a minimalist commitment to and support of the values of those faiths, surely it is wrong for the State to come along and say “oh no, you’ve got to employ somebody who sort of doesn’t believe in it”. It’s an absurd proposition and if we’re going to have that perhaps we could require the ACTU to employ a member of the H. R. Nicholls Society! [Laughter] [Aside] I mean they really should, but they’re the sort of [Laughter] I think it would be a very good idea.
They are the sorts of things that happen where you have some kind of Charter of Rights where you get one group saying well look it’s my fundamental right as an atheist to sign up with the Society of St Vincent De Paul, and every opportunity I get I can put my point of view because that’s my fundamental right as a citizen. Now he’s got a perfect right to put his view but the Society of St Vincent De Paul, for example, has a perfect right to say “well you can put your point of view, but you can put it somewhere else!” [Laughter] That’s a perfectly legitimate thing – they’re right and he’s right and everybody’s happy, but if you try and mix them together. Now that’s a facetious – but only just – example of the sort of difficulty you would have with a Bill of Rights.
Can I lastly say that when I take my mind back to the Constitutional Convention, of all the groups that were represented, the ACM behaved with remarkable honour and decency and consistency. They did not seek to do tactical deals. They sought to put forward the views of the people who elected them. They were very democratic. They were not Machiavellian or manipulative. They were orthodox and straightforward. They were as straight as a gun barrel. They said “we support the status quo and we’re not going to do any tawdry deals with other people in order to get a tactical advantage” and they won the respect of many people who didn’t agree with them. I remember in his very strong address, Cardinal Pell making the point that the ACM had behaved with extraordinary consistency, despite the fact that he himself did not necessarily share their views. That was the attitude of so many people. They respected the integrity that the ACM brought to the debate.
Your organisation had very few resources. The very notion of forming an organisation to defend the status quo in the 1990s was greeted with a lot of derision in a lot of circles. It wasn’t a fashionable cause. It sort of didn’t lead the morning AM Programme. [Laughter] It copped an enormous amount of derision, but you were a collection of citizens who believed in something and you fought for it but you fought for it democratically. I want to say well done to the ACM. You’ve been very strong and faithful to the cause you believe in, and all Australians, whatever their views, ought to respect you for that.
As for the future, all I want for this country is a system of government that provides the maximum opportunity for individual men and women to achieve what their hearts want them to achieve. That is all I want for Australia. I want a constitutional framework that is more likely than any other to deliver that. All the evidence I see today is that we’re doing pretty well under our present arrangements. That doesn’t mean to say there isn’t opportunity or the likelihood of debate about the future. And it’s the right of any group of Australians to argue for change at any time. But in arguing for change, they carry the obligation of persuading us that things would be better if we changed what we now have. I’m not convinced of that and to date the great majority of Australians are not convinced of that. I think there is a little less pungency and urgency even amongst those who are of republican inclination on that issue, but at the end of the day that is something – as it should always be – in the hands of the Australian people. The Convention was a great exercise in democracy. The Referendum was a great exercise in democracy. And whenever you actually ask people to decide something, two things happen: they usually get it right; and secondly and very importantly, having been given the opportunity of deciding, even if they’re on the losing side, they will live with the outcome because they accept that it has been remitted to the collective of the people. That is what democracy is all about and that’s the democracy which will flourish and will remain strong under our Crowned Republic, and that is how I think it should remain. Thank you.