The Neville Bonner Oration is named in honour of the late Senator Neville Thomas Bonner AO (1922 – 1999), the first Australian Aborigine to be elected to either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.
In his speech at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the only one to attract a standing ovation, Senator Bonner pleaded:-
“….From the bottom of my heart, I pray you: stop this senseless division. Let us work together on the real issues…..”
Ladies and Gentlemen. I first met John Howard five long decades ago. To say I met him is to exaggerate; we gradually recognized and acknowledged one another.
This was at the Law School of the University of Sydney –the only Law School in the State in the only University in the city of Sydney.
If you asked a taxi driver to take you to "the university" in those days, he would know exactly where to go. That is, if you could afford to use taxis. Articled clerks usually could not.
Incidentally John Howard was articled to a city solicior. He practiced as a city solicitor. Now there is nothing demeaning about being a "suburban solicitor". But how often have you seen John Howard thus described ..with more than a touch of disparagement?
And let me say one thing to that appalling shoe bowler at Cambridge University.
I can say, with exquisite personal authority, that John Howard was not a racist five decades ago.
Just as he is not a racist today.
All that foolish shoe bowler has achieved by his assault has been to make us the butt of English jokes.
For example: “After that bowling, you can see why they lost The Ashes.”
But to return to Law School . If we young men and the handful of young ladies had been asked who among them would end up as Prime Minister of Australia I suspect that we would have chosen that most confident young man, the one more likely to intervene in lectures where the convention was absolute silence, in brief the most confident of all of us.
I refer of course to young… Marcus Einfeld.
But he was not to be Prime Minister. That honour was to fall on John Howard
[ To read more of this introduction of John Howard AC by Professor David Flint on the occasion of the 2009 Neville Bonner Oration on 5 November, 2009 click Read More below]
…a great Prime Minister…
And on any judgement John Howard must be counted among the nation’s outstanding leaders.
For a number of reasons.
Few would doubt that our present happy state of our economy- almost alone in the world – is due and principally due to his prudent approach to debt, and the building of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s soundest financial regulatory systems. It was in reforming the system of direct taxation for the sole benefit of the totally ungrateful state governments. What is overlooked is that his contributions were not only made while in government but unusually for Australia, from the opposition benches in relation to those measures he judged deserving of support.
Then there was his work in foreign affairs and defence in bringing us into those high counsels of the world where Australia had not been before. And it was also in removing the proposition the crippling proposition that we had to choose between Asia and our great and powerful friends.
He was instrumental in liberating East Timor for which he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. But when he refused to accept the hijacking of the Norweigan ship, the Tampa, a hijacking the Norweigans wished us to accept, the Norweigan committee awarded the prize to those clearly less deserving.
….a very fair go for the republicans..
But on this day we remember one singular achievement.
In the terms of the ACM mission, of which he has been a long supporter, he has protected , he has preserved and he has defended the constitutional system of the Commonwealth of Australia, the role of the Crown in it and our flag.
And at the same time, he has allowed those of our fellow Australians who wanted fundamental constitutional change, full free and ample opportunity to test the wishes of those who must ultimately decide, the people.
How attitudes change. In 1998 the republican model emerged from the convention with a simple majority, but not an absolute majority. He immediately announced that as it was supported overwhelmingly by the republican delegates, it should to go to a referendum.
That day the republican movement and the commentariat poured lavish praise on him.
“ It’s all over bar the voting” proclaimed one victorious headline.
But when the Australian people did not deliver, myths were invented to excuse their defeat..
One was that John Howard fixed the convention. He did not. It wasn’t. Of the 36 in his gift less than one third- a mere ten – voted John Howard’s way.
The second principal myth was that he fixed the question. He did not. True, the republican movement did not have their way. They tried to remove two words from the question. Unbelievably these were the word “president” and…. the word “republic”
Ladies and Gentlemen, you can imagine what their focus groups were telling them.
But equally John Howard refused our ACM proposal that the question include reference to the one criterion which distinguished the proposed republic from any other ever known in the history of the world.
This was the dangerous provision that the prime minister could dismiss the president, without notice, without any reason and without any effective appeal. Peter Reith attributes to me the observation that this was the only republic in which it would be easier for the prime minister to sack the president than his cook. I think Reg Withers said it first.
If anyone seriously doubts that Mr Howard did not give the republicans not only a fair go, but a faire go than they could have reasonably expected, they should compare the 1998 Convention with the 2020 Summit.
The Convention, elected, ex officio and appointed represented all sides and all ranks.
The Summit was consciously and deliberately restricted to the elites, “the best and the brightest”.
The governance panel consisted of 98 or 99 republicans and one monarchist, Senator George Brandis. I suspect that they thought he was a republican.
Two highly experienced chairmen, republicans Ian Sinclair and Barry Jones presided over the Convention.
Mr. Rudd made himself co chairman with his close friend Dr Glyn Davis.
John Howard participated as an ordinary delegate, Kevin Rudd retained control as ultimate co-chair.
John Howard saw that the Convention debates were recorded in Hansard, and with the two experienced chairmen, ensured the process and decisions were completely transparent and on the public record.
Not so the Summit’s. The proceedings were so poorly handled, republican Professor Robert Manne said they had come to resemble a mad hatter's tea party. The crucial decision on governance was a call to end ties with the UK. But the next day, Alan Jones on 2GB pointed out the embarrassing fact that such ties went years ago.
Ten days later the Summit record was surreptitiously changed, and without any vote.
Ladies and Gentlemen,What Mr. Howard did was to allow a vote on the republicans preferred model. He allowed this at the worst time for us and the most auspicious time for change.
Everything suggested change – the new century, the new millennium, the centenary of Federation and the Sydney Olympic Games, as well as recent matrimonial difficulties in the Royal Family.
The process was open, transparent and could not have been fairer. Above all it complied with the constitution.
The landslide decision – against a wealthy campaign with overwhelming media and political support – was a clear as glass. Every state and 72% of electorates rejected the republic.
It is a tribute to John Howard that he saw this through. The republicans demean themselves when they attack him for their loss.
Ladies and Gentlemen it is an honour to introduce the man who preserved what those who have gone before us have left in our trust…our indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown.
[ This is the text of the introduction of John Howard AC by Professor David Flint on the occasion of the 2009 Neville Bonner Oration, 5 November, 2009 at Tattersall's Club, Sydney]