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Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION : ADDRESS


Old Parliament House, Canberra
4 February 1998

Mr Chairman

I believe Australia should have an Australian as its Head of State. And I believe it is a change we should embrace with pride. To me it would in fact be an achievement - a logical and progressive step in our evolution as a nation. And provided the new model is crafted with care, I'm sure it can be achieved without any threat to the stability and security of the current constitutional structure.

I do feel a touch concerned that I return to this building and recall my heroes when I arrived here in 1981- the Reg Withers, Neville Bonners, Jim Killens of the political world. And here they are again - but all on the other side. I can only think that with age they have lost their spirit of adventure.

Seriously though, I do understand those, who beyond sentimentality, remain wedded to the existing structure.

By any standard, Australia has been well-served by its Constitution.

It has provided stability where others have delivered uncertainty.

It has ensured workability where others have delivered chaos.

It has endured while others have floundered.

Our Founding Fathers, were they alive today, would have much to be proud of.

And I agree that their unique Australian legacy must not be put at risk.

But I'm sure our Founding Fathers, if they were here today, looking at contemporary Australia, would find it more than a little odd that we should still have the British Sovereign as our Head of State.

It seems to me that without being prepared to embrace constitutional change, when our nation has otherwise so extensively changed, will be to ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the existing system. It is important to adapt to change.

It is important that our institutions reflect contemporary Australia, not just our historical legacy - rich though it might be.

The British legacy to Australia has been enormous - whether the Westminster system of Government, the common law, British public administration and values of freedom and liberty that have not had to be codified. It has been a fine foundation for our nationhood.

And despite the fact that the British and Australian nations have taken different paths in many ways, there will always be as a result of this legacy, a bond which is special.

But building on this legacy, we must continue to make our own destiny.

In doing so, there have been some who have been analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the structure of other states and urging the adoption of one or another model. To me that would be a mistake. We have our own structure which is unique and as we move on it must remain unique. I don't eye the system of any other with envy.

I don't see a need for radical change - as has been suggested by some. The change I believe is desirable would be largely symbolic.

Some say symbols do not matter.

I believe symbols are important.

Symbols define us as people. They reflect our values, our direction, our commitment.

They inspire. They are in many ways the glue that binds people together.

The Australian nation has in my view matured to a stage where we can cease to have the British monarch as our Head of State and can take one of our own with confidence. It is to me, as I said before, a natural step in our evolution. As it was to abolish appeals to the Privy Council some 23 years ago - but I remember the cries of anguish of that time. Some such as my former colleague Michael Hodgman, also here today, are still in anguish.

Most of the British Commonwealth have already taken the step of adopting one of their own nationals as Head of State and without negative consequences. I have no doubt ultimately all will do so. And if you believe its shared values that bind the Commonwealth together, it is a change which won't effect the strength and cohesion of the Commonwealth and the Queen will obviously remain its head.

Being convinced that the time has come for an Australian as Head of State the question becomes how can that be achieved consistent with maintaining the strength and values of the existing system.

In particular how can the existing checks and balances between the head of executive power (the Prime Minister) and the constitutional guardian (the Head of State) be maintained.

I don't want to move to a purely ceremonial Head of State. It would remove residual "checks" and further enhance the power of the Prime Minister (whom, as we have been often reminded, is not directly elected as Head of Government).

Equally I do not want to create an alternative political power in the Head of State, which direct election and codified powers would do. I have therefore had to reject that model. The strength of stability in the existing system must not be lost by the change we propose.

We could simply provide a power of appointment and dismissal of the Head of State to the Prime Minister either directly or through a nominal authority which would be a near reflection of today's reality.

But I'd prefer election of the Head of State by a special majority of say two-thirds of the Parliament. It is true that this would modestly reduce the discretion of the Prime Minister but it would also modestly enhance the responsibility of the Parliament.

Some may object to enhancing the responsibilities of Parliament but Australia is a representative democracy. Parliament is the assembly of representatives who have been elected by, and are accountable to, the people. And in this instance it includes the Senate which might serve multiple roles, but in its composition reflects the federal nature of our system of government.

The supremacy of the Parliament (subject only to the Constitution and the electorate) and the responsibility of the Executive to Parliament are cornerstones in our democracy.

To enhance, albeit even modestly, the supremacy of the Parliament in this way seems to me to be a sound investment.

Some, verging on many, have come here lamenting the unpopularity of politicians. To that there is a simple answer and it is in the hands of the people, but it is not to knock the institution. To use this as an opportunity to undermine the authority of the Parliament, I believe, would be highly counter-productive.

It seems a strange concept indeed that the directly elected representatives of the people should be perceived to be inappropriate or unfit to discharge the duty of electing a President.

The more difficult issue is dismissal. To maintain the existing balance I see no alternative but to retain in the Prime Minister the power of dismissal.

Some will say that this from the point of procedural ease enhances the power of the Prime Minister. Then consistent with my commitment to parliamentary democracy, if the relationship of power between the Prime Minister and the Head of State has to be slightly re- jigged, it must be in favour of the Prime Minister.

What I support is a compromise, I concede, but with such a change we get an Australian as Head of State, we give the people through the Parliament a more direct role in the appointment and we don't significantly alter the balance of power between the Prime Minister and the Head of State.

Finally, John Howard as Prime Minister has given us the opportunity for this reform, he has facilitated debate through this people's convention and he has offered us the opportunity of a referendum. He has given the republican side every opportunity to make its case and I commend his initiative. But the side for change must find a common position and it will require compromise; recognising that there is an argument for and against every proposition.

If those for change, in which I include myself, are not prepared to compromise on the detail to achieve the goal we will not only be letting down ourselves but many Australians who are relying upon us.

I look forward to the further considerations of this Convention.

Commonwealth of Australia