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Dorothy Peters Memorial Address


presented at the annual dinner of the
Young Liberal Movement of Australia (NSW Division)

By

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

26 October, 1999
University of Sydney

Tony Chappel, my parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

I very much appreciate your invitation to present this year's Dorothy Peters Memorial Address which I know is a major event in your calendar of activities.

I wanted to acknowledge the on-going role that the NSW Division of the Young Liberals is playing within the Liberal Party.

During my almost 18 years in the Senate I have been able to observe the fortunes of the Young Liberal Movement around Australia. Many divisions have had their ups and downs in terms of membership and their level of activity.

Throughout that period, however, the NSW Young Liberals have always remained strong and been a loud voice for the Liberal cause and the interests of young people within our Party.

The fact that four of those that have served as your state president during the last decade are now representing the Party in either the State or Federal Parliament is great testimony to the strength of the division. I particularly acknowledge my colleagues - Marise Payne and Joe Hockey - who are making a substantial contribution to the federal parliamentary party.

With the constitutional referendum only a week and a half-away, tonight I thought I might say something about that issue.

I appreciate the strong support that, in recent years, the NSW Young Liberal Movement has given to the republican cause. In many respects, the early stand that you took as a movement was instrumental in paving the way for a more open debate within our Party.

I also acknowledge that there are many of you here tonight that are yet to be convinced of the case for change. For me, the case comes down to a simple issue: do we, as a nation, want to move forward with a foreign monarch as our head of state or do we want to move to a system of government that has one of our own citizens in that role.

In the lead-up to the historic referendum on our constitutional arrangements, the ABC - through its documentary "Federation" - has helped to remind us of the courageous and historic steps taken by our forefathers some 100 years ago when they forged six distinct colonies into one nation.

I wonder how documentary makers in the year 2099 - preparing to celebrate the centenary of the Australian republic - will represent the historic process through which we are currently going as we seek to have an Australian as our head of state.

I hope they will reflect with pride and admiration that the Australians of our day recognised it was time to take the next step in our evolution as a strong, mature, democratic nation.

In other words, with the day of decision approaching rapidly, I remain confident that Australia will vote 'yes' on November 6.

Still the polls continue to show a significant number of undecided voters, along with a considerable number of republicans who could vote against the model on offer.

To those who remain undecided, I say that a move to Australia having an Australian as its head of state would be a natural expression of our political maturity.

The proposed model does not undermine the great strengths of our existing Constitution. It is a safe and workable proposal that continues our tradition of stable parliamentary democracy.

It is a symbolic but highly significant change.

To those republicans who are considering voting 'no' to this model, I say 'think again'.

The strategy of joining with the monarchists to vote down this model is both foolhardy and dangerous.

The dynamics of the campaign leading up to the November 6 vote have been that the monarchists vote against change, and then split the republican vote by having direct electionists follow suit.

Direct electionists naively believe that the monarchist strategy would be different in a subsequent vote on a direct election model.

I'm not so sure. I believe that if Saturday week's vote fails, it would be a very long time before another referendum would be put.

But even if a second vote did eventuate quickly, I believe the monarchist game plan would be almost identical.

The monarchists would maintain their block of votes against change, and again split the republican vote as there are many republicans who could not support a direct election proposal.

And as I will argue shortly, the monarchist scare campaign would be even more effective in swaying those undecided about change to vote 'no'.

It is time for the direct electionists to think outside the square.

While the monarchists remain in the equation, they will always be a potent force against change of any description.

A 'yes' vote on November 6 by direct electionists will effectively take the monarchists out of the game.

There appears to be two key issues which dominate the thinking of both the undecided and even those direct electionists who are still not locked in to a 'no' vote - the question of selection of the head of state, and the question of dismissal.

If I could deal with the second issue first, the question of dismissal of the president is nothing more than another furphy presented by those opposed to change.

They say the Prime Minister's power to dismiss will make the President nothing more than a poodle.

Even allowing for the monarchists' preference for corgis, this claim really is a nonsense.

Worse than that, it is patronising of the intelligence of the Australian public.

The fact is that the Prime Minister can currently dismiss the Governor General without notice, simply by advising the Queen to do so.

The proposed republican model actually adds a safeguard that upon dismissal of a president, the Prime Minister must within 30 days seek the approval of the House of Representatives.

Too much power for the Prime Minister? Only if you don't trust the common sense of the Australian people.

Any Prime Minister who removed a president without good reason would ultimately face the judgement of the public at the ballot box. That is what democracy is all about.

As a South Australian, one lesson of history which remains vivid in my mind is the sacking in 1978 of the highly respected State Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury by the then Premier Don Dunstan.

It was clearly within Dunstan's constitutional power as a premier to do so.

However, the public outrage his action sparked dealt a death blow to Dunstan's leadership and played a major role in Labor's defeat in the subsequent election in 1979.

The monarchists seem to be saying that we can't trust the Australian people to make a similar judgement of a Prime Minister who sacks a president without good reason.

They cling to the fanciful belief that having the Queen of England as our head of state in some way acts as a safeguard against the unfair dismissal of a governor general.

Under the proposed model, the people of Australia would become the ultimate safeguard against any unsound or unfair move by a prime minister to dismiss the president.

The second issue of selection of the president has caused significant divisions with the republican movement.

There can be no question that the issue of a directly elected president has damaged the push for an Australian Republic.

The self-dubbed Real Republicans have successfully played on the public's cynicism of politicians and the political process.

It is therefore ironic that the model supported by the Real Republicans is the one most likely to deliver a politician as president.

More dangerously, it would politicise the office of president.

Experience of our current political system indicates that there would be three pre-requisites for any candidate to have a realistic shot at winning a presidential election -

An established public profile would ensure media interest in the candidate's nomination and campaign - free publicity is invaluable in any political campaign. Public recognition is also invaluable in influencing voting intention. How many mums and dads had heard of Sir William Deane before his appointment as Governor General? How many would have voted for him?

Celebrity status should not be a factor in determining who will be our head of state. A simple test for us all - next time you are with people discussing the direct election issue ask them: who is the Chief Justice of the High Court? Then ask them: who is the captain of the Australian Cricket team?
I would suspect more would be able to answer the latter than the former. It follows that a large percentage of the population voting at a presidential election will more readily tick the box marked S Waugh, than the box marked M Gleeson.

While one has the constitution for saving Tests, the other would be more suited if required to face the test of saving the Constitution.

But just as worrying is that, even with a high personal profile, it would be near impossible for a candidate for president to sustain the interest of the media and the community without entering into debate on topical political issues- setting down their views on a whole range of newsworthy policy areas: health, education, industrial relations, welfare, family values, and so on.

Already the danger is apparent that once elected, the president could claim a greater mandate than the incumbent Prime Minister on any of these issues without having the responsibility of running the administration and balancing the books.

But there is an even more sinister and more dangerous element to this debate - an element which any follower of national affairs in recent times should be acutely aware of.

It is not difficult to imagine a 'One Nation style' candidate nominating for president and then, with the help of manipulative advisers, setting out on a strategy of attracting media attention by attacking Asian immigration, disparaging and demeaning the members of our indigenous communities, and making scapegoats of recipients of welfare benefits such as single mothers.

It is a stark warning that far from uniting our nation and making us stand proud in the international community, a direct election process could create serious divisions within our society and damage our international reputation as a tolerant and compassionate nation.

As we have learnt, the damage would be done regardless of whether the particular candidate was successful or not.

Along with an established public profile, a candidate would require significant financial resources for a successful campaign.

In the United States we have seen George Bush Junior raise an astounding US$60 million for his campaign --and the primaries don't even start until next year.

While Australian presidential candidates would not require such a vast sum, there would still be a need for considerable financial backing.

As the US experience has taught us, this inevitably leads to questions about where the money is coming from and what is expected in return.

Commercial considerations should never be allowed to influence the selection of a president.

More importantly, commercial influences or allegations about the propriety of donations should never be allowed to compromise the president in the performance of their duties as head of state.

Would mining companies and electricity generators be attracted to provide significant financial backing to a presidential candidate who opposed the ratification of the Kyoto Greenhouse treaty?

Would Australian banks be attracted to support a presidential candidate who, once elected, could tell "the whole story" on how banks are good for Australia?

Would Australia's tobacco companies - who used to pour tens of millions of dollars into advertising and sponsorships - be attracted to throw their considerable financial clout behind a presidential candidate who had the habit of lighting up at public appearances?

Even if the candidate were eventually unsuccessful, the financial backers would have gained from having their views given prominence during the presidential election campaign.

And what access would big donations secure? Is it beyond reason to suggest that a large corporate entity may financially back a candidate in the expectation that in return the president would be available to host dinners or private functions to impress their corporate clients?

So we are faced with a direct election model which will both politicise and commercialise the selection of our head of state.

And this is before we consider the implications of an incumbent president using the resources of office - such as fundraising dinners or sleep-overs at Yarralumla - to gather donations for their re-election campaign.

It has happened overseas and it would inevitably happen here.

The final factor vital to any presidential nominee is an effective administrative base.

A candidate would need a large team of voluntary or paid support staff to run the day to day campaign - planning media events and public appearances, writing speeches, organising mail-outs, answering public and media queries, raising campaign funds, manning polling booths and so on.

It is obvious that the major political parties are best placed to run such a campaign.

The recent suggestion of a ban on the involvement of political parties was simply ridiculous. It would seem odd that direct electionists pushing for their model on the basis that it is more democratic would then seek to deny the democratic right of political parties and their members to be involved.

But it was a clear acknowledgment that even the direct electionists recognise the inadequacies and dangers of their preferred model.

If any candidate, with the help of a political party, the trade union movement or a large sectional interest group, could put together all three ingredients - a public profile, financial backing and administrative support - the potential of setting a directly elected president on a collision course with the incumbent prime minister would no doubt become a reality - to the detriment of stable government.

For example, the Howard Government currently has proposals for further reforms to our industrial relations system.

The trade union movement could nominate Jenny George as a presidential candidate and with ALP support and the resources of its membership base mount a vigorous national campaign.

The Coalition would be left with no choice but to enter the campaign backing its own high profile candidate.

So much for a politician-free process.

And it doesn't end with political parties.

The Gun Lobby could nominate a candidate to oppose John Howard's strong stand on gun control. Greenpeace could nominate candidate to oppose the mining industry. The League of Rights could nominate a person to oppose overseas aid. And Senator Bob Brown, no doubt, would nominate a candidate to oppose everything.

There is simply no way of avoiding it - you'd have more chance of getting the monarchists to mention the Queen than you have of keeping politicians out of an election.

As referendum day draws nearer, republicans need to strengthen their resolve to bring about the symbolic but important change to an Australian head of state.

With a significant number of people still undecided, it appears that we are heading for a photo finish.

Those of us who support change should heed the harsh lesson learnt by former Russian Olympic hurdler Tatiana Ledovskaya.

In the final of the women's 400 metre hurdles at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Ledovskaya led the field for almost the entire race but made the fatal mistake of easing up just as she hit the finish line.

That one moment cost her victory as Australia's Debbie Flintoff-King made one last surge to the line to claim gold in one of the closest and most famous finishes in Olympic history.

The message for all republicans in the coming days is that like Flintoff-King, we too must push hard to the finishing line.

We must maintain the passion, commitment and discipline that has brought us this far. Only then will victory be assured.

And finally, just before the monarchists start another silly scare campaign, let me assure you that a "yes" vote on November 6 will not mean that Debbie Flintoff-King will be forced to abbreviate her name.

Commonwealth of Australia