Henry Parkes and Australian Egalitarianism

Henry Parkes envisaged a federated Australia not held back by its vast size and relative isolation. On the 200th anniversary of his birth I took the opportunity to reflect on his contribution to Australian egalitarianism and the contemporary debate about access to education.

Henry Parkes and Australian Egalitarianism 

House of Representatives

22 June 2015 

Americans revere founding fathers. Yet in Australia, as a younger and possibly more modest nation, we often seem less likely to trumpet their achievements or even to know their names. Sir Henry Parkes' achievement is all around us. Rightly regarded as the 'Father of Federation', this 27 May marked 200 years since his birth. Moving to Australia from the UK, Parkes would go on to become NSW Premier. An autodidact from a working class family, he would also become one of the most articulate and powerful advocates for a federated Australia, noting the crimson thread of citizenship which ran through our nation.

Parkes served as NSW Premier on five separate occasions. In that office, he implemented sweeping political and social reforms including the landmark Public Schools Act and the expansion of free trade policies. Jane Reynolds' Foundation 1901 seeks to expand the knowledge of Henry Parkes. 

For Parkes, reforming New South Wales was not enough. He imagined one Australian nation at a time when we were only six disparate colonies. His Tenterfield address was Australia's answer to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Relatively brief and passionately eloquent, Parkes said the time had arisen 'for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government and an Australian parliament'. Drawing a direct parallel to the American experience, he declared, 'Surely what the Americans did by war, the Australians can bring about in peace.' Yet a peacetime struggle for a united nation proved no less protracted or problematic.

Parkes worked to bring about the federation from as early as 1867 and died in 1896, five years before its completion. Although he was never able to see the final product, we see it today as his legacy. And we are reminded in his work of constitutional reform of Jefferson's injunction that a people should revisit its constitutional groundings once a generation. During his long career of public service, Parkes gave voice to the great Australian spirit of egalitarianism, championing women's suffrage, pioneering mental health care and establishing public education.

Labor's Gonski reforms inspired a mass movement from the Australian community, too, recognising that Australia is at its best when it has an education system that supports all students. People in our community and in our classrooms realise, as Henry Parkes did, that the promise of Australia is unfulfilled if a child who grows up in poverty is destined to stay in poverty. We need schools who prepare all children for the opportunities merited by their talents and abilities.

In my electorate, the Gonski reforms delivered literacy and numeracy coaches at Giralang Primary School, an introductory English centre at Palmerston District Primary School and more resources particularly for the schools which most needed them. I acknowledge in the ACT passionate Gonski champions Glenn Fowler, Peter Malone, Cathy Smith, Bill Book, Sue Amundsen, Sascha Colley, Mike Fitzgerald, Penny Gilmour, Phillip Rasmus, Roger Amey, Piers Douglas, Stuart Gilmore, Ingrid Bean, Jo Larkin, Roseanne Byrne, Murray Chisholm, Peter Curtis, Nina Leuning, David Stone, Shane Gorman, Janet Harris, Lana Read, Vivienne Pearce and Jane Tullis.

Teaching disadvantaged students is among the most important jobs in Australia. It was in Parkes' age and it is today, but it is an immensely challenging job. We need to ensure that those great teachers get the supports they need. Education to change more lives. Great education policy is not only the best equity policy we have; it is one of the best productivity boosting policies. Perhaps Henry Parkes' greatest contribution to egalitarianism on this continent was that federal system. Federation was a bulwark against inequality, a guarantor of egalitarianism. Federalism divides power, but it also shares resources and recognises that at times when parts of the continent are doing it tough, parts of the continent that are doing better can step in to lend a helping hand.

Now is the time when it is apt for Australia to consider our federal structures, to review our tax and constitutional arrangements. Now, 200 years after his birth, Parkes's spirit of egalitarianism, his belief in a robust federation and his belief that the constitutional conversation must be ongoing should guide us still.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.