National Schools Constitutional Convention - Speech, Parliament House



I acknowledge we’re meeting in the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Who's visiting Canberra for the first time? Wonderful. Who's met Sean the prawn?


A few of you. Good to see. So for those hands that went up, you now know who to ask when you want an introduction to Sean the prawn, the most famous resident of the Marble Foyer - when Tony Smith isn't passing through.


You can take it for granted that you've got a Canberra based MP to welcome you to what I think it's the greatest city in Australia. You should not take it for granted that you just heard from the Speaker of the House. It's a very special thing to have Tony Smith here today. He doesn't only occupy the role of referee in the House of Representatives, he does it with a sense of purpose and grace, with an Australian egalitarianism and with a respect right across the Parliament has not been shared by all of his predecessors. Tony, on behalf of the other 149 members of the House, thank you for the important work you do for our great institution.

I've been asked to say a few words about my own pathway into politics. As a child, we lived for a time in Kuching, Jakarta and Banda Aceh. Attending the local Indonesian school in the late 1970s, some of my classmates lived in homes which had dirt floors and ate off a bamboo leaf using their right hand (because your left hand is used for ablutions). There were serious diseases running rampant through society. One of my classmates died – probably from a preventable disease.

That experience of seeing deep disadvantage got me interested in the issues of poverty and inequality. They were issues that I studied when I was at university here in Australia and in the United States and then researched when I was an economics professor at the Australian National University. I'd always been interested in politics as a way of delivering change, but I knew that it's pretty hard to get into politics. One of the things that I'm often reminded of is that there's just over a thousand people who've ever served in the House of Representatives of the many millions of Australians. But when the member for the seat that was then called Fraser, Bob McMullan, announced he was retiring I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring for the preselection and due to a lucky constellation of circumstances was fortunate enough to win election.

Luck matters. It is important to remember that often those of us who have done well have done well due not just to hard work but also to good fortune. Those who've had tough lives have often just fallen on hard times. Thinking about luck makes us a less likely to put the successful up on pedestals, a little less likely also to kick the unsuccessful into the gutter.

Luck is important too in the issue that you're discussing around the development of the Constitution. I just finished reading a splendid book by Judith Brett titled ‘From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage’, and she talks about many of the aspects of our democratic system. One of my favourite stories is how South Australia in 1894 became the first place in the world to allow full equality to women. The suffrage movement had been pushing for the right for South Australian women to have the vote and at the last minute the conservative opponents of that change inserted what they thought was a poison pill in the legislation. They moved an amendment to say that women would not only be able to vote, but would be able to stand for office and vote. The suffragettes hadn’t been asking for the right to stand for office and the opponents thought they'd come up with a really clever idea, because they thought it was absolutely crazy that women would actually run for office! But the blockers got it wrong. The bill went through and the suffragettes got not just what they'd asked for, but something that they didn't ask for - the right for women to run for office as well as to vote. True electoral equality.

But at the birth of the Australian Commonwealth, we didn’t have that same electoral equality for Indigenous Australians. In some states, there were bars on Indigenous Australians standing for office because they didn't have the right amount of property. In others, there were bars because Indigenous Australians who were receiving welfare weren't eligible to stand for office or to vote. It was not until 1983 that enrolment and voting were made compulsory for Indigenous Australians.

Australia has developed many important electoral innovations, including Saturday voting and preferential voting. Not only are we the nation that invented the black box flight recorder and the Hills Hoist, we're also the nation that invented the ballot box. And we got compulsory voting in an unusual way. Conservatives in other places have opposed compulsory voting because on average those who turn out tend to be a little bit more likely to vote for parties of the left. But after arguing two successive plebiscites to insist on Australians being conscripted to fight in World War One, when it came to Parliament in 1924 ,the Conservatives could hardly turn around and say ‘well, it's all right to compel people to fight, but we couldn't possibly compel them to vote’. So the private senator’s bill for compulsory voting passed through both houses with less than an hour's debate and it raised the share of Australians voting from 58 per cent to 90 per cent.

Now it's not to say that we're perfect. We have these great electoral innovations of which you should be justly proud - you are heirs to those great electoral innovations. But right now we do face some challenges. Voter turnout in 2016 was the lowest since the 1925 election, our first election after compulsory voting. When we look at the Australian Election Study, we see that over the last two decades the share of people satisfied with democracy has dropped from 78 per cent to 60 per cent. The share of people who agree that people in government can be trusted fell from 34 per cent to 26 per cent. So we weren't doing very well two decades ago, but we're certainly not doing well today. The significance of elections to people has waned. The share who say they were interested in the election was 50 per cent two decades ago. In the last election it was 30 per cent. One simple marker that is how many people watched the election debate - what I've always thought of as a real ritual in our election campaigns. Two decades ago 56 per cent of people watched the election debate. In the 2016 election just 21 per cent watched the election debate.

So we do have a real challenge in reinvigorating our democracy. In some sense, it's not conceptually hard. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle said politics is the art of working how to live together. It's as simple and as complicated as that. But that does require periodically updating our institutions. Thomas Jefferson thought the Constitution should be updated on average once a generation. In his day that would mean once every 20 years, in ours it means once every 30 years. It reminds us that the Constitution needs to be a living document, a document which reflects the new challenges of the age.

It is inconceivable that if we were sitting down now in 2019 to write the Australian Constitution that we would write Indigenous Australians out of the Constitution rather than beginning, as we begin every parliamentary sittings day, with an acknowledgement of the traditional Australians. It is similarly inconceivable to me that if we were writing our Constitution today, we would say that our head of state should be somebody who lives on the other side of the world. Somebody who hasn't grown up around eucalyptus and the baggy green, but who lives in a castle on the other side of the globe, of a particular religion and a particular bloodline. Those things are so anathema to the modern egalitarian Australia there's no way we'd write them in today. So I challenge you to think about how we update our Constitution to reflect our egalitarian, multicultural democracy.

The final thing I want to leave you with, is that your time here in Canberra should not just be purely an intellectual one. Enjoy your conversations and enjoy your debates, but remember that at the end of your time here people may forget the arguments you made, but they'll never forget the way you treated them. So treat everyone around you with the most the greatest possible respect and decency. Enjoy that joust of ideas but never get it confused with the attacking the individual. You can make great friendships when you here. You must - look at the quality of people in this room. So take the opportunity to make those friendships, to forge those bonds, to get to know an extraordinary bunch of people from around Australia who I'm sure in some cases will become lifelong friends. Welcome to Canberra and all the best with your discussions.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.

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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.