I rise today to speak on the Succession to the Crown Bill 2015. Before I go into any detail in my speech, I just want to acknowledge the contribution made by Queen Elizabeth to our nation over many, many years and also the contribution made by her family. As a proud republican, I am in no way disrespectful to the monarchy and I just want to make that clear.
I also respect the institution of the Governor-General. It was a great pleasure to be at the opening of the new Soldier On headquarters as well as the Robert Poate Centre for reintegration today. Soldier On has grown from an entity launched in a tent about five years ago, down where the Canberra Services Club was located— unfortunately it burnt down years before that. It grew from that tent and that launch, with just a handful of us, including the member for Lingiari, who was there that night. From that very early start, with those very small steps, it has now grown into this extraordinary institution with fantastic facilities out at Gungahlin—both the national headquarters and the Robert Poate Centre. So it was wonderful to be there with the Governor-General this morning. I congratulate Soldier On for growing from very small things into very big things and for all the great work they do in helping returning soldiers and those who have left the service in dealing with their PTSD and other issues.
First and foremost, this bill sees to it that men will no longer take priority over women in the line of succession. Instead, priority will simply be determined by order of birth. We support this bill because it will amend some of the worst elements of the rules of succession to the British royal Crown. The bill also removes the bar on succession for an heir of the king or queen who marries a Catholic. That is why Labor supports these reforms— because they are consistent with our commitment to gender equality and religious freedom.
At the same time that we are debating this bill in this House, similar legislation is being progressed by the states and territories and by other countries which remain part of the British Commonwealth. It is awfully quaint. This takes time; this takes money. It takes time and money to pass such legislation, and while we are standing here debating it today there is an opportunity cost to the Australian people. We could be debating issues of education, health care or child care, but we are not. We are debating changes to the rules of succession to the British royal Crown, which has little to no impact on our nation. Instead, Labor is looking forward to the day when the parliament once again debates legislation that would facilitate Australia becoming a republic, with an Australian head of state.
Why should Australia become a republic? According to the Australian Republican Movement:
A republic is for all of us, all Australians. It's about Australia belonging to all of us, in our name and not in the name of another country's figurehead. It's just common sense—and it's also our great patriotic mission.
Indeed, why should we conclude that our people are not capable of producing a new set of institutions that better represent our values in practice as well as theory? We have built a mighty democracy and can make one further improvement to make it all-Australian, owned and operated.
There are several reasons why I believe Australia should become a republic, and many of them have to do with our identity. Speaking about identity, just recently we had the opportunity to laud the achievements of Gough Whitlam in the condolence motion on his passing. In the speech I made lauding his achievements, and they are many—and, as I said in that speech, without Gough Whitlam, without the reforms that he made to our nation, particularly in terms of free education, I do not believe I would be standing in this place—I also touched on the fact that Gough Whitlam gave us a great gift. He gave us not only free education, not only the many changes particularly for women in this nation, but the great gift of being proud of ourselves. He gave us the gift of allowing us to tell our stories through film, through literature, through the arts, through a range of measures—stories that prior to that had not been told.
We had not had the opportunity to have a voice, to speak out about our identity, about what it is to be Australian. There had been novels written in the past, like My Brother Jack, Power Without Glory and a range of other novels that did talk about Australian history, but we did not really have a critical mass of discussion about ourselves or a representation of ourselves, particularly through film, the arts and literature.
What happened was that many Australian artists went overseas. There was a real cultural cringe. In fact, the sooner they could get out of Australia, the better. They went to Europe to be with the masters, to learn about the European stories and to express themselves through a European prism. But by providing funding for the arts, by providing funding for film, by providing funding for literature, Gough provided us with the opportunity to tell our story and to show our story—and it is a great story in so many ways. For the first time, we were seeing films where the forensic Australian light was being shown on our screens. You do not get that when you watch European films or North American films. They have that muted golden light, and here we have that forensic light where every flaw is shown. We saw that as the result of the investments that Gough made in film. We got to hear about our stories in our own language, describing our own environments, through the investment he made in literature.
We got to see our own performers. We got to see our own dancers. The Australian Ballet has been going for many years, but there was contemporary dance as well that was funded by Gough. As a result of that, we had a chance to express ourselves in dance, and Australians do have a unique way of dancing. As someone who loves ballet, I know just from watching a Russian dancer compared to an Australian dancer they are vastly different. The Russians are very contained, very measured; the Australians are very exuberant, very energetic, and they are world renowned for that.
So becoming a republic is just another way of advancing Gough's cause, advancing Gough's investment in Australia, advancing Gough's pride in Australia and allowing us to have our own identity in every way. It will also allow us, as Australian people, to work out the direction we want our nation to head into in the future.
While the Governor-General acts as a de facto head of state, Australia's transformation as a nation is still incomplete. Under our Constitution, the British monarch is the font of all legal power in Australia and is our formal head of state. Isn't it time, 110 years after Federation, that we move on to the next level? The fact that Australia is still so strongly connected to the British monarchy seems out of date with Australian culture. We saw how Australians reacted to the Prime Minister knighting Prince Philip on Australia Day. That decision showed us how much the Prime Minister's vision for Australia is in the past. His vision for Australia is based on a 1950's world view. He wants a 1950's honour system, he wants a 1950's health system where only the wealthy can access health services and he wants a 1950's education system—again, where only the wealthy can access universities.
The real tragedy about the Prime Minister's decision to knight Prince Philip is the fact that it drowned out Australia Day and the achievements of all the Australians who were honoured and awarded. What is so infuriating is that it drowned out the message of Rosie Batty. If faced with the unimaginable tragedy Rosie Batty has faced, I think most of us would retreat completely into our lives and our world and would not want to engage, but it empowered this woman to campaign against domestic violence. The fact that the Prime Minister's announcement drowned out that woman's message on domestic violence is an absolute outrage.
His decision highlighted his old-fashioned values rather than being open to a modern Australia. The way that Australians reacted to his decision showed a complete disconnect, with many feeling the honours system is outdated. We saw a similar reaction from the public last year when the Prime Minister reintroduced knighthoods, and much of the criticism came from within his own team! Again, Australians found themselves debating the idea of whether we should become a republic. I might just add that, while we were debating the Prime Minister's medieval knighthood system on Australia Day and his decision on Prince Philip, at the same time a country that I lived in and that I love, India, was celebrating its Republic Day—India was celebrating its independence day. It seems shocking to me that India abolished the British monarch as the head of state, much to the chagrin of some parties in Mumbai, and established the Republic of India in 1950—more than 60 years ago—and yet we are still looking backwards to last century's ideas.
I will move to the second key reason I believe Australia should become a republic. It is because there are many aspects of the British monarchy which I find unAustralian. We tell our kids that if they work hard they can grow up to be anything they want to be—except if you want to become the head of state, which in the British monarchy is selected through the principles of hereditary male succession and with Catholics being specifically ineligible. That Australia is still connected to such an inequitable and unfair system is, quite frankly, shameful.
As we all know, Australians were asked to vote the monarchy out of existence in November 1999, and by a large margin we unfortunately said no, rejecting the proposal to replace the monarch with a president appointed by parliament. However that was not the case in my electorate. I am proud to say that 63.77 per cent of Canberrans —the most highly educated people in the country—voted in favour of becoming a republic. A Newspoll in September that year showed that 95 per cent of Australians agreed that the head of state should be an Australian— yet only 45 per cent voted for the republic package in the referendum the following November. The referendum failed, and that was largely because the question tied the issue to a prescribed model for the election of a president. I will not discuss in any detail my views on that at this point. It was a highly political move at the time, and we saw the result. Despite the result that we had in Canberra, unfortunately that was not the case for the rest of Australia. I believe that, if Australians had been provided with another model, the referendum would have been successful, and I welcome the Leader of the Opposition's call today for the debate to begin again on becoming a republic.
As the opposition leader said in his speech this afternoon, one of the key reasons to change our Constitution relates to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the first Australians. Our Constitution functions as a powerful symbolic statement of Australian identity; yet Indigenous Australians are explicitly excluded from the constitutional processes and from its text. The 1967 referendum did permit the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but did not resolve the issues of recognition of Indigenous Australians and their legal and constitutional protection. It is time to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution—and this is something the majority of Australians support.
Australia needs a political system that allows any of our citizens to rise to the top on merit not birthright. Only then will we be able to move forward into the next chapter of our history as a free country. We need an Australian republic, a model that truly speaks for who we are, our modern identity and our place in our region and our world. By such a declaration, Australia will make it clear to ourselves and the world that we are independent, mature and representative of us and worthy of us. An Australian republic is about the Australian people being unambiguously sovereign in a fully and truly independent Australian nation.
With all due respect, the monarch has no role at all in Australian government, and I believe Australians are ready for a discussion about an Australian head of state. I certainly know that Canberrans are, and they have been for a very long time. It is time for our country to live by our own set of values and have independence from the United Kingdom.