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Stott Despoja Calls For Constitutional and Political Reforms

Last updated on December 11, 2023

The Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, has called for a range of constitutional and political reforms.

Stott Despoja’s call came in her speech to the Senate’s Centenary of Federation sitting in Melbourne.

Text of speech by the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, to the Senate’s Centenary of Federation Sitting in Melbourne.

Stott DespojaOn behalf of the Australian Democrats I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people.

I thank the previous speakers for their contributions.

The Australian Democrats congratulate the oldest party in the parliament, the Australian Labor Party on the centenary of their caucus.

Labor held the balance of power in the 1901 federal parliament and won Government within a decade. This is a lesson for the Democrats who hold the balance of power now, to study with great interest.

The Liberal Party of Australia was formed in 1944, I look forward to congratulating them on their centenary, in 43 years.

The Democrats have been the third force in Australian politics for nearly a quarter of a century and we acknowledge the other minor parties and independents that have shared the balance of power.

Even in the first federal Parliament, Prime Minister Edmund Barton could not govern without the support of one of the other parties.

And as early as 1902 there were calls in the Parliament for proportional representational in the Senate.

The Democrats are proud to honour the ideological legacy of figures such Alfred Deakin, who promoted equality, a united Australia and political cooperation.

This is an occasion for celebration, reflection and imagining the future.

Celebration of a democracy.

Reflection on the good and the bad of our political heritage.

As well as an imagining of what is to be.

A funny thing happened on the way to Federation: six state governments agreed.

Federation and the constitution and even the choice of Canberra as the nation’s capital were the results of compromise.

There was no monument built at federation, although over a period of 26 years a city was built, named Canberra which was a wise choice over considered options such as KangaEmu, New London, or Democratia.

We should celebrate the peaceful path that led to our Federation, created from debate and deliberation through public meetings and the ballot box – not bullets and blood on the wattle.

From 1901 Australia was a world leader in constitutional innovation, introducing female suffrage and universal franchise, secret ballots and postal voting well ahead of other democracies.

Today our system of government is recognised as one of the world’s most successful and enduring democracies.

We should celebrate the fact that we have fewer state and federal politicians per head of population than we had in 1901, yet difference and diversity is increasingly represented.

Australia has continued to mature. We are proud of the cultural diversity that characterises the Australian nation.

There are more than 2,000 Centenary events and projects through which Australians across the continent are celebrating Federation.

Parades, exhibitions, festivals, races, concerts, lectures, essays, souvenirs, fireworks, and a beard growing competition in Eden.

In 1901, children in schools across the country simultaneously raised the Australian flag (in one of the biggest events of Federation). This year’s re-enactment is coordinated by email.

The hundreds of registered events by and for local communities reflect not only a widespread belief that ‘Yes, Federation was the way to go’, but offer opportunities to promote history, to educate, to look at where we have come from, reflect with honesty, and to think about where we are going.

There is an opportunity to recognise the richness and diversity of Indigenous cultures the ability to triumph over 200 years of dispossession, discrimination and injustice.

In September this year at Alice Springs there will be the Yeperenye Dreaming, and Australia’s first nation peoples will welcome all Australians to their land in a gesture of reconciliation.

The Centenary gives us reason to reflect on the past hundred years of nationhood with honesty and acknowledge the errors of the past.

The first parliament was not representative of the population.

A hundred years ago, there were no women sitting, standing, or chairing Madam President, in either chamber. Almost a quarter of the present parliament would not have even been eligible to vote in 1901.

A nation is a work in progress.

Just as the original architect’s plans of this building do not entirely reflect what stands here today, aspects of our Government have been remodelled and the renovations are ongoing.

The original blueprint for Federation – our Constitution – did not predict a nation which celebrates multiculturalism and that still seeks reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and more than 200 years of migrants.

With due respect to our founders, they could not predict the impact we would have on our natural environment, or the evolution of the United Nations and international law, the rise of women’s liberation, or the dominance of the Party system.

Or maybe they could foresee those things but they left it to future generations to work it out. Maybe that is why the Constitution is silent on so many matters: maybe we are meant to fill in the blank pages.

We can wonder at the injustice that most women and indigenous people’s were denied the vote 100 years ago.

We must always ask of our actions how will they be judged at the bicentenary of Federation? What are the implications of our decisions for our children, our grand children, and even their great grand children?

While we may deplore the low percentage of the population that voted 100 years ago, we should remember there are Australians who do not vote now. So the question of how to engage people in politics is ongoing.

Being an Australian is more than voting, paying taxes, having a passport or knowing who the first Prime Minister was. Citizenship is not just a knowledge of processes, it is also about having the confidence and the motivation to ACT on that knowledge. It is part of the democratic spirit to debate, challenge and to protest what we believe is unjust.

Federation was not inevitable in 1901, as Alfred Deakin said it resulted from ‘a series of miracles’. Federation was talked about from the 1840s. Children were born and grew to old age amid discussion of the colonies uniting. There was a growing nationalism and an emerging Australian culture in literature and art. In the first ever cricket test match, the first Australian eleven beat England by 45 runs.

When it happened, it happened quite quickly. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

The creation of the nation on 1 January 1901, the formation later of the federal parliament that same year, and the establishment of the High Court in 1903 were what constituted Australia as a democratic nation.

But it was the passion of ordinary men and women that propelled the Federation movement forward when the politicians had lost hope. As the South Australian voting paper read at the time, ‘Every man and woman whose names are on the roll can exercise a vote as powerful as the highest in the land.’

The story of federation should give us all great hope for the possibility of social change, even if only because of the links to women’s suffrage.

In 1902 Australia became the 2nd nation in the world to grant white women the right to vote, and the first to allow them to sit in Parliament.

It took 42 years from Federation for the first woman to be elected to Federal Parliament. It was not until 1986 we had our first female speaker in the House of Representatives.

There have been two Indigenous members of Parliament in the last century. It is a slow journey but we are heading in the right direction.

The authors of our Constitution were concerned with state’s rights not citizen’s rights. There is no declaration of the objectives of nationhood or the rights of citizens;

No mention of equality between the sexes, or Indigenous Australians, or the pursuit of happiness. Our history books, and our laws ignored the existence of our indigenous culture and the dispossession of its people for a long time; our Constitution still does. The Constitution does not even mention the Prime Minister, though the position is the most powerful in the land.

Neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives has acted as envisaged by the Constitutional authors. The House of Representatives is captive to the Executive and it is the Senate that has upheld the role of scrutineering legislation, rather than functioning as a State’s house.

The Constitution does mention peace, order and good government. A democracy is a work in progress and we still have unfinished business:

  • Should we have fixed terms?
  • Should we address the power of the Senate to block supply?
  • Should we have voter initiated referenda?
  • What would we put in a Bill of Rights?
  • And should a British Monarch be Australia’s head of state?

As Deakin said to those who argued for small degrees of change, ‘You will find you cannot creep the chasm; you must leap it.’

The Constitution was only ever a starting point.

In 1901, Australia had a British head of state, sang a national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, and flew the Union Jack.

One hundred years later the song has changed, our own stars – the southern cross – share the flag, but we still have a British monarch as our head of state.

Federation is an important aspect of our history as a democratic, united nation.

But federation was only one landmark in our journey to being an independent nation.

The journey does not end there.

The Centenary of Federation offers all Australians the opportunity to come together, to learn from the past, and to remember the collective achievements that we celebrate.

The Centenary is a symbol – of our pride in our country, a reaffirmation of our faith in democracy, and an opportunity to say ‘What next?’

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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