2008 National Schools Constitutional Convention, Canberra
Thank you, Professor Williams, for your introduction. And thank you, Matilda House for welcoming us to country.
I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people.
It is my pleasure to be here today at the 13th National Schools Constitutional Convention.
I congratulate each of the 122 delegates here today, who have been selected after a rigorous process to represent your state or territory at this important event.
It is wonderful to see so many bright and responsible young citizens gathered together to debate what our democracy should look like and how we might get there.
Just two weeks ago up in the new Parliament House we saw 1000 people from across the country came together to share ideas, including the big idea you’re going to be discussing here today – an Australian Republic.
While I had the privilege of co-chairing the productivity stream at the 2020 Summit, I was also very excited to be able to open the 2020 Youth Summit.
I think it is particularly important to ensure the voice of our youth can be heard. One of the most important points that was made at the Youth Summit, was that not only are young people the leaders of tomorrow, but these young people were already leaders in their communities, already helping shape our nation.
The Government is committed to giving young people a voice and I was encouraged by the excitement, enthusiasm and commitment that those 100 young Australians brought with them.
They used the unprecedented opportunity to debate and put forward some really important ideas for what Australia should look like in the future and these contributed to discussions at the 2020 Summit the following week.
Forums such as the National Schools Constitutional Convention are an excellent way for young Australians to have their voice heard and I’m sure the debate will be just as lively when you discuss the role of the Constitution in modern Australia.
For 13 years, these National Schools Constitutional Conventions have encouraged debate about relevant, current issues. The topics are always challenging.
In previous years, issues like federalism, the role and responsibility of the Executive, and the role of the Senate have been discussed.
This year’s topic:An Australian Republic: to be or not to be?is definitely one that is current and challenging.
While it is a question that has been debated since well before Federation, the idea of an Australian Republic is an idea that has recently enjoyed a
resurgence in the national debate.
One of the participants at the Youth Summit, Tim Quadrio, wanted discussion about a republic placed high on the 2020 agenda. He pointed out that of all the young participants in the summit, none were born when the constitution was last changed in 1977.
As I’m sure you all know, there was plenty of interest and strong support for an Australian republic at the 2020 Summit. There was also interest in this matter leading up to the Centenary of Federation in 2001.
It is appropriate that you are meeting today in the place where our national Parliament sat from 1927 to 1988 and where the Constitutional Convention on whether Australia should become a republic was held 10 years ago.
It will be interesting to see how your thinking compares with the ideas put forward at that time.
I am sure most of you would have heard our Prime Minister, during his tour of Britain, give his views on the republic. He was asked about it during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
The Prime Minister said that he expected we will have an accelerating public debate about the republic in the year ahead and he welcomed that. As he said: "we should do that, we are a democracy and we will be looking carefully at the way in which that debate unfolds".
So you will be part of some of the first important discussions in this new national debate.
Over the next few days you will be presented with information from many perspectives on whether or not Australia should become a republic.
Some of the key questions that will arise at this convention will be about how well our constitution reflects modern Australian democracy, or if it needs to.
You may be aware that the constitution makes no reference to the Prime Minister or to our system of Cabinet Government.
If someone were to try and learn about how Australia is governed solely by reading the constitution, they could be forgiven for thinking the role of the Queen and the Governor-General were very different to the reality in modern Australia.
Here at this Constitutional Convention the obvious question is does it matter that the shape of government is undefined?
If the constitution doesn’t reflect our system of Government – is it obsolete? Does it need changing regardless of the issue of a whether the head of state is Australian or British?
History tells us that it does matter.
The most poignant example of the power and controversy of the constitution is the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government; when the Governor General acted to dismiss a democratically elected Government when the Budget Bills were blocked by the Opposition in the Senate.
This is one of the most controversial and significant events in Australian political history – and highlights the potential power wielded by the constitution and the Head of State it empowers.
Does this Head of State need to be Australian – and what role should they have?
Should they have the same role as the Governor General – a role that is largely representative and ceremonial but clearly holds significant power when called upon?
Should the Prime Minister be Australia’s Head of State? Should we have a President?
Should the Australian people directly elect the Head of State, or should they be appointed by the Parliament?
Do we need two referendums – one to determine whether Australians support the idea of a republic and another to decide on the model?
These are not easy questions, and I’m sure you will furiously debate them over the coming days.
As well as the serious job of coming up with fresh ideas and learning more about our constitution, I hope you all gain many new insights, make new friends and learn more about our Constitution and what makes Canberra, the seat of national government, ‘tick’.
I encourage you to share what you have learnt with your schools, friends, teachers, families and communities.
By the end of the convention, you will prepare a Communiqué that will be delivered to the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator John Hogg.
This important document will share the outcome of your discussions with the Government. I can assure you your views will be welcomed and taken seriously.
It is now my pleasure to officially open the National Schools Constitutional Convention for 2008. I hope you enjoy the next few days.