The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

3 June 2013

An Australian republic: why the time is now

Book launch 'Project Republic'

Canberra

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on. And I pass my condolences to the family and friends of a great former Australian of the year, proud Indigenous musician Mandawuy Yunupingu. I start by congratulating the people who conceived this excellent book. I also acknowledge Malcolm Turnbull who is here with me today. It is fair to say we haven't had a lot in common over our years in public life. But Malcolm has always been in the 'future business', not least with his views about Australian identity. He not only wrote the book on Australian Republicanism – he wrote two of them. Malcolm ultimately has a deep love of our nation and its future and that is why I'm glad we're able to make this contribution together this morning. There will always be critics who will be thinking: 'why now?' Just as there are people who will say the time is never right to tackle climate change, there'll always be those who will say the time is not right for an Australian Head of State. But to me, it is always the right time to argue for the merits of a republic and prepare the ground for this important constitutional change. The road to an Australian Republic has been a long one, without a timetable. It is a journey that must continue.

So as I said earlier this year, I firmly believe we are long overdue for a respectful national conversation to be renewed. I see it as a matter of principle. Of democracy. Of national independence. The case for a republic ultimately comes down to this: How can it be in a modern democracy that one of our own citizens can never aspire to be our Head of State? How can inherited privilege be the sole qualification? As a passionate Labor supporter, I add an extra question: How can we be a truly egalitarian nation when the humblest and best Australian cannot aspire to the highest office in the land? To me these questions are ultimately unanswerable. There will always be a chorus of those who ask 'if it isn't broken, why fix it?' To them, I ask did you see the documentary on the Governor-General's sacking of the Whitlam Government on ABC on Sunday night?

When our constitution allows a Head of State - without adequately defined powers - to sack a Government elected by the people, I'd argue that is the very definition of a system that is broken. That may seem like a lifetime ago now, but it is something that should never be forgotten in this debate. But there's another even more important reason why now is the right time to discuss the Republic question: Australia's vital place in this the Asian Century. With the economic and political balance now shifting to our part of the world, the idea of an Australian Head of State who resides in Windsor Castle outside London seems very far-fetched. Bringing our Head of State home is an obvious and appropriate way to focus our minds on the fact that we are now an independent nation that can only succeed fully by taking full advantage of the success of our region. The symbolic statement that an Australian Republic would make, would ram that crucial point home as almost nothing else could. I started out by asking 'why now?' My personal answer is because as we enter the Asian Century, the right time is now.

This is the right time to make a big statement on the global stage also, because our nation has never been more successful or envied by the other nations of the world. Everywhere I travel to meet with other leaders in international forums they say 'if only we had an economy as successful as yours'. Because in a world of countries suffering recession and widening social division, Australia is nation with a lot to be proud of. And as Australia rightly and proudly takes it spot next year at the head of the table of the G20, it defies logic that we don't have an Australian at the head of our own table. Republicanism is about more than having a local Head of State. It has important social dimensions based on the principle of equality. True republicanism involves shared rights and opportunities.

Just last week, the OECD's Better Life Index reiterated why Australia is one of the most successful nations in the world today. The OECD confirmed that Australia remains the best place in the world to live. Too right it is. And what this report illustrates is that by the broad measures of republicanism – shared prosperity, equal opportunity, equality of sacrifice, civic participation, and respect for our environment - we are a republic in all but name. I believe it's now time to become a republic in name as well as deed. And I strongly believe the best way to achieve this is set out in the Australian Labor Party's platform, which is consistent with the Australian Republican Movement. A two-stage process, with a plebiscite to determine the best model of a new republic, including the method of choosing the Head of State and the powers he or she will be given, followed by a referendum under section 128 of the Constitution. Personally, I strongly believe we should kick-start that formal process sooner rather than later. In the meantime, it is the task of all of us who believe in the idea of an Australian Republic to reinvigorate the national dialogue on the issue.

And by committing to taking this next step, there will be a genuine focal point to energise this national discussion. It is a conversation that must be held in a respectful way, in acknowledging that there are strong and long-held views on both sides of the ledger. But after a long decade or more of inertia, I believe we're ready as a nation to take this on. Is a successful referendum inevitable? I think so and I hope so. Time and the progress of history, as well as the evolution of our national culture, are on our side. But the answer to the eternal question – when – depends on how passionately and persuasively and democratically we republicans put our case. It is my hope therefore that this volume of essays educates more Australians about the case for change and brings the establishment of an Australian Republic closer to reality.