26th National Schools Constitutional Convention [via Zoom]
I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Gunai Kurnai People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.
Linda and I are joining you from Gippsland in Victoria. You might wonder what the Governor-General is doing in regional Victoria – I’ll have more to say on that shortly.
I want to begin by thanking all of you for participating in the 26th National Schools Constitutional Convention. Your attendance – and the passion and interest that it represents – is so important. It speaks to who you are as people and, I hope, where we are as a nation. It is a sign that you are engaged. That you care about our country and that you care about the future.
When I was sworn in as Governor-General, I quoted the Australian author David Malouf: ‘Australia is still revealing itself to us. We oughtn’t to close off possibilities by declaring too early what we have already become.’ I editorialised at the time that Australia is not a finished product. Everything that we have seen since reaffirms my view.
The logical next step of us not being a finished product is that there is still scope to reimagine our future and to then shape it and redefine it. We need young, emerging leaders stepping up and leading that change. Whether it is through constitutional reform, issues-based advocacy, careers in policy or politics or leadership in the community, you all have capacity to play that role.
If I could turn to the question before you at the Convention ['Should the Constitution have a new Preamble that would recognise our history and aspirations, and the many peoples and groups that make up our nation?']. You’ll appreciate that, as Governor-General, I walk a fine line in taking sides on policy debates. We’re a constitutional monarchy and, as such, while I have important constitutional responsibilities, it is the role of the Australian people and, through elections, our parliaments to determine policy. I can, and do, have regular conversations with our political leaders – from all sides – but I do not dictate or advocate. I might provide some advice or insights from my discussions with Australians, but these prompts are provided without expectation of follow-up. I intend to take a similar approach today in our discussion.
The first point that I would make is purely tactical and one that I’m sure has come up in your discussions today. Constitutional change is very difficult. The success rate of referendums in Australia is not high. Just eight out of 44 carried since Federation. The last to be carried coming in 1977. I would make two observations: it is incredibly difficult to change the Constitution; despite this, and despite the last eight proposals not being carried, there has been enormous change in Australia since 1977.
Change has been driven from both the top down and the bottom up. Our society has changed and, often, these changes have been codified or legislated at the local, state and federal levels. It is worth, then, considering the tactical question of whether the priority should be in adding a Preamble to the Constitution over other avenues of change. Are there legislative or societal changes that could be affected with a diversion of resources from one to the other? The question is yours to answer.
The second point I want to make goes to the substance of the question you’re considering – which, tactics aside, I think goes to who we are as a nation and who we can be. As I said at the beginning, we’re joining you today from Gippsland. We’ve spent the last two days in small towns across the region that were devastated by the 2019-20 bushfires. We’ve been doing these sorts of visits for 18 months – meeting Australians who have gone through horrific hardships, from the fires to the pandemic, but are still fighting on, helping each other and shaping their own future. These traits, this richness of spirit, go very much to the question you’re considering. We shouldn’t take it for granted. To the contrary, it is something that we should nurture. We should nurture it by celebrating the good: by calling out those among us who do well, who give and who serve. But we should also nurture it by telling the truth. By listening to those marginalised, by accepting that success isn’t universal and by celebrating that our diversity is our strength.
Last week was Harmony Week, the theme of which resonated strongly with me: Everyone Belongs. We do all belong here. We should all know that, understand that and be confident that the belief is universally held.
If I can leave you with one unambiguous message: Australia is a good place, with a good people. We are at our best when we are inclusive, when we recognise that our differences forge our collective strength, and when we recognise that we’re not a finished product.