Paul Bongiorno: Albanese right to put justice and self-respect into constitution

by Paul Bongiorno

There is unfinished business at the heart of the Australian constitution. It goes to redressing a historical wrong and then to asserting who we are as an independent sovereign people.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seized the opportunity of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee to honour and congratulate the monarch, but also to remind the nation it was a good time to take a good hard look at ourselves.

Albanese noted the “respect and affection” Australians continue to hold for our borrowed and distant head of state, but the relationship between Australia and Britain had changed over the past 70 years.

The Prime Minister said the bond between the colonial power and the former colony “is no longer what it was at the dawn of the Queen’s reign”.

“No longer parent and young upstart, we stand as equals. More importantly, we stand as friends.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week honoured the Queen, but is already looking to changes in the year ahead. Photo: Getty

But it is a relationship heavy with colonial baggage going all the way back to the First Fleet in 1788 and ignored when the former colonies federated as six states in 1901.

The very night he was elected Prime Minister, Albanese formally put ending the lie of “terra nullius” – Australia was an empty land with no inhabitants to lay claim to it – at the top of the nation’s agenda.

Thirty years ago the High Court in the Mabo judgment expunged that lie, but the dispossessed have not received the respect and formal recognition in the founding document of the Commonwealth.

A convention of First Nations’ people in 2017 formulated a pathway to reconciliation in the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

Albanese has promised to implement the statement in full and repeated that commitment last Thursday night when he joined other British Commonwealth leaders around the world by lighting a Jubilee Beacon on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney will lay the foundation for a referendum within three years. Photo: Getty

The Prime Minister has charged Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney with the task of preparing for a referendum within the three-year term.

Burney will be assisted by Senator Pat Dodson, the father of reconciliation on how this will implement the three core components of the Statement: A Voice to the Parliament, a Makarrata commission to implement agreements or treaties, and truth telling.

Dodson sees his task as “a significant nation-building challenge”.

He says if we can get this right it will give us “a different perspective towards each other, and many of the things that have been part of the discord and division”.

No less a contribution would be made to our self-respect as a sovereign independent nation than finally severing constitutional links to the British Crown.

Albanese’s observations of the changes that have taken place in our multicultural nation over the past seven decades are also the context of his appointment of Matt Thistlethwaite as assistant minister for the republic.

Deposed PM Gough Whitlam tells reporters of his dismissal on November 11, 1975. Photo: Getty

One of the biggest changes was the dismissal in 1975 of a democratically elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam, by the Queen’s representative Sir John Kerr.

There is nothing to stop another furtive and conniving governor-general to so egregiously interfere in our democratic processes again.

Nor is there anything to stop the Palace in London joining in the deception of the PM as documented in the Palace Papers and revealed by the work of the historian Professor Jenny Hocking.

But finally repatriating the full powers of our head of state to one of our own is for the next term, though the preparatory work is to begin now.

Thistlethwaite is delighted with the interest his appointment has already stirred.

This is indicative of the power of a prime minister to set the tone and start the conversations needed to progress reform and change.

After the failure of the 1999 republic referendum, then Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley lamented that “the republic was in the hand of its enemies”.

And there is no doubt that while then prime minister John Howard facilitated the referendum, as a staunch monarchist he did everything to ensure its defeat including warning business leaders he would take a dim view of them bankrolling any intense advertising campaign in support of the “yes” case.

On the eve of the referendum vote, Howard warned against the change.

Albanese is convinced that, properly managed and encouraged, the mistakes and failures of the 1999 referendum can be avoided.

Britain has already began its transition from the record-setting reign of Elizabeth II. It is surely time for a mature democracy like ours to begin the transition to self-respecting independence in a reconciled nation.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics