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  Issue No 11 Official Organ of LaborNet 30 April 1999  





ACTU Moves on the Republic

By Jenny Doran

The ACTU Executive has endrosed the Australian Republic -- but it's given Howard's Preamble the short shrift it deserves.


The ACTU Executive, meeting in February this year, reaffirmed its support for an Australian republic. Having heard an address by The Hon Neville Wran AC QC, the Executive unanimously expressed continuing support for an Australian republic and urged all affiliated unions to campaign actively for a 'yes' vote in the republic referendum to be held later this year.

The Executive also expressed support for a new Preamble to the Constitution but was concerned at t he manner in which the Prime Minister has raised this issue. It called for broad consultation and bipartisan support and acceptance by indigenous Australians of any Preamble before one was put in a referendum.

Unions and unionists were involved in the lengthy public debates that preceded federation. With the early introduction of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act in the newly established Federal Parliament in 1904, unions and union members were amongst the earliest beneficiaries of our new system of Government.

It is important that unions and union members have a say in the present republic debate. Every one of us will have to vote in November this year. We need to know what the issues are and make an informed choice.

Some will argue that this issue does not matter because there are more important issues relating to jobs and services that should take precedence. Certainly economic and social policies are important and have to be addressed. Nevertheless we can at the same time deal with this significant symbolic issue.

As union members we face the consequences of economic rationalism and globalisation of industries and work arrangements on a daily basis. We are more often than not in put in the position of defending a particularly Australian way of doing things. Thus asserting our national identity is not such a remote idea as it might seem.

As unions fight to preserve our unique system of industrial relation, we recognise the value of preserving our Australian identity and our 'Australian way'.

As Neville Wran said in his Whitlam lecture "the change to an Australian republic, and to having one of our own as Australia's Head of State, will lift and invigorate our spirits at home and will earn us respect and dignity abroad". He recognised it could be "a stimulus to present industries and the creation of jobs".

Voting 'yes' in the referendum and having an Australian as our symbolic head of State is a vote of confidence in ourselves and our capacity to look after our own affairs.


The ACTU Executive meeting in February this year supported a new preamble to the Australian constitution in the event Australia becomes a republic but expressed concern at how and why the Prime Minister was suddenly championing this issue.

The potential for a debate about the content of a preamble to distract from the central issue of a republic was always evident and has now been realised.

The Prime Minister's impertinance in taking it upon himself to write a preamble to Australia's constitution in itself is entirely unacceptable.

As Gerard Henderson said; "What is surprising is that Howard appears to have thought he could write a preamble to wide acclaim. That will remain unlikely. Until hubris freezes over". (Age 30/3/99).

Such a document should be written on behalf of all Australians and should be developed only after significant consultation with the community.

In fact such a process was reflected in the work of the Constitutional Convention which was representative of the community and which reached a high degree of consensus about the words that should be included in a preamble. The Prime Minister has paid no regard to the proposals put forward by the Convention.

The Prime Minister's preamble has been criticised for both style and substance. . Paul Kelly called it "an utter shambles," saying "it wanders about like a tipsy journalist into prejudice, fashion, ideology, achievement, excellence and mateship" (Australian, 24/3/99).

Conservative commentator in the Bulletin David McNicholl said it should be consigned to the wastepaper basket. (Bulletin,6/4/99).

The Prime Minister has shrugged this criticism aside as being from the 'elites' and therefore presumably of no significance.

But his preamble has also been rejected by ordinary Australians as measured by talkback radio monitoring. It has also been rejected by all State Premiers except for John Olsen in South Australia. We now have the unedifying spectacle of individual Premiers - and the odd reporter - penning preambles and putting them up for public consideration.

Most of those that have been published since the Prime Minister's effort have been better by a long shot.

This is not surprising given how bad the Howard preamble is. It is inconsistent and illogical. From it's opening 'hope in God' it betrays a lack of confidence. The Founding Fathers of the Constitution at least 'relied' upon their God. The phrase 'equal sovereignty of its citizens' has been criticised as meaningless - countries are sovereign, not people. Reference to 'Our vast island continent' excludes the many islands including Tasmania that make up Australia. No-one needs to be invited to be proud of their country - in fact the preamble is meant to make us feel such pride. This does no such thing.

Freedom to 'realise ourselves as individuals' is something that would better suit a Liberal Party platform. It is not the sort of fundamental freedom normally protected in constitutions such as freedom of speech or liberty. Similarly the reference to 'valuing excellence' sounds like a Liberal Party manifesto. It is certainly not universally accepted as an Australian trait as our 'tall poppy' syndrome attests. To juxtapose excellence and our sense of fairness merely serves to undermine the significance of our sense of egalitarianism which most Australians do see as a national characteristic. To paraphrase that sense of fairness as 'mateship' further downgrades the concept.

Equality under the law has been similarly diminished by being expressed as 'dignity' capable of being 'infringed' by 'fashion' and 'ideology'. This has been rightly lampooned by cartoonists depicting tramps worried they might have their 'fashion' mocked.

The Prime Minister's preamble has rightly distressed indigenous leaders. The statement that 'since time immemorial our land has been inhabited by' indigenous Australians treats them as objects and equates them with flora and fauna. Stating they are 'honoured for their ancient and continuing cultures' begs the questions 'what cultures' and how are they 'honoured'? Relationship to the land is critical to Aboriginal culture - the preamble itself specifically dishonours that relationship by omitting any reference to custodianship.

This preamble should not be proceeded with. Ultimately it may not be supported in the Federal Parliament which would mean it would not be put as a referendum question. The Federal Labor party has indicated that in its present form it would urge a 'no' vote on the Prime Ministers version.

It is important that this preamble debate not distract republicans from their support for the fundamental question that is being asked of us all in the referendum and that is whether we think that as a country we can have one of our own as our Head of State.

Union members who want to get involved can contact Jenny Doran at the ACTU on 03 96635655 or email mailto:[email protected]


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 11 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: The Young Republican
Jason Yat-Sen Li stole the show at the Constitutional Convention with his community consultation compromise. Now he faces a bigger challenge, convincing Australia to vote Yes.
*  Unions: ACTU Moves on the Republic
The ACTU Executive has endrosed the Australian Republic -- but it's given Howard's Preamble the short shrift it deserves.
*  History: And A Hundred Years Ago
Just as it was a hundred years ago, it is important that trade unions and their members are actively involved in the current republic debate.
*  Reader's Forum: John Passant
A Workers Online reader explains why he'll be voting "no".
*  Review: Mountain Men and Women Framed
Working Lives, a history of working people from the Blue Mountains, looks back to illuminate future challenges.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, Labor Council's fortnightly newsletter for unions.
*  International: Performers on the World Stage
Australian performers know better than most the importance of identity, self and place. That's why they are committed Republicans.

»  Unions Challenge: Reclaim the Republic
»  Freeloader Legislation on the Agenda
»  Unions� New Years Eve Plea
»  Skill Shortage Leads to Tiling Crisis
»  Apprentice Chefs Get Fairer Share of the Pie
»  Rail Workers Strike for Passenger Safety
»  Living Wage Sparks New Activity
»  ACTU Endorses East Timor Action
»  WorkCover Troubles Can�t Hit Injured Workers
»  NSW Young Labor Turns 50!

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Computer Decision Can;t Be Taken Lightly
»  Unionists Return From Timor
»  Latham Misses the Marx
»  Help Another Student

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