I would like to start by congratulating the Leader of the House and those responsible for organising the order of debate today, because today, being St Patrick's Day, the Australian parliament joins with others to amend the act of succession. As a Catholic of Irish descent, it gives me enormous pleasure to be debating the Succession to the Crown Bill 2015 on this day.
The bill is going to fix an anachronism that should have been addressed long ago. It will amend some of the worst parts of the rules of succession to the British royal crown, rules that were born of prejudice, of discrimination and of imperial intrigue and politics from a time long ago that have absolutely no place in modern Australia.
What it will mean is that men will no longer take priority over women in the line of succession. The heir born first will assume the Crown regardless of that child's gender. Also, a king or queen who has the good fortune to marry a Catholic will not be barred from the line of succession by that act. I support the bill. However, I have to say that it is incredible that in the year 2015 these rules still stand at all. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the Queen, her heirs and successors, the governors of this fine country or the Governor-General or any of the predecessors to those roles when I say that I sincerely look forward to the day when Australia has no formal interest in the issue of who becomes queen or king. We can all read about it in the women's weekly, we can watch about it on television, but it will not occupy time in this parliament because we will no longer be tied to the monarchy. We will be a nation that has, on that day, truly grown up, a nation that is proud of its past, certainly not dismissive of its history, but confident as a new republic.
I think it is time. I do not think this has to be a partisan issue, and I know that there are many women and men on both sides of the House who share this view. I think that there are many people on the other side of the House who believe it is also time for this to occur. On this, we might, as we do, parry around issues, as we have today on issues of higher education, on health care, on the budget and on fiscal matters. It is right and proper that we parry on these matters to thrash out where the best plan for the country is. But on the issue of the future of the country, constitutional arrangements and our future as a republic, I believe we can and should come together as one.
In 1890, 400 guests gathered in Melbourne for the Federation Conference, and they were addressed by Sir Henry Parkes. He uttered those famous words:
The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all. Even the native-born Australians are Britons, as much as the men born within cities of London and Glasgow. We know the value of their British origin. We know that we represent a race … for the purposes of settling new colonies, which never had its equal on the face of the earth.
He was greeted, according to the record of that debate, by loud cheers. He went on to say:
We know, too, that conquering wild territory, and planting civilised communities therein, is a far nobler, a far more immortalising achievement than conquest by arms.
It is true that this speech, and all of those which surrounded it, is a part of the foundation of our nation. But it is equally true that no sane person cognisant of all that had been before and all that came after could utter these words in this parliament or anywhere else today. When we sing our national anthem we sing the words 'Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free'. It is true that we are a young nation; but we are a very ancient country. Those boundless plains that we sing of in our national anthem were not empty when the forebears of Henry Parkes came ashore in 1770. They were occupied by a people who had lived in this country and practiced their customs and ceremonies for in excess of 40,000 years.
I argue that, just as our founding fathers were blind to any notion of nationhood other than one that gripped to the British Empire and all that went with it, they were blind to the 40,000 years of history that they had crashed into when the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour. It is time that we changed this. It is time that we united our 200 years of European settlement and hundreds of years of European tradition with the 40,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and have that recognised in our Constitution. We should do this. There is a national appetite to do this, and I also believe there is a national appetite to look at our constitutional arrangements about the future structure of the monarchy and a yearning for an independent Australian republic. I look forward to the day when we have a prosperous, stable, outward-looking democracy that is a republic—a day when we are reconciled with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I fundamentally disagree with much of what the member for Hughes said in his contribution but I do agree that there is no contradiction between us being proud of our British heritage and confident in knowing that we can go forth as an independent Australian republic.
A lot has been said about the symbolic notion of Australia as a republic. Our national identity, values and vision inform the way we engage with the rest of the world. When it comes to discussing whether Australia should become a republic, I reflect on the words of the current leader of the Australian Republican Movement. He said: 'Our national reputation and relationships will become more important in selling high-value goods and services than was the case in selling coal and iron ore, which virtually sell themselves.' What he is saying is that it is in so many ways in our national interest that we modernise the way we govern ourselves in this country. We cannot view the country as merely a quarry and born of British ancestry; we must consider how the world views us. Anybody who has travelled overseas and engaged with a conversation with a friend from another country would have come away from that conversation feeling a little bit embarrassed about having to explain why the monarch of another country is Australia's head of state. It simply befuddles all of those who are not from this place. I argue that it is long overdue that we make this change.
The history of every movement shows that support and momentum sometimes come from the most unlikely sources—and so it was with the great Australia Day knighthood debacle. What we saw in that one event was the galvanising of opinion and the Australian people focusing on what is truly an anachronism. I have absolutely no problem when people, including our Prime Minister, cling to a fondness for life as it was in the 1950s, but what I do have a problem with is when they try to drag the whole country back there with them. When the Prime Minister decided on Australia Day, of all days, to grant as his captain's call a knighthood to Prince Philip, most Australians stood around scratching their heads saying: 'What is this all about? Surely you cannot be serious!' At moments like this, people focus their attention and say: 'Is this really who we are today? Is handing out a knighthood, of all things, to the prince of a foreign country a true representation of what it is to be an Australian?' All right-thinking Australian say that that is not what Australia is in the 21st century and this is not how we want to be reflected to the rest of the world. I join with the rest of Australia in saying the Prime Minister was wrong on this. He was completely out of touch. To his credit, he has acknowledged this.
But I think we need to go further. There is some unfinished business—this succession bill. It must strike many in the United Kingdom as passing strange that the parliament of a foreign country has to pass a law such as this to give effect to an act of succession in their country. It must strike many in the United Kingdom as very strange indeed that we down here in Australia are debating this bill to give effect to a decision of their parliament—and they are right. Labor supports the bill but we wish it were not necessary. We say it is time to grasp this and all that goes with it and have a debate about the future of Australia—an independent Australia, a republican Australia, which is as proud of its British heritage as it is of its 40,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and confident of its future in this region and in the rest of the world.