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Whitlam’s Address At The Opening Of The Trade Union Education Foundation

This is the text of Gough Whitlam’s speech at the opening of the Trade Union Education Foundation.

Whitlam canvassed a range of issues, including education, electoral reform and indigenous issues in relation to Mabo and Wik.

The speech was delivered at Sydney Town Hall.

Gough Whitlam speech at the opening of the Trade Union Education Foundation.

Men and Women of Australia; is the salutation I reserve for great occasions. It is entirely appropriate that I should use it to greet this assembly today.

I was delighted to accept Bill Kelty’s invitation to give the first lecture in this eponymous series. If this had been a Whitlam Memorial Lecture I could only have been with you in spirit.

I appreciate the honour deeply and congratulate the ACTU warmly on its initiative in establishing the Trade Union Education Foundation.

Through this initiative the ACTU re-affirms one of the Labor Movement’s oldest and best traditions: its educative role within our own ranks and in the wider community.

It recognises the fundamental importance of the education and training of unionists in the continuing task of change and adaptation to which the Australian union movement has committed itself.

It responds, positively, constructively, to the shortsighted and meanspirited decision of the present Federal Government to abolish the Trade Union Training Authority.

My Government established the Authority to end the absurd situation whereby Australian unionists were without any facilities for management training. Yet the absurdity is to be restored at a time when union management skills and the application of best international practice are even more important than they were two decades ago. Australia now has government by anachronism. It is the industrial attitudes of the Australian Government, not those of the union movement, which are rooted in the fifties.

The paradox of Australian industrial relations in 1997 is that the new onslaught against unionism is occurring just when the Australian economy is reaping the benefits of a decade of union restraint. It was the indispensable ingredient in achieving low inflation.

Yet the political beneficiaries now choose to destroy one of the key institutions through which we have sought to build a well-led, flexible, responsible and responsive work-force – the working men and women of Australia exercising one of the great, inalienable rights, the right to organise. Australian trade unions have the distinction of providing a sense of identity to both the major political parties. We of the Labor Party are proud to acknowledge the unions’ foundational role. And where would the Australian Tories be without unions to bash?

I am honoured to have been asked to be the inaugural chairperson of the Trade Union Education Foundation. In accepting, and in launching the Foundation today, I re-affirm the shared purposes, interests and ideals of industrial and political Labor.

It is a happy coincidence that this event occurs on the weekend of the 30th anniversary of my election as Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

This historic venue, this representative audience, our important purpose here today, all make a felicitous combination for such an anniversary; and I am grateful to Jennie George, Bill Kelty and the ACTU for preparing the occasion with such thoughtfulness and thoroughness and generosity.

I shan’t attempt any survey of the past. The last thing I want at my age is to be accused by the present Prime Minister of “The insidious rewriting of history for partisan purposes”.

The apparatchiks of the Liberal Party seem to resent the way Labor honours its leaders and celebrates its history. No doubt Mr Howard will be able to redress the imbalance of which he complains when he delivers the Askin Memorial Lecture in Sydney.

Nevertheless, I dare to draw a parallel from the first period of my leadership, one which I believe is relevant to our situation as a Party and a movement today. I refer specifically to the 1969 election for the House of Representatives. As my text for the lecture today I take the words in the Policy Speech I delivered from this very platform, the Sydney Town Hall, on I October 1969.

1said then that for the Labor Party, the campaign would have “one dominant theme – the theme of opportunities, the taking of opportunities, the making of opportunities”.

I went on, if you will allow me to quote myself:

We of the Labor Party have an enduring commitment to a view about society. It is this: in modern countries, opportunities for all citizens – the opportunity for a complete education, opportunity for dignity in retirement, opportunity for proper medical treatment, opportunity to share in the nation’s wealth and resources, oppotunity for decent housing, the opportunity for civilised conditions in our cities and our towns, opportunity to preserve and promote the natural beauty of the land – can be provided only if governments, the community itself acting through its elected representatives, will provide them. And increasingly, in Australia, the national government must initiate those opportunities.

May I suggest, ladies and gentlemen, despite the vast changes at home and abroad, for all the great achievements, – and setbacks -, the themes of 1969 retain a resonance and relevance for 1999?

I recall briefly the background of the 1969 campaign. Unemployment was less than one per cent. Inflation was two per cent. Annual economic growth was six per cent. The bills for the war in Viet Nam were yet to come in. John Gorton, leading his first election, seemed to retain high popularity. Treasurer McMahon’s budget Increased pensions, implemented Malcolm Fraser’s proposal for per capita grants to independent schools and provided health insurance for low income families.

Every conventional measure pointed to a comfortable coalition victory. In the event, on 25 October 1969, we achieved a swing of over seven per cent, still the largest swing between successive elections, including 1975 and 1996, and reduced the coalition majority from 39 to 7. This is not the time and place to analyse the 1969 campaign. The point I make is this: h proved that we can make massive gains, that victory is possible, in buoyant economic conditions. There is nothing more stultifying for an Opposition than the Idea that its electoral success depends on economic failure. The Australian Labor Party can never have a vested interest in the distress of the people. It was not a Labor opposition leader who hailed bad economic news by declaring: “Bad times small suit me”. It was the present Prime Minister in 1986.

In opposition, as in government, we must always be identified as the party of optimism, growth and high expectations for Australia. There is every reason to be confident that the contrast will be manifest by 1999 even more than it was in 1969.

It is an immense pleasure for me to be joined today by so many of my colleagues from 1967 and 1969. Lance and Jill Barnard send their apologies. He was elected Deputy Leader on the same afternoon I was elected leader. We had been political comrades in arms since he was elected to Parliament 18 months after me. Before us the Caucus had more veterans from the Boer War than from World War II. For 20 years he was my right-hand man. In that Sydney Town Hall speech in October 1969 I was able to point out that in Lance Barnard, we had an authentic Australian hero: he had fought at El Alamein and flown in the Fl 1 1. A health problem dating from El Alamein keeps him at home today. I also pronounced from this platform the procedure by which a Labor Government would withdraw our forces from Viet Nam: to explain our position I said: “I shall go to Washington and my deputy shall go to Saigon”. I have always firmly believed in the proper division of labour.

Another mate not here today is forever associated with the achievements of 1969, and far beyond, The recovery of October 1969 occurred because of the success of the Federal Conference in Melbourne in July 1969. Both occurred because Michael Jerome Young had been elected Federal Secretary by the Federal Executive in April 1909. Mick Young more than anyone else created the atmosphere of confidence and goodwill in which the Party was able to rewrite the platform and campaign on it with enthusiasm. He brought to the task his unique qualities of commonsense, humour, his love for the party, his zeal for its success, and above all his sheer decency. As long as those essential qualities are valued and honoured, we need never fear for the Party’s future. When I last saw him he was as determined to get the Party back into Government as he was in 1960 and 1983.

The rewriting of the Platform at the 1969 Conference was the culmination of a process which had taken place against the background of the electoral debacle of 1966. It brought to an end the stultification of policy-making engendered by the 1949 defeat and worsened by the Split. The Party appeared to become obsessed with the idea that rather than bring about renewal for the future, its purpose was to revisit past successes – not renovation but mere restoration. Exhausting its energies in epic but sterile factional battles, the Party stagnated and the platform was stultified.

Today, I want to draw lessons, not parallels. The important thing in 1997 is to recognise that those post-1949 failures were not inevitable, any more than, I believe, the Split itself was inevitable. In particular, the High Court’s invalidation of bank nationalisation in 1946, instead of being a challenge to new thinking became an excuse for avoiding it. Health and education policies were notable casualties. The platform called for the nationalisation of health; the High Court had ruled against nationalisation; the party spokesmen relieved themselves of the obligation to develop a Labor alternative.

The point I make here is that the Party should never accept the prevailing orthodoxy as an alibi against the development of new policies. It is frequently our task to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, Including our own. The current Western orthodoxy sanctifies the market and demonises the public sector. It gains a certain gloss from the triumphalism which followed the collapse of the one-party system in the Soviet Union and Central Europe and the end of the Cold War.

We may readily acknowledge the power of the market economy as a generator of indiscriminate wealth, Social democrats, however, must not be bluffed into accepting that all their social and political goals, or even their economic ones, must be left to benign workings of the unregulated market. Nothing in the history of this century or the last, anywhere In the world, not least the United States, and certainly not in the history of post-war Europe and Asia, justifies such a belief. The new religion of the marketeers Is no more acceptable than the old religion of the Marxists.

We can, however, re-assert with confidence and undiminished enthusiasm our belief in the sustaining ideal of our civilisation – the idea of equality. I recall that in the 1972 Policy Speech – not here, but at the Blacktown Civic Centre, in the real heart of metropolitan Sydney – I said:

We went to give a new life and a now meaning in this now notion to the touchstone of modem democracy – to liberty, equality, fraternity.

The Sydney Morning Herald took me to task for campaigning “in this day and age on the slogan of the French revolutionaries who replaced the old order with mob rule and terror and paved the way for the dictatorship of Napoleon”.

Liberty and Equality are still good slogans, although Fraternity might be better expressed. Throughout the period that I bore the main responsibility for developing Labor policy, I sought to apply the touchstone of equality to Australian conditions – equality, not as a Utopian goal, or as an ideological straitjacket but as a practical guide for action. I explained it in the Curtin Memorial Lecture at the Australian National University on 29 October 1975:

This concept of equality – what I call positive equality – does not have as its goal equality of personal income. Its goal is greater equality of the services which the community provides.

This approach not merely accepts the pluralistic nature of our system, with the private sector continuing to play the greater part in providing employment and growth: it positively requires private effluence to prevent public squalor.

The approach is based on this concept increasingly a citizen’s real standards of housing, health, education, self-improvement, access to employment opportunities, enjoyment of recreation and cultural activities, are determined not so much by direct income, but by the availability and accessibility which the community as a whole provides and secures.

Over 20 years later I again assert the relevance of achievable equality. I give four examples in the context of a working program for our next government;

– equality as access to community services, with health as the prime example,

– equality in terms of international standards, of which the ILO conventions stand out,

– equality for citizens, which means electoral reform, and

– equality as justice, and I shall refer, and specifically to Aboriginal land rights.


More than any single Issue, health care encapsulates Australian Labor’s concept of equality and the problems of its practical application. It involves basic questions of inequalities between individuals, families, regions and States. I have no doubt that it will be as significant an issue for the next Federal election due in 1999 as it was in 1989. The congruence between the terms of the current Federal Parliament and New South Wales Parliament is especially important. We have the opportunity and the duty to co-ordinate a common Federal-State health policy.

There is no clearer case of the inequities and inefficiencies which flow from the buck-passing of functions and the juggling of finances between the Commonwealth and the States.

Concerned as we rightly are to protect the principles of Medicare as a system of universal insurance, we must keep to the forefront that the core of health care is the provision of hospitals, It cannot be claimed that hospitals are traditionally and intrinsically State responsibilities. They accounted for minuscule proportions of government expenditures by the Australian colonies and, for the first decades of Federation, by the Australian States. It is inevitable that Federal involvement will increase in hospitals, just as it has in the case of universities.

Our policies, State and Federal, should reflect this inevitability. State Governments should transfer responsibilities which exceed the capacity of State revenues to fulfil. The Federal Government should accept responsibilities commensurate with its revenue. It is irresponsible and illogical to assert that Federal revenue can be spent better by the States, or to local State officials and institutions to shift health treatment into forms provided or subsidised by the Federal Government.

In September 1946 the Chifley Government won a referendum to give the National Parliament the power to provide medical and dental services. In New South Wales the Askin Government started Westmead hospital when my Government proposed to build it under the power conferred in the referendum. In the 1974 Budget my Government commenced a five-year program of capital assistance for the provision, expansion and modernisation of public hospitals. A joint Hospital Works Council was established in each State to co-ordinate the use of State and Federal funds. Premiers of both sides of politics co-operated. Mt Druitt and Campbelltown hospitals were built and Liverpool hospital was extended under the program. The Fraser Government did not renew it, nor did succeeding Federal Governments. For the 1 999 elections the Party should campaign to revive such a Council in NSW. The Party should delay no longer in pressing for a joint Council in every State.

The best way to ensure the re-election of the NSW Labor Government and the election of a Federal Labor Government is to develop a national and rational health policy on these basic principles.

Labour Standards

I come now to equality in the workplace. We must never accept the idea that the internationalisation of the economy forces us to accept lower industrial standards. On the contrary, the internationalisation of the economy is the strongest argument for the internationalisation of Industrial standards. The instruments for such a course are already in our hands. The International Labour- Organisation conventions provide us with the best possible method of ensuring that international best practice in industrial affairs is applied throughout Australia.

It is a matter close to my heart, I can hardly neglect the opportunity to elaborate at a great forum under the auspices of the ACTU.

Australia has been a member of the ILO since 1919. The International Labour Conference (ILC), held every year in Geneva in June, has adopted 176 conventions covering every asped of industrial law and practice; 158 of them are still or already in force. In 1944, when the Allies were clearly winning the war, the ILO Constitution was reviewed in Philadelphia; a federal clause was inserted to soften the obligations of members with federal constitutions. The national governments of such members were not required to ratify conventions themselves but merely to arrange periodical consultabons with State and provincial governments to promote coordinated action.

The Chifley Government gave great support to ILO; Chifley himself believed firmly in the United Nations and ft specialized agencies and in international monetary and trade arrangements. He fought in the Federal caucus, Federal Conference and Federal Executive to have Australia join all of them. The Chifley Government paid for a State official selected by the States to accompany the Australian delegation to the ILC every June. My own Government began the practice of adding a State Minister, chosen by the States, to the Australian delegation. This did not prevent prevarication by the States, or their cry “We haven’t been consulted”. The Coaliton Governments between 1949 and 1972 were ideologically opposed to enacting ILO conventions. Like the US and Canada they used the ILO federal clause as an alibi. I first raised the issue in 1956.

Nearly 40 years later, when the Victorian, Western Australian and South Australian Coalition Governments abolished their State arbitration systems, the Keating Government introduced legislation to preserve the operation of key ILO conventions. The States challenged the legislation in the High Court. On 4 September 1996 the Court, five justices to one, upheld the legislation. The Constitution of the ILO and the Constitution of Australia are now seen to provide the Australian Parliament with the jurisdiction and the obligation to enact all ILO conventions and recommendations. The federal clause in the ILO Constitution has enabled USA and Canada to stultify rather than ratify important ILO instruments. USA has ratified 10 conventions, Canada 28, Australia 51 and Germany, a mighty industrial and federal state, 66. There are 32 other members that have ratified more current conventions than Australia, Spain (103), France (96) and Italy (87) topping the list. (The Republic of Korea has a score of four.) My ministers ratified nine conventions, Tony Street one, Ralph Willis three, Peter Morris one, Peter Cook six, Laurie Brereton seven and Peter Reith none. Don’t hold your breath for Reith to Improve his score. The Democrats forced him to augment the objects of his Workplace Relations Bill by adding the words “assisting in giving effect to Australia’s international obligations in relation to labour standards”.

The High Court has now shown Australian Governments, including Labor ones, that they have been too lazy and timid in ratifying ILO conventions. More should have been done in our time after 1983. 1 am at a loss, for example, to explain or justify our failure to ratify Convention No, 155, Occupational Safety and Health, 1981, which Bob Hawke eloquently described in the last speech he made in Parliament before becoming Prime Minister as “one of the most important conventions ever passed by a conference of the ILO”. It has still not been ratified by Australia, None of us can justify the failure to ratify No.169, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989. It is a revision of No.107, Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957, which the Menzies Government opposed. The subject matter has been a Federal responsibility in Australia since the 1967 referendum.

I repeat: State indifference or intransigence are no longer excuses for our national failure to meet our international obligations.

We can now discern a pattern of international withdrawal and irresponsibility emerging from the Howard-Reith-Downer dispensation. The Australian delegation to the International Labour Conference in June 1990 was the smallest in memory. There were three officials, one each from the Federal Department, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ACTU. There was no Federal minister and no State minister or official. No Australian was elected to the Governing Body; the only previous sessions since World War 11 when Australia was not elected were in 1960 and 1969. The Special Labour Adviser has been withdrawn from the Australian Mission in Geneva. The Australian Government is no longer supporting ILO programs in Asia.

In restoring the ILO and its conventions to a central position, in ensuring that labour standards are determined by international arrangements, we can present a rational, contemporary and constructive alternative to the anti-union ideologues currently in charge.

Electoral Reform

Citizens –

Earlier, in the context of health policy, I pointed to the opportunity presented by the coincidence of the terms of the current Federal and New South Wales Parliaments. I now point to the opportunity of electoral reform at the next elections.

The 1967 Federal Conference laid down the principle of one vote one value. In the following March the Dunstan Labor Government with 52% of the votes was defeated by the Hall Government with 43%. Only one of Australia’s 13 Houses of Parliament was left with a Labor majority, the Tasmanian House of Assembly. All the electoral divisions in it had equal enrolments. Premier Reece, Lance Barnard and I, the Labor Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Lionel Murphy and Sam Cohen, and the Labor Leaders of the Opposition in the five State Assemblies met together and drew up a strategy to achieve equal franchise for all the Houses of Parliament in Australia. As a result of legislation passed by the Whitlam, Dunstan, Wran and Cain Governments one vote one value has been achieved in the House of Representatives and both Houses of the NSW, Victorian and South Australian Parliaments. In 1995 the Tasmanian Parliament produced redistribution proposals for the Legislative Council which would ensure one vote one value in future elections for that House.

No speech of mine is complete without some statistics, but they often make a necessary point. In Western Australia there were gross disparities in the December 1996 elections. Enrolments in Legislative Assembly districts ranged from 10,587 to 28,721. In the four regions which each return five members to the Legislative Council the enrolments ranged from 68,258 to 247,444. There are two regions which each return seven members to the Council; in one the enrolment was 134,939 and in the other 341,420. The distribution of electorates in Queensland’s single House of Parliament continues to deteriorate; at the July 1995 elections the enrolments ranged from 14,269 to 28,847.

Australians will no longer respect political leaders who tolerate electoral inequality. All Labor’s parliamentary leaders should confer on the situation in the Parliaments of Western Australia and Queensland as they did three decades ago on the situation in all the Australian Parliaments. If Australia had enacted the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the disadvantaged electors in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania could have approached Australian courts to ensure equal value for their votes. American electors have been guaranteed equal value for their votes for over 30 years.

Australians should now adopt another feature of the US electoral system. Throughout this century presidents, governors and mayors and members of the Congress, State legislatures and local governments have been elected for fixed terms. Whether their terms are for six, four or two years, they all face the electors on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. The process reduces disagreements between the Houses in bicameral legislatures and it reduces the Federal-State buckpassing in election campaigns. I urge the ALP to commit itself to the clear and definite goal of reducing the frequency of elections in Australia. Specifically, the goal should be to fix the terms of all Parliaments at four years and to hold elections on the same day.

When Australians framed the Australian Constitution, triennial Parliaments were the norm in the Australian colonies. Between 1973 and 1987 the maximum term for Parliaments was extended to four years in all States except Queensland. In 1987 the Legislative Council of Western Australia was changed from a body whose members were elected for fixed six-year terms, half every three years, to a body whose members were all elected for fixed four-year terms. Only the Federal and Queensland Parliaments are still limited to three-year terms. In each case the term cannot be extended to four years without the consent of the electors at a referendum.

I urge the ALP to advocate referendums for fixed four-year terms at the next Queensland elections, which the Parliament has resolved should be held on 2 May 1998, and at the next Federal elections, which must be held no later than the last Saturday in April 1999. In Now South Wales the Wran, Greiner and Fahey Governments have shown that it is possible to persuade the electors to change the State Constitution, especially if the referendums are held on the same day as the State elections, in June 1978 to have MLCs elected directly by the electors, in September 1981 to permit four-year terms for the Legislative Assembly, in May 1991 to reduce the number and terms of the MLCs and in March 1995 to have a fixed four-year term for the Parliament, (The Party opposed the 1991 referendum but most of us electors supported it.)

A referendum is not needed to permit Federal and State elections to be held on the same day. Simultaneous elections are prohibited by a section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act inserted In 1918. No Federal Government has since Bought to repeal this provision. The Federal caucus should belatedly move to repeal it and support any move by the Howard Government to repeal it.

The multiplicity and frequency of elections continues to inflict increasing damage on our political and economic processes. In this audience it is appropriate to emphasise the importance of fixed four-year terms in terms of the health of the Party and its capacity to campaign effectively on the basis of effective, long-term policies. Most of us here know the crippling burden imposed on the Party by the escalating cost of elections. It distorts the relationship between each component: the national Organisation, the State branches, the affiliated unions and the parliamentary parties.

The cost of modern campaigns is the major source of political corruption in the Western democracies. These world-wide pressures are compounded in Australia by the frequency of elections. Public funding cannot keep pace with rising costs. The High Court holds that to limit TV advertising is to limit free speech. The best way open to us to reduce party debt is to reduce the number of elections. The frequency of State elections, out of sync with each other and national elections, distorts the national debate. Synchronised elections and fixed four-year terms would reduce the distortion by at least three-quarters.

We must now recognise that the multiplicity of disynchronous elections in Australia is not a manifestation, but the manipulation, of democracy.

Land Rights

The most significant alteration to the Constitution in my time came through the referendum on 27 May 1967, which enabled the National Parliament to make special laws for the people of the Aboriginal race in any State. I am bound to acknowledge that this is a more important 30th anniversary than the one which you do me the honour of recalling today. Although Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, could not vote in the referendum, – he was only 18 -, he had spent his whole life in the family of a Western Australian MHR and he knew the circumstances in which the referendum was held. In 1958 the Constitutional Review Committee, of which I was the youngest member, unanimously recommended the repeal of section 127 of the Constitution, which states;

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

The Menzies Government ignored the recommendation until 1965, when statistics showed that Western Australia, the State with the greatest population of Aborigines, would lose a seat in the House of Representatives unless they were counted.

On 11 November 1965, Menzies introduced a Constitution Alteration (Repeal of Section 127) bill. In his speech he stated:

I think I should at this point make reference to the Government’s decision not to put forward any amendment of section 51 (xxvi). I mention this because the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) had a question on the notice paper about it and I am now, in effect, answering that question.

Section 51 (xxvi) gave the Federal Parliament power to make laws with respect to

the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

In March 1966 Holt, who had succeeded Menzies, announced that the referendum would be deferred till the following Parliament. In March 1967 Holt introduced the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) bill to remove both section 127 and the emphasised words in section 51 (xxvi).

This issue of land rights is the prime example of the folly of ignoring or postponing a problem in the hope that it will disappear or diminish. Kim Beazley senior, – worthy sire, worthy son -, expressed the very essence of the Mabo judgment as far back as October 1961:

In any land policy, for God’s sake, let us get over the great Australian historical assumption that you must make a decision about the lands as though there was no one living on them.

The Imperial Parliament denied self-government to Western Australia until 1890 because British officials did not trust locally elected and appointed persons to safeguard the condition and status of Aborigines. In a 1942 book, Paul Hasluck described how the, Imperial Government still protected Aborigines in Western Australia until 1897.

In March 1950, three months after his election, Hasluck made the first thorough speech on Aborigines in the National Parliament. He acknowledged the international implications for Australia:

Men we enter into international discussions and raise our voice, as we should raise it, in defence of human rights and the protection of human welfare, our very words are mocked by the thousands of degraded and depressed people who crouch on the rubbish heap throughout the whole of this continent.

In May 1964 Kim Beazley made the same point:

Only one government is answerable before the forum of international opinion the Govemment of the Commonwealth of Australia. In the forum of international opinion – the United Nations – no one will raise Western Australia’s policy or Queensland’s policy; but the delegate of the Government of the Commonwealth will have to answer for Australia’s attitude.

Those basic truths were embodied in the undertakings I gave from this platform in 1969 and expanded and sharpened in the Policy Speech in 1972, when I undertook:

to legislate to give Aborigines land Rights, because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

In international terms the Idea of equality as justice is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was drafted by a UN committee established during the 1946 Conference of Paris. My father was a member of the committee. The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 with H.V.Evatt in the chair. Saudi Arabia, South Africa and six Eastern European countries abstained from voting and all other members of the Assembly voted in favour. The European Community has lost patience with the Australian Governments equivocation on the Declaration.

In Australian constitutional terms the idea of equality as justice is based on the first product of the Declaration, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that was opened for signature on 21 December 1965. My instrument of ratification was deposited on 30 September 1975 after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. That act was the first to make a human rights convention part of the law of Australia. It has been the foundation for the High Court’s judgments in Koowarta in May 1982, in Mabo [No. 1] in December 1988, in Mabo [No.2] in June 1992 and in Wik in December 1996.

It is a shameful trivialisation to depict the land rights issue as the product of the “black armband crowd” or”the guilt industry”. It is not a question of how we judge our forebears but how we are to be judged, here and now, before the world and by our own descendants. All Australians, – Aborigines and immigrants, from all faiths, regions and occupations -, are expected to accept the law and the Constitution and to work together on that basis. And that is all that is required in the wake of Wik.

The High Court judgement has been the target of unprecedented misinformation. Let me give the facts:

In June 1993, a year after the decision in Mabo, the Wik peoples commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against the State of Queensland, the Commonwealth of Australia and two aluminium companies. They claimed traditional title rights over pastoral leases in the western part of Cape York Peninsula. In effect, the Wik claimed that native title co-existed. In January 1996 a judge of the Federal Court held that the leases conferred exclusive possession and extinguished native title. The Wik appealed to the High Court. In December last the Court upheld the appeal in part.

In Mabo the justices had examined the history of native title in general. In Wik they examined the history of leasehold estates in particular. In Maho they found that past assumptions of historical fact were false and they held that native title had always existed in Australia. In Wik the Court found that leasehold estates now took a variety of forms. All seven justices found that the mining leases extinguished any Wik native title. The four justices in the majority found that, where there are inconsistencies in place and terms between pastoral leases and native title claims, the pastoralists’ rights prevail. The response by three State Premiers to this thorough, painstaking and evenhanded judgement has been to incite miners and pastoralists to resist negotiations.

Within three hours of the decision – the majority judgments cover 190 pages with 600 footnotes – Premiers Borbidge, Court and Kennett called on the Howard Government to amend the Native Title Act to preclude claims on leasehold estates, however defined, and to leave land laws to the States. Borbidge wanted to repeal the Queensland act which the Goss Government had passed to complement the Native Title Act. Court wanted the Australian Government to denounce its obligations under the 1965 Convention and he wanted the Australian Parliament to renounce its obligations under the 1967 referendum. If the Howard Government were to succumb to the pressure of these Premiers it would be accountable to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and would have to compensate Aboriginal clans for denying rights which had been repeatedly acknowledged by the High Court of Australia.

Men and women of Australia, its time – time for governments acting in the people’s name to stop the stalling, stop the scaremongering, time to stop litigating and start negotiating. That’s the only hope for reconciliation with justice.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I haven’t presumed today to go beyond suggesting broad themes within the framework of equality. Its not my role, nor my entitlement, to second-guess the parliamentary party and the policy committees in preparing for the next Federal Conference.

In one fundamental respect, their task differs greatly from the one my colleagues and I undertook 30 years ago. We had already been out for 17 years; none of us had been Ministers. It is impossible to exaggerate the waste and loss of those years, so largely self-inflicted. We now have 13 years of recent experience and real achievement on which to build.

May 1, however, offer this much advice from that earlier period. When I was elected to the Parliament in November 1952, it was evident that most former Labor Ministers were more Interested in self justificaton than policy formation. Frozen postures offer no scope for advance.

In the task of developing the program, not just for the next election, but for the next century, the most important element will be the spirit we bring to it. The facts, the times, the cause, the leadership, the calibre of the now front bench, all abundantly justify a spirit of confidence and optimism.

There has never been a better time to be young and active in the Australian Labor Party and the labour movement. This generation can enjoy and apply, with untrammelled political and intellectual vigour, the liberating effect of the end of the Cold War which dominated, diminished and distorted so much of the political and intellectual life in my generation.

As for these 30 years, 16 of them as Federal governments leading Australia through great periods of change, reform and reconstruction, we can fairly say, I believe, that together we “have done the state some service, and they know it but no more of that”.

The important thing is the next three years, and the next 30, 1 have an absolute conviction that they can be great years for the Australian Labor Party, the Australian labour movement and the Australian Republic.


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Malcolm Farnsworth
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