10: Creating a Nation
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10: Creating a Nation

October 14, 2019


SUSAN CARLAND: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this series may contain images, voices or names of
deceased persons. [Music] BRUCE SCATES: This episode, ‘Creating a Nation’, is part of the series that examines the concept of nation. It begins with the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth in Sydney and examines the way this country is governed. Much of it is filmed in the gracious interior of
Canberra’s first parliamentary building, the historic setting of a constitutional
crisis that truly rocked the nation. [Music] SUSAN CARLAND: We’re in Centennial Park, in the heart of Sydney. It was here, a little over a century ago, that the Commonwealth of Australia came into being. BRUCE SCATES: Centennial Park is one vast natural amphitheatre, and up on the high ground there thousands and thousands of people
gathered to witness that momentous event. SUSAN CARLAND: As you can see, it was a great day out, a day steeped in spectacle, ceremony and festivity. Those children, dressed in
uniforms like sailor suits, may not have understood the constitutional niceties
of Federation but, hey, who wouldn’t enjoy a day off school and a crazy twirl around
a maypole. BRUCE SCATES: The monument behind us is called the Federation Pavilion. It commemorates the welding of six seperate British colonies into one
Australian nation. And emblazoned across it is Bernard O’Dowd’s vision of what the
Australian nation might bring. It’s a vision of peace and prosperity. It’s a Commonwealth for the people, not for the rich; it’s a new, millennial Eden. SUSAN CARLAND: Actually, this isn’t the
original Memorial. The Federation Pavilion that
once stood here and around which British and Australian dignitaries gathered in
all those impressive hats, was a much less durable structure. Ornate and picturesque, it was assembled from timber and plaster – a fast and economical way of staging that
Federation festival. But left exposed in Sydney’s weather, it
melted away with the first heavy rains. BRUCE SCATES: And maybe, just maybe, that’s telling us
something really important about that Federation moment. Our country may have
become a nation in 1901, but really we still lacked what many would call the most
enduring symbols of nationhood. Our head of state remained the monarch of another
country; we had no flag – indeed the flag we fly today is still a British ensign;
courts in Britain could overrule our own; and the highest honour that could be
offered our citizens was to confer an English title. The infant Australia had no independent foreign policy, no military forces to call its own. And for
over a decade we argued – we argued over where our federal capital might be. New
South Wales wanted Sydney, Victorians were determined to have Melbourne. In the
end we had to create an Australian Capital Territory in between those two fiercely rival states – the city of Canberra rose up on the dusty plains of a sheep run. SUSAN CARLAND: And arguably, Australians saw themselves more as a British dominion
than an independent nation. Australians grew up reading English novels, they
dreamed of English landscapes, they still called the mother country home. And given
that the Australian head of state is still a British monarch, it could be argued that we are yet to become a truly independent nation. BRUCE SCATES: Visionaries like Bernard O’Dowd hoped Australia in 1901 would herald in a ‘new Jerusalem’. And it’s
true that around the turn of the 19th century, Australia hosted a raft of progressive legislation. The vote was extended to women here,
almost before anywhere else. Arbitration secured a decent living wage;
the state extended pensions to the old, and free education to the young. In short,
we began to build a better and a much fairer society. SUSAN CARLAND: Better and fairer –
but not for everyone. Australians still saw themselves as a
British nation and that embraced a lot of the inequalities of the Empire.
So Aboriginal people didn’t get the right to vote, and women and so-called
‘coloured labourers’, they didn’t get an equal wage. If this was the ‘new Jerusalem’,
it was a very imperfect one. BRUCE SCATES: And you know, federation is a rather imperfect instrument too. This wasn’t some declaration of independence, as we saw in
the United States, and it certainly wasn’t a commitment to a radical new social order. Rather, this is a very pragmatic
Australian tradition. It’s a tradition of compromise; it’s a marriage of convenience between the states. Historians are divided as to why the colonies, each with their separate parliament answerable only to England, agreed to federate in 1901. It may have been the need for defence; it may have
been a response to the depression; and there are a host of practical advantages
federation had to offer. Imagine separate gauges for our railways,
tariffs and border controls restricting movement from one state to another;
a different post, telegraph and currency for every corner of the continent.
But what’s beyond dispute is that not everyone agreed with federation, and many
powers remain vested with the states. SUSAN CARLAND: Our constitution was a cunning contrivance. It had to balance the powers of the states with those of the Commonwealth.
It had to divvy up resources and responsibilities – it had to decide who could levy taxes and
who could benefit. Instead of being boldly new and uniquely
Australian, the Commonwealth was cobbled together from past experience. The
Australian government operates under what’s been called the ‘Washminster
System’, an amalgam of Westminster and Washington, British and American
convention, tradition and precedent. BRUCE SCATES: And what’s all that got to do with us
today? Well, everything really. Because the political arrangements brokered here in 1901, they still shape the contours of Australia’s political life. SUSAN CARLAND: So let’s head to Canberra and see Australia’s government at work. BRUCE SCATES: Let’s take a plane, Susan!
SUSAN CARLAND: [Laughing] A private plane, Bruce! SUSAN CARLAND: I’m in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the first Parliamentary building raised by the Australian Commonwealth. The chairs in here are a dark and dusty green, which you may think was chosen because it
reflects the Australian landscape. However, you’d be wrong.
This green was chosen because it’s the exact same hue as the chairs in the
House of Commons in London. The Speaker’s Chair, positioned at the very head of
this chamber, is also a reference to Great Britain. It’s fashioned from ancient English oak, and was a gift from the Parliament on
which this Parliament was based. Through those doors, in the Senate, the seats are
red, like the glowing red of the Aboriginal flag – or the red centre of the outback? No, it’s because that colour was used for
the House of Lords in London. BRUCE SCATES: Australia borrowed the bicameral system of government from Britain, adopting not just a colour scheme but an entire system
of governance. Where Susan sits now is the Lower House – it’s modelled on the
House of Commons. And this, this is the Upper House.
In Australia we call it the Senate. SUSAN CARLAND: Both houses are elected by
popular suffrage, or the vote. The House of Representatives is comprised of
150 members. Each member represents one of Australia’s
150 electorates, and those electorates are
determined by the size of the population. On average around 150,000
people live in each electorate, and the boundaries of those electorates are constantly being reviewed by the Australian Electoral Commission. BRUCE SCATES: The House of Representatives,
Susan’s house, that’s where government is formed.
This house, the Senate, serves a very different purpose. As in the British
system, the Upper House is a house of review. It debates and it often modifies
legislation – but here we see the way that the Australian Constitution looks as
much to Washington as it does to Westminster. Britain’s Upper House was
once the preserve of a hereditary elite. The House of Commons represented the people;
the Lords, by contrast, the privileged aristocracy that had long governed England. Australia’s Upper House, by contrast, was democratic from its inception. This was always an elected body, and it served – as the American Senate did –
to represent the interests of the states. 76 senators, 12 from each of the six states
and two from each of the territories, make up the Upper House.
Senators serve a six-year term. But the Prime Minister of this nation must belong to the Lower House, the House of Representatives. SUSAN CARLAND: Both houses make up our federal parliament – and traditionally there has been a tension between them.
In the past, Australia’s Upper House, like its British counterpart, was seen as a conservative force. Determined to preserve the power of the states, the Senate proved all too willing to block progressive legislation sent up by this
chamber. Dividing power between the two houses was ostensibly about checks and
balances, but really it was a brake on social change. The Senate, the House of
Review, maintained the status quo, constraining, as Upper Houses always have,
the innovative and inventive forces of democracy. BRUCE SCATES: But times, times are changing –
and so too is the political landscape in this country. Today, it’s increasingly unlikely that either major political party – Labor or Liberal – can exercise an
absolute majority in this Senate. Now that means that the minor parties can
exercise the balance of power. Sometimes these minor parties are conservative, and extremist right-wing elements have
certainly found a voice in this chamber. But often, often the opposite is true.
Radical parties, like the Australian Greens, have demanded concessions from the government,
their support for legislation contingent on socially and
environmentally progressive measures. So So more and more, Australian democracy is in flux. Political power blocs no longer rule in their own right: they negotiate, they concede and they compromise. SUSAN CARLAND: There’s a third element in Australia’s parliamentary system. It’s a presence symbolised by the statue
of King George, standing in the very heart of the parliamentary foyer.
Australia’s Parliament might debate and draft the laws that will govern this land, but these laws only come into effect with Royal Assent. The signature of the Governor-General,
representing the British monarch, transforms a parliamentary bill into actual legislation. BRUCE SCATES: Australia, like Great Britain,
is a constitutional monarchy. The Westminster system emerged over hundreds
of years; the power of the Commons – the principles enshrined in the Magna Carta – chipping away at the absolute authority of kings and queens. In much the same way, part of Australia’s constitutional history is the way parliamentary independence has evolved and it has strengthened. The locus of power has gradually shifted. In 1901, Australia’s constitution deferred to Great Britain; the House of Lords was our nation’s ultimate court of appeal. By 1947, the Statute of Westminster shifted sovereignty to Canberra rather than the
Crown. Britain renounced any claim to intervene in Australia’s affairs. We were a dominion, not a colony. SUSAN CARLAND: From the Statute of Westminster on, it seemed only a matter of time before the monarch was not much more than a figurehead. The
Governor-General, representing the King or Queen, routinely followed the advice of ministers.
Nominally, the Monarch’s man, or more recently woman, was chosen by the Prime Minister. Then, in 1975, all that changed. An office most people dismissed as a ceremonial cypher, re-asserted the power of the Crown, and brought down
a democratically elected government. BRUCE SCATES: And it all began in the chambers of the
Australian Senate, right through here. A Labor government had been elected in 1972.
Led by the charismatic Gough Whitlam, that government embarked on an
unprecedented program of social reform. Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam; China was recognised; military conscription abolished. And Labor introduced a raft of social legislation: equal pay for women; free medical care;
land rights for Aboriginal people; funding for the Australian Arts; and an end to
Imperial honours. Almost every piece of progressive legislation was
challenged or blocked by this Senate. Despite a second election in 1974,
confirming Labor’s mandate, the Upper House remained in conservative hands – and therein lay the making of a constitutional crisis. In October 1975, the Senate defers voting
on the supply bills, denying Labor the funds with
which to govern. That in itself was seen by many as an abuse of power. Then what
had once seemed unimaginable happened. SUSAN CARLAND: Sir John Kerr, Australia’s
Governor-General, dismissed the government chosen by the Australian people. Kerr then installed Malcolm Fraser, conservative leader of a minority Opposition, as Prime Minister. BRUCE SCATES: On the 11th of November 1975, an unassuming secretary stood on these very steps and read a vice-regal proclamation formally
dissolving the Australian Parliament. That same day the House of
Representatives, our people’s house, passed a motion of no confidence in
Malcolm Fraser’s caretaker government. Parliamentary convention obliged Fraser
to step down. Remember, only those who hold a majority in the Lower House can
form a legitimate government. But Fraser, Fraser retained power – a conservative coup based on what many saw as an abuse of executive power. Kerr had acted in the Queen’s name. But the Queen herself, mindful of the Statute of Westminster, refused to reverse her representative’s decision. SUSAN CARLAND: Some thought
this would lead to a civil war. It didn’t. In fact, Fraser won the next election by a landslide, and worldwide recession signalled a new regime of economic and political austerity in Australia. But never before had the Commonwealth faced such a crisis. In the wake of 1975, thousands demanded constitutional change. They wanted an end
to all ties to the British monarchy and the creation of an Australian republic. BRUCE SCATES: In a way, 1975 signalled the flaws of the Federation compact created almost a
century earlier. But it’s important to see the strengths as well as the failings of the constitution that Australia inherited. Whatever its shortcomings, Australian democracy has proved enduring and robust.
Freedoms enshrined since Magna Carta have been compromised but never lost. Our country, although divided often, has been spared the murderous political and
ethnic conflict that is commonplace elsewhere. SUSAN CARLAND: And we’re wrong to see the Australian constitution as a binding blueprint, confining our vision to the narrow world of 1901. In fact, this is a document accepting of change, upholding, through referendum, the people’s right to change the polity and society they live in. In 1967, the Australian people voted to repeal two key sections of our constitution, both discriminating against Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people. For the first time, the First Australians
were counted in our census, and the Commonwealth empowered to legislate
on Aboriginal Affairs. In 1999, another referendum raised the possibility of an Australian republic, and today there’s talk of a bill of rights
to protect all Australians from racial, sexual, or religious discrimination. Most important of all, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people people have used a national constitutional convention to reassert their sovereignty. 50 years after the historic [19]67 referendum, hundreds of delegates gathered at Uluru and
issued a statement from the heart of our country. They called for a First Nations voice in our constitution. We began this episode with the Federation ceremonies
marking the new Commonwealth. And we’ll end it in the same way. In 1901, Australians gathered in celebration in the streets. They were
welcoming a new century as a new nation. SUSAN CARLAND: This wasn’t just a day for the political
elite. Women and children lined the streets; trade unionists fielded floats and decorated locomotives. Chinese and German, French and American citizens
raised colourful arches, a signal of the cultural diversity that would one day
come to characterise Australia. And many carried wildflowers in their hands,
affirming a sense of belonging in this great southern land. BRUCE SCATES: But there was one group conspicuously absent from the Federation festivities, a group the parliament we would come to build specifically excluded – Australia’s Indigenous people. And they are the creators of this episode’s
closing object. SUSAN CARLAND: In 2001, Sydneysiders took to the streets yet again, fielding a festival to
mark the centenary of Federation. And this time Aboriginal people were central,
not excluded. The Koori community marched beside this float, now treasured by the
nation in this vast repository run by Australia’s National Museum. Along the
side of the float is this vibrant image of the rainbow serpent, symbolising the
making of new life. The serpent’s creative power, Bronwyn Bancroft reminds us, embodies the theme of hope, the importance of
family and the enduring need to live with nature. SUSAN CARLAND: Bancroft’s float was styled
‘the Nation within the Nation’. In 1901, Australia asserted a singular, white and predominantly British identity. BRUCE SCATES: But a hundred years on, we acknowledge our immense debt to the First Australians,
the nations that thrive within our nation, and the great strengths and the
great promise of our shared cultural diversity. [Music] BRUCE SCATES: If you’d like to learn more about the issues raised in this episode, why not catch ‘Susan Carland: In
Conversation’. This time, Susan’s talking with political biographer Jenny Hocking
in the National Centre for Australian Studies. [Music]

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