PEPPERTREE HILL RETIREMENT VILLAGE, ROWVILLE: Thankyou to Peter and the committee for inviting my wife Teri and I here today to celebrate Australia Day with you for the second year in a row. You have always made me feel very welcome here, just as I know you did to my predecessor, Chris Pearce.
Australia Day is probably my favourite day of the year as a Member of Parliament. In the morning, I go along to a breakfast held by Knox Council to give out Australia Day Awards to outstanding members of the community who exemplify the values of citizenship, self-sacrifice and public spiritedness.
Then in the late morning, I welcome new Australians at a local Citizenship Ceremony. And there is nothing quite like seeing the enthusiasm and pride on the faces of people who have opted to become Australians, not through the lottery of birth, but because of what Australia offers them and what they wish to offer their country of choice. For the 80 or so new Australian citizens that I met earlier, today will be one of the landmarks of their life. Sharing that moment with them is one of the most profound things you get to do as a Member of Parliament.
The mood at these ceremonies is buoyant. New citizens are joined by family and friends. The pride in each new citizen is visible. Even onlookers and well-wishers join in the pledge: ‘From this time forward, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, who democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect and whose laws I will uphold and obey.’ Then we sing the national anthem.
These ceremonies serve to remind us that people come to Australia because they want to become Australians. No nation has absorbed so many people, from as many nations and as many cultures as Australia and done it so successfully.
And now, it is a tradition that I also come to the Peppertree Hill. And it is a personal pleasure to finish my trifecta with a group of senior Australians – people who have built the nation that we celebrate, people who have served in war, and seen tremendous hardship.
Knowing that I would be attending these three events today, one in celebration of outstanding citizens, the next welcoming new citizens, and now to share Australia Day with you all, got me to think about citizenship and what it means to be Australian in these modern times. What are we actually celebrating?
The first point I make is that it is a celebration and we should rightly celebrate – we should fly the flag, sing the anthem and be proud as punch to be Aussies.
Because I am sick of often prominent Australians who use the occasion to highlight a perceived weakness of our country or belittle us or talk us down. Often it is in relation to race relations in some capacity. Of course we have weaknesses, of course we have problems to address including elements of racism in places, but we can dwell on those in the other 364 days!! So I say, put four flags on your car, not just two! And we should proudly celebrate what is good about Australia.
The second point I make is that it is good for our community that we do reflect on the achievements of our nation at least once a year. I say this because it is very easy, particularly for the younger generations, to take what we have today for granted.
It is easy to think that society was always like this, and that other nations’ societies are also like this: free, prosperous, egalitarian, with boundless opportunities.
But it is simply not the case.
More than half of the world’s population still do not have the freedom to choose their government. Half still live under some sort of despotic regime, where your basic rights are not enforced. Billions still live in close to abject poverty.
When I speak in classrooms at schools about Australia’s democracy, I often ask what happens the day after a government loses an election? Pack up our bags peacefully, quietly, and hand the keys over to the winners. It is quite remarkable when you think about. No army to come, no police. And we should remember on this day, of all days, that these conventions had their seeds back in that first fleet of January 26, 1788 when the first fleet’s crew stepped onto Australian shores bringing with them certain ways of life, habits of mind and processes of government that have made Australia one of the oldest, most stable, and most cohesive democracies on Earth.
We were the first nation ever to come into being through a democratic vote on the adoption of a democratic constitution.
We are one of only two or three nations to have carried the torch of democracy continuously through the violent 20th century.
We were the second country to give full suffrage to women in 1902. To me this is arguably Australia’s greatest achievement: our long term stability and democracy and the freedom that we consequently enjoy as a result. And it did not happen by accident – it is not just that we are the “lucky country” as Donald Horne said — but because we inherited British common law and its institutions, and because generations subsequently have fought, died, and worked hard to make our country what it is today. So I think the fact that we are so stable and free and prosperous is absolutely worth reflecting upon and absolutely celebrating from the rafters.
If our freedom, prosperity and stability is our greatest achievement, then a close second must be our remarkable ability to accept people from all around the world and for all of us to live relatively harmoniously as Australians. I don’t believe that any country has done this as successfully as we have.
Today, around Australia, over 15,000 people from some 70 countries of origin will become Australian citizens. We expect all who come here to make an overriding commitment to Australia, its laws and its democratic ideals. And in return we treat new Australians as equal as people who have been here their entire life.
I believe that Australia is richer for its diversity. Again, we are not perfect in how we integrate people. We have some emerging problems today that I don’t believe we have seen for some time. Europe has shown that they have significant Muslim populations that have not integrated and have had no pressure on them to integrate. We do not want to follow this path.
But, by and large, we have accepted people from around the world, in huge numbers and with great success. And our diversity of people has not come at the expense of the common values that bind us as one people.
In 2010 a survey found that 90% of Australians believed it was important to recognise Indigenous culture on Australia Day, and 89% said the same of our cultural diversity. Is there any better proof that ours is a tolerant, inclusive brand of patriotism?
The final thing that I think is worth celebrating and reflecting upon on Australia Day is the Australian character, and particular the characteristic of looking out for each other.
Self reliance, resilience, striving to get ahead. These are distinctly Australian traits. As is our natural mistrust of those in authority and that cheeky irreverence which holds that most things exist to be made fun of – particularly politicians.
Australians believe that decency and hard work define a person’s worth, not class or race or social background. Our patriotism is a commitment to our democratic national community, as made explicit in the Pledge for new citizens.
So ladies and gentleman, on Australia Day, I am sure I am not alone here in being immensely proud of this country. Of course we have our problems and we must continue to work to address them but I firmly believe that we live in the best country in the world .and today is a great day to celebrate that.
Thankyou again for inviting me here to share my thoughts with you all on this important day.