Federation and the Future

24 September 2020

An address at the book launch for Everald Compton's Dinner with Founding Fathers


Thanks for the introduction, Dennis [Atkins].  Everald’s book has a really welcome focus on the First Nations people of Australia, and it’s fitting we pay respect tonight to the elders, customs and traditions of the Jagera and Turrbal people in particular.  Can I thank our MC, John McVeigh.  John we know you’ve announced you’re stepping down from politics, all of us we wish you and Anita well. So many people have been acknowledged already by name so let me just mention: Everald’s wife Helen, their four kids and eight grandkids; his friends from business, charities, education, church and the media; and so many current and former local, state and federal parliamentarians from at least three different political parties.
Some of you may know that, earlier this year, the spectacularly successful musical Hamilton was unleashed by Disney onto hundreds of millions of television screens the world over.  It’s really remarkable to think that the story of the least-famous, least-appreciated founder of the United States has now grossed something like US$650 million on Broadway alone in a little over five years. It’s an incredible tale, brought to life by the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and the hip hop soundtrack which makes it so unique.
I begin by mentioning it here so we can consider this contrast: here in Australia even our most-recognised and most-accomplished founders are almost unknown, or at best only narrowly known. There’s no catchy song about Edmund Barton, George Reid or Alfred Deakin. No movie or musical. We just haven’t made the same effort to publicly and popularly acknowledge the people who built our federation.
That’s why we’re so delighted to launch Everald Compton’s new book, Dinner with the Founding Fathers, tonight. In doing so, we honour you Everald for telling the story of federation, and the founders, in your characteristically colourful and memorable way.
He’s our Lin-Manuel Miranda, but perhaps more harpsichord than hip hop; a great friend of mine and yours; a source of extraordinary kindness and counsel to all of us; a bringer of whiskey and conversation – two constant themes of the book itself (has this much whisky ever been consumed in 204 pages before?).  He’s Australia’s most prominent and impactful advocate for older people. An author, historian and story-teller – this is his second book; an infrastructure obsessive – trains, roads and bridges; and in many ways, himself a kind of bridge between generations – young and old, between religions – his Uniting Church and the other faiths of the world, between parties – his friends on all sides of the political aisle, so many of you here tonight.
Everald’s book bridges federation and modern times too. It’s actually four books in one focused on a dinner and a lunch, nine decades apart. It’s a story about how the founders united six disparate colonies, spread across an area the size of Europe, into the best nation on earth.  There wasn’t a major crisis or defining injustice to unite Australians in revolt but there was resolve and there was vision – and compromise too. There was a determination to ensure that despite vast distances and differences we could find common ground on common goals. And our founders did this in a way that few other nations on earth at the time had managed to do – without violence.  There were missed opportunities too – the book touches on those – a including the missed opportunity to bring New Zealand into the fold.
The book captures some wonderful exchanges and moments like the key speeches that turned the federation debate: Parkes in Tenterfield; Deakin in Bendigo, or the miracle on the Lucinda when after days of impasse at the 1891 Constitutional Convention Griffith, Barton and Kingston sailed up the Hawkesbury River with Inglis Clark’s first draft constitution and returned with a penultimate draft – only after Griffith supposedly refused to let anyone disembark until the work was complete.
But what I value most about the book (and from my friendship with Everald, come to think of it) is its urge to learn from the past as a pointer to the future; what it says about the early focus during federation on republicanism – and our relationship with the Poms; what it says about constitutional recognition of the First Nations of Australia; how the founders misjudged the Senate, something we’re all guilty of from time to time; and how for more than a century the state and federal governments of our country have muddled through, making do and sometimes – sometimes – making it work.
Reading Everald’s book is to be struck by how methodical and how pragmatic the founders were. Federation took two constitutional conventions and referendums spread across a decade. It took compromise and negotiation. Western Australia would only join if a railway was constructed – there were prominent successionist attitudes to navigate. Queensland wasn’t initially represented at the 1897 Constitutional Convention. In NSW the first referendum in 1898 failed. Premier George Reid also threatened to withdraw his delegation over the Braddon Clause, before a solution was found. The smaller states held grave concerns about the national agenda being dictated by the more populous states.
As Everald so beautifully describes in his book, without the negotiating skills and pragmatism of our founding fathers (Barton, in particular) the Australian continent could still be governed by six separate fiefdoms fuelled by an ‘unfathomable range’ of intense parochial attitudes. 
So the founders gave us something remarkable but imperfect. We have needed to reform and rework our federation (repeatedly) to adapt to changing circumstances. In recent years our federation has reached an impasse.
Now we have the so-called National Cabinet. When it was formed in May to replace COAG it was lauded as new era of cooperation and compromise. But even from the get-go, there were concerns about how it would translate its initial success early in the crisis to comparable success in the recovery. Unfortunately, these fears are being realised.  Over six months we’ve seen both the great potential and the historic frustrations of our federation on show.
On its own COAG via Zoom won’t cut it.  We need a vehicle for cooperative federalism that includes a voice for local government. We need supporting institutions, structures and processes that prioritise and incentivise our leaders to build a functioning federation and focus on jobs.  The economic challenge we face going forward is the biggest in almost a century. Almost a million Australians are unemployed. To tackle this jobs crisis, we need federal cooperation more than ever. More engagement, not less.
But we need the federation to be supported by structures that provide continuity beyond the political cycle – so a culture of problem-solving can overcome blame-shifting and bargaining; an approach that empowers communities from the bottom up where the fiscal firepower of the Commonwealth can be directed to areas of the greatest need, not used as a trump card on an already tilted table.
Over the years, different proposals have been put forward to overcome some of the challenges of federation and encourage meaningful reform. At the last election Labor took a policy to establish a COAG Economic Reform Council, with the autonomy to examine, track and report to COAG on long-term reform priorities. Let’s have another look at that.
More recently, experts like Jenny Menzies from Griffith University have proposed new models to improve upon the structure of the National Cabinet. Jenny has proposed a new oversight body, like a National Federation Commission, supported by an independent secretariat with specific expertise in federal systems and reform. This type of body could have the capacity to provide independent policy advice and analysis to individual governments and the federation as a collective, while building National Cabinet priorities into their work plan. As Jenny suggests, the Commission membership could be nominated by the Commonwealth, states and territories, and include community members, academics and policy experts.
An institution like this could also help better measure what matters, even take steps towards a wellbeing framework like New Zealand’s. In doing so the Commission could act as a bridge between different government levels, to better align funding and service delivery by measuring local outcomes and advising on how governments can work together. This would allow us to undertake more effective place-based interventions to target social mobility in concentrated communities of disadvantage.  And we don’t need to start from scratch here either with the Stronger Places, Stronger People program, including the Logan Together program in my community, already in place and doing incredible work.
So federation reform matters but only if it’s a prompt to better measure progress, identify what policies are working, which are failing, and correct them before we leave communities behind.
The founders of Everald’s book may have gathered in the exclusive rooms of the Melbourne Club but they cared deeply about the welfare of the people.  Outcomes for real people in real communities should be the touchstone for taking their federation forward.
If the founders could bring together six separate colonies it is surely not beyond us to make their creation work better into the future. We can properly recognise the first Australians; have an Australian head of state; fixed four-year terms. We can ensure that intergenerational disadvantage doesn’t cripple our communities and divide our nation as we emerge from COVID-19.
And we can be guided by the lessons from the past by listening in on these conversations between Barton, Deakin, Griffith, Fisher and Watson at a dinner so grand it required a formal ‘half time’; an occasion so fine that not even Kingston’s death in 1908 could prevent him attending two years later!
Everald, it’s a cracker of a book; a great read; full of colour, character and conversation – like its author.  Thank you for the honour of launching it tonight.