Address to The Property Congress

Property Council of Australia​

2018 September, 14

Address to The Property Congress

Good morning, everyone. Thank you to the Property Council for this kind invitation to address your annual conference. I want to acknowledge the First Nations of this city and First Nations from across the country. I bring greetings from Cape York Peninsula.

I want to talk about the concept of home in our largest sense, as a nation, as a continent, as a people. And the first idea of a love for home, for me, came from the work of the English conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, who wrote a book in 2012, called Green Philosophy.

And for those who are concerned about questions about environmental decay, climate change, and all of the ructions in relation to questions of the future of the planet, and the sustainability of mankind and the environment, I urge you to read Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy. It is a most compelling discourse on how conservatives ought to think about the environment, climate change, and environmental degradation.

And the starting point for Scruton’s analysis is his idea of Oikophilia. From the Greek, meaning love of home; oikos. And he argues that the first conservationists should be conservatives. It should be a natural temper of conservatives, that we should be proponents of conservation. We should be the first ones concerned about what we bequeath to future generations.

And, of course, Scruton’s stance in relation to the whole question of climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the really dangerous future into which we're leading the world, into which we're leading the planet, is a repudiation of the general conservative political stance to these issues. He’s at entire odds with the conservative political movement. None of whom have read enough of Scruton’s writings.

So that's my starting point. That the conservative idea of preserving for future generations, our homes, no less, means that the responsibility for ensuring sustainable development and taking action to mitigate environmental decay and degradation should be a first priority for people of conservative orientation.

Scruton is at one with Edmund Burke's idea, a great conservative statesman from England, the 17th century, who said that society is a communion between us as the present generation, our ancestral dead and our unborn descendants. That is the nature of our society. We live in a society which is populated by our ancestral dead, as much as by our unborn descendants. That is the conservative proclivity. We have a responsibility to our ancestors. And we have a responsibility to our future generations. And Scruton articulates Burke's fundamental idea of that communion between ourselves, the current generation, our ancestors, and our future descendants.

I first want to outline my own political orientation and philosophical orientation. I am not tribally convicted around any of the three great schools of fundamental philosophical thought. I understand that between the left and right, it's not simply that binary. The complex interplay between liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are the currents navigated within that binary between the left and right. And I am at heart sympathetic to conservatism. How could I not be? I come from a very conservative traditional culture. One that values ritual and family and community and our ancestors' bones in the soil. I come from a culture that owes an obligation to future generations.

I understand that conservatism is about the richness of human life. It gives meaning, conservative traditions and beliefs and predilections are important to a rich society. Religion, ritual, steady conservation. So I understand the conservative impulse because I come from such a background. And I understand the importance that political conservatives attach to conservatism. Of course, too much of political conservatism is simply about the preservation of privilege. I don't care as much about that, funnily enough. But political conservatism has attached itself to only a very narrow definition of conservatism, which is simply to preserve privilege. There are more important things to do with religion, and ritual, and the inner spiritual life of human beings and societies. That speaks to the importance of conservatism.

Secondly, I understand the socialist argument. Of course, there is a society. We are not just individuals. We live in a society and the important social imperative of redistribution of opportunity, I completely concur with the socialists. We're not just all pulled up by our own bootstraps. Our formative development was helped by everybody else in society, making provision for us in good health, education, housing, infrastructure, the social provisioning of social goods. Of course, the socialists are right. This would be a poor world if it was simply a matter of us surviving on our bootstraps. And I would never have had an opportunity in such a world.

But I also understand the liberal argument. The important engine of self-interest that drives the individual clutching their children to their breasts, and climbing the staircase of opportunity to a better life. It is the engine of progress, the liberal spirit. And my quarrel with socialists and conservatives in this country is that they seem to think that when we attack poverty, we should forget about the liberal engine of self-interest. As if the poor are a special case. When we should really understand that the engine to attack poverty and disadvantage is to arouse the common interests that everybody has in seeking a better life for themselves and their families. We climb staircases because we want something better for ourselves and our children. It is a flame of desire and motivation. And we should not abjure its importance.

If we want to tackle poverty and exclusion and disadvantage, then we should provide opportunity and allow the poor to climb the same stairs that we wake up every day having at the front of our noses is David Hume once said: self-interest. Self-interest is not a dirty word, selfishness is. But self-interest is natural. It is a power for the good. And the Liberals are correct that the power of individual motivation, choosing better lives for themselves and their children is the way we progress in the world.

What the socialists and the left side of politics don't understand when they seek social justice, they don't understand that the engine for the achievement of that justice is the self-interests of families, parents, mothers and fathers, climbing a few rungs of the staircase to bequeath to their children a better chance than they had.

So that's my orientation. And at the center of that complex amalgam and interplay, great societies have all of those three things present in an appropriate balance. Great societies have conservatism. Great societies respect a socialist ethic, and great societies allow space for liberal endeavor. I seek the radical center of the three, the great radical center. And philosophically and politically, I seek and I hunt for the radical center of those philosophies. Understanding that they're all important in their own way.

But instead, in this country, we are riven on the polarity. Riven between left and right. We have never had a huntsman for the radical center since Paul Keating gave politics away. He was from the left, but he understood the liberal power of self-interest and unleashing entrepreneurship. But he wasn't one of these people who simply thought it's a matter of bootstraps that we do good. He understood the importance of social redistribution and fairness. We should grow the cake in order to share that cake.

But labor has fallen towards the left again. It is adjured and lost the radical center. The great challenge for a forthcoming Shorten government will be, whether they reclaim the legacy of Hawke and Keating in driving the radical center of Australian policy, the brilliant center.

I'm going to talk about constitutional recognition and the place of indigenous people in this country. In this our own home. I just want to make a minor point about strategy. If the clock face represents the right side of politics and the left side of politics, with perhaps One Nation down at the kind of 6:30 to 5:30pm end of the clock and the Liberals around the right side of the clock, and The National Party down around the four o'clock position. If that's the kind of spectrum of political allegiance across the nation, well a 3% advocacy on behalf of Australia's indigenous peoples has got to be strategic.

Some of our wins come through persuading half of the parliament to run with us, and to uphold justice on our part, the fight for the Native Title Act was a fight with Paul Keating for justice. And it was a 51% strategy. We had to prevail against the inclination of the political right at the time to wipe out native title. So we necessarily joined forces with the Labor government in 1993, in pursuing a 51% agenda to uphold the Mabo decision. Now, we're embarked upon a strategy for constitutional recognition. And the challenge we have here is we have to convince a majority of voters in a majority of the states. The so-called ‘double majority’, a massive Herculean task. So our strategy necessarily must be 90%. We have got to try once again to enjoin almost all Australians in putting their hands up for recognition.

So strategically, we have been pursuing a strategy of engaging conservative Australia. And the problem with people from the left side of politics, where most indigenous people and leaders come from, is that that is a strange orientation, to work with the right to put together a 90% coalition. And so I pursued a strategy for over 10 years of trying to engage the political and cultural right in relation to the challenge of recognition. In other words, it's easy to hide at seven o'clock, with all your lefty mates at the Balmain Town Hall. Hard business is haunting at four o'clock in the afternoon. That's when you’ve got to go out to Roma. And you got to go out to where decent conservatives live and attempt to bring them on board for recognition.

And indeed, we find ourselves in 2018, with our most stalwart supporters coming from conservative Australia. The people who constructed the concept of the voice to the Parliament, are constitutional conservatives. They're the most conservative people - when it comes to the Australian Constitution - you can come across. They hesitate in changing an apostrophe in the Constitution, let alone introducing indigenous recognition. And yet it is that group of constitutional conservatives, led by Professor Greg Craven at the Australian Catholic University, it is that group that have found common ground with us. We have hunted at the four o'clock position and we planted a flag in that position. Because the constitutional conservatives formed an organization called Uphold and Recognise. In other words, uphold the Constitution and recognize the indigenous people. That is, what the radical center means in politics. How is it that you can bring together the left and the right in a common position that works for both?

The other strategy we pursued is that ultimately with a challenge like this, Nixon has to go to China. In other words, there's got to be conservative leadership. Only Nixon could go to China, and only conservative leadership in this country could bring 90% of the country on board in relation to this. Strategically and politically, the lesson is still correct. The principle is still correct. However, we didn't have Nixon. We had Malcolm Turnbull. And he was being stalked by Tony Abbott.

Any movement towards the left or to the radical centre, and Tony Abbott was ready to pounce. And it is to the shame of both of those people that they used indigenous recognition. One to save the Prime Minister's miserable hide. And secondly, for the former prime minister to pursue vengeance against his successor. Against the person who took the crown from him.

So our Nixon thesis ultimately didn't play out. We don't have a Nixon. We have only Tiberius on Twitter. Now absconded overseas, having left the country - at least in relation to indigenous recognition - in a parlous condition. We have simply not had leadership. We have not had leadership for our home. To make our home right.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was arrived at through a process of dialogue across Indigenous Australia over six months in 2017, and resulted in that statement. And that statement was an extraordinary consensus in relation to the whole question of recognition. The extraordinary thing about the dialogues of 2017 is that the black fellas stopped arguing. It is white Australia that is divided in relation to the question of recognition, absent any national leadership. There is an indigenous consensus as good as any consensus could be around the Uluru Statement from the Heart. You owe a duty as Australians to read it. There, that's your first duty. Your first duty is to engage with the Uluru Statement from the Heart and see what you think about it. It is the offer of the terms of peace from the people who occupied and owned this country for 65,000 millennia. Pause and read the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

You would have seen the recent eruptions in relation to young Harper Nielsen, a nine-year-old from Brisbane who refused to stand for the singing of Advance Australia Fair. My own personal view is that I think Harper has belled the cat on our national anthem. I say this not to offend you. I say this not to at all offend anyone in relation to an important instrument in the national symbolic life of our country. It is just that she has declared that the emperor is naked. From the mouth of an innocent child has come the words that we all know are true. Of course, she's right. That we are not a young country. We're the oldest country on Earth. And how much longer can we cling to such a frail idea that we are such a young nation?

I really believe Harper’s courage is going to become a historic milestone. We can never hear those words again without hearing its frailty, and weakness. It is not a robust symbol of Australia and the Australian people. She is going to force us to think about this for years to come. And her voice will not recede until we do something about it. It's a bit like terra nullius. For 204 years our law presumes that this land was ownerless. Terra nullius, a land without owners. And we clung to that myth for two centuries. And finally, the High Court had to dispose of it on the 3 June 1992 with the Mabo decision. We are ones for hanging on desperately to frail untruths. To frail myths. And young Harper Nielsen, is going to be remembered as the one who had the courage to bell the cat. To ask us to reconsider. And to put something more truthful and robust in its place.

In 21 months’ time, it's coming again. The 250th anniversary of that boat appearing over the horizon. That fateful boat. One of the most extraordinary mariners of world history comes over the Tasman. Landing on the Eastern Seaboard, finding himself in Stingray Bay, 1770. The Endeavour River and Possession Island. We don't know what to do about it as a people. What are we going to do in 21 months’ time? We might have a program of wheeling out the gurneys from Bunnings and hosing off the pigeon manure off the desultory busts of Captain Cook around the countryside. But I don't think we've got much of a plan beyond that. How are we to deal with the moral challenge that the arrival of this ship necessarily confronts us with? Where is the leadership? How do we deal with our history? Or are we going to have just another conflagration? Leaderless. Unable to interpret our own past, and deal with it in the present, and forge a future? Can anyone tell me what the national leadership is? How should we be thinking about the imminent 250th anniversary of the arrival of The Endeavor? Was this a discovery? Was this an invasion? Was this the greatest mariner of the Pacific? Or was this the equivalent of Columbus and Cortez? Where is the national leadership? How are we supposed to think about this? What are we supposed to teach our children?

I was part of a council that was established by the Abbott government and tasked by the Turnbull Government, to advise the parliament on what form constitutional recognition should take. Sir Murray Gleason was a member of that referendum council with us. Chaired originally by Pat Dodson. And my mentor and senior at Arnold Bloch Liebler, Mark Leibler, and we considered a whole range of options that we discussed in the Uluru dialogues. And we made two simple recommendations. There were a host of options, but we only selected two.

The first one was that we recommended that the constitution be amended to provide for an indigenous voice to the Parliament. For Indigenous Australians to constitute a body established by the Parliament, under legislation to provide advice to the Parliament on indigenous policy and laws. That is the so-called voice to the Parliament option. This voice was to exist outside of the parliament, but it was to be established to provide advice to the parliament.

And the second concept was not a constitutional proposal, but simply that we should have a declaration of Australia outside of the Constitution. And those were the two options. One to establish a voice enshrined in the Constitution. Secondly, to have a declaration of Australia outside of the Constitution without any legal footing. This declaration would be like the declaration of independence in the United States. Having no constitutional footing but be a kind of moral statement on behalf of the nation, declaring who we are as Australians.

Those were the two ideas and Malcolm Turnbull rejected them in October 2017. But he rejected them in a circumstance where he was being furiously stalked by his predecessor and I think those of you who followed that debate would understand that the arguments that he put out there in rejecting those recommendations were without any merit and without any sincerity.

So, now here we are almost a year after the cabinet's rejection of those two recommendations and the question of Uluru still remains. And I believe the question that has to be put to the Australian people. What we have to do is put the question to the Australian people for their answer. And the question has to be something like; 'do you agree that the constitution be amended to establish a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to advise the parliament on laws and policies affecting them?’

That is the question we want the Australian people to answer. Yes or no. And there's a lot of commentary around the place that says; 'if the Australian people rejected recognition and said no to that question?' That would be a very bad thing. Well, my view is that there is only one thing worse than the Australian people say no, and that is that the question be never put to them. That is worse. It is worse to prevent the Australian people from having a say in relation to this very modest proposal.

I am almost out of time. I want to provoke some discussion and thinking around this idea of a declaration of Australia. I want to propose some words for such a declaration. And I will close my talk with the words of this draft. A draft might go such as follows.


Whereas three stories make Australia: the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is its foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration:

I think that's who we are. What are we? I think we consist of three parts. The ancient indigenous heritage which is its foundation, the British institutions built upon it and the adorning gift of multicultural migration.

And whereas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the First Nations of the Australian continent and its islands, possessed under ancient laws and customs, according to the reckoning of culture, from the Creation, according to the common law, from time immemorial, and according to science for more than 65 millennia. This is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with their ancestors. We recognise and honour the First Nations who discovered Australia as their sovereign possession, the oldest continuing civilisation in the world.

And whereas those who sailed the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove carried upon their shoulders the common law of England, when the sovereignty of the British Crown was proclaimed. The rule of law, parliamentary government and the Australian English language have their provenance in Britain. From eyes on board ship, this was a settlement, and from eyes on shore, an invasion. We recognise the eve of the 25th and the dawn of the 26thJanuary 1788 as a profound time for all of us, when Ancient Australia became the New Australia. We recognise and honour the Britons and Irish – convict and free – who founded our institutional heritage, making our Commonwealth from 1901, a great democracy of the globe.

And whereas peoples the earth over brought their multitude of cultural gifts to Australia. That we celebrate diversity in unity makes us a beacon unto the world. We recognise and honour our New Australians. When we renounced the White Australia policy, we made a better Commonwealth. We show that people with different roots can live together, that we can learn to read the image-bank of others, that we can look across the frontiers of our differences without prejudice or illusion, because interesting things happen at the interface between cultures.

Now therefore, with earnest and open hearts and strong desire to fill the lacuna, after more than two centuries, we make this Declaration of Australia and the Australian People, to see our reflections in each other, and recognise one and all:

Our history is replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory. We will not shy from its truth. Our storylines entwine further each generation. We will ever strive to leave our country better for our children.

We will honour the Uluru Statement from the Heart and make good upon it. Whilst English is the shared language of our Commonwealth, mother tongues name the country and sing its song-lines – and we do not want for them to pass from this land. They are part of the cultural and natural wonder of our country that is the campfire of our national soul, and the pledge of care and custody we owe our ancestral dead and unborn descendants.

After the battles of our frontier wars fell silent, diggers from the First Nations joined their Settler and New Australian comrades in the crucibles of Gallipoli and Kokoda, and there distilled the essence of our values:

  • That our mateship is and will always be our enduring bond.

  • That freedom and the fair go are our abiding ethic.

  • That our virtues of egality and irreverence give us courage to have a go.

  • That we know we can and always will count on each other.

Three storIes make us one: Australians

Well, I'm a big fan of Paul Keating obviously, and the Hawke-Keating Governments. I think Labor made a big mistake repudiating the Hawke-Keating legacy after 1996. And Labor shifted to the left. And that brilliant amalgam that was forged in the 1980s and early 90's was lost. And we've got to return to that. We need a government that is committed to the brilliant centre. Bringing the best of the left and right together. Melding the contradictions and forging, not just a lazy centre, but a highly ambitious centre.

Australia desperately needs a reform government that is about decreasing the polarisation and increasing a subscription to the radical centre.