The Hon. Tony Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015. This is a slightly edited version of his speech to the CPAC conference at Sydney in August.
* * *
The referendum now before our nation is an absolutely critical moment in our history. Are we going to be a nation of constitutional equality that reflects Bob Hawke’s immortal words that this is a country with no “hierarchy of descent” and with “no privilege of origin”? Or are we going to be a nation where some people have a special Voice based on how long some of their ancestors have been here?
Thank God for Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price: two magnificent Australians who cherish their Aboriginal ancestry and heritage, but who refused to be defined by it. One, a proud Walpiri-Celtic Australian woman; the other a proud Bundjalung Anglo-Celtic Australian man. Just as I am myself an English, Welsh, Dutch Australian who happens to live in what was once Gadigal country, which is now the great city of Sydney.
A place with an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation, and an immigrant character, and is now the leading city of the least racist and most colourblind country on earth—a fragrant fact of which every Australian, regardless of race, or creed or gender, should be overwhelmingly proud.
Come October 14, I will be voting “No”. I will be voting “No” because I say a resounding “Yes” to constitutional equality and because I say a resounding “Yes” to Australians moving forward together, as one equal people. The referendum proposal that we are being asked to consider would entrench race in our Constitution, it would reinforce the separatism which is at the heart of indigenous disadvantage, and it would make our already creaky government processes even creakier.
I accept that our nation’s history isn’t perfect. If you go back far enough there were injustices, even massacres. But there was justice too for those who perpetrated them, with seven white men hanged for the murder of black people after the Myall Creek Massacre as early as 1838. Yet hundreds of Aboriginal men would not have signed up to fight for King and Country if they had been the subjects of a racist empire, including, in trooper Billy Sing, one of our toughest and most successful First World War soldiers.
As Warren Mundine reminds us every time he speaks, the way to get ahead in this country, as every migrant community knows only too well, is very simple: it’s to go to school, to get a job, to have a family, to buy a house if you can, to start a business if you can, to make the most of your circumstances, whatever they might be. It’s to do what every generation of Australians has been encouraged to do. It’s to have a go. And it’s never, ever, to wallow in being a victim.
Sure, bad things have happened between black and white Australians, just as bad things have happened in the lives of all of us. No one has a magic carpet ride through life. But so many good things have happened as well. And it’s the good as well as the bad that we should remember and cherish as we go forward as a nation.
For the best part of a hundred years, there’s not just been official benevolence, however clunky, but an absolute abundance of good will from almost every Australian to almost every indigenous Australian. That’s why the very last thing we should attempt is jeopardising that in a misguided attempt to rewrite our history as a story of shame, and a bid to undo the past, and replace an old racial prejudice with a new racial preference.
This generation of Aboriginal Australians are not victims. This generation of non-Aboriginal Australians are not oppressors. And the last thing we need right now is entrenching victimhood and institutionalising grievance in our governance arrangements. And that’s why there can only be one response to this referendum proposal and it’s an absolutely resounding “No”.
But there’s a further problem right now, and that’s the government that’s making our country worse, not better. I’m not saying the current government lacks good will or patriotism. I believe just about every member of the Australian parliament is trying to do his or her best, by his or her own lights. It’s just that the lights are wrong, and the best is not good enough in the current case.
You are here at this CPAC Conference, this Conservative Political Action Conference, because you love our country and you want Australians to be the very best each of us can be, and you want our country to be collectively its best self. So each of you, each of us, needs a personal program of political action—beyond just having our instincts confirmed at a gathering such as this and meeting more people who think like us.
My first political mentor was the great B.A. Santamaria. Most of you are too young to remember him. But Bob always said to those that he could influence, that what they should do was to join the political party of their choice and make it the very best it could be. For some, that was the Labor Party. For some—particularly back in those days—it was the DLP, the Democratic Labor Party. And ultimately for many that turned out to be the Liberal Party and the National Party.
Back in 1998, on the day of Santamaria’s funeral, I spoke on the adjournment debate in the parliament that night to declare that the DLP was alive and well and living inside the Howard government. Can I say—and forgive me, those who don’t share my creed—that the Catholicisation of the Coalition was one of Santamaria’s great legacies that has helped the culture and the fundamental strength of the party to which I belong no end.
But to make a difference, to make a difference to the way our government works, you’ve got to be in a political party—preferably one that has the potential to form a government. You might say, what if the existing parties are a dreadful disappointment? I understand that. There is not a political party that does not at some stage disappoint. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “Put not your trust in princes”, because they will always let you down.
So find the one which is the least disappointing, that is the least bad, join it, and do your best to make it better. And it will almost certainly never be perfect, but it will be the better for your presence, or at the very least it will be the less bad for your presence.
When I was turfed as the leader of the Liberal Party, hundreds if not thousands of people got in touch with me to say, “Please, Tony, start a new political party.” And I invariably responded: “I can understand why you feel that way but—trust me—it is always better and easier to fix an existing party than it is to start a new one.” Some said they were quitting the Liberal Party in disgust. To which I invariably said, “If good people go, worse people will prevail.” And that’s the truth. If not you, who? If not now, when? And if I’m not prepared to do it, how can I expect anyone else to do it?
Some people asked: “What can one person do? I’m just one.” And yet we know the power of one. Under the right circumstances, just one person can drive extraordinary change. Indeed, the world changes person by person. Great things happen because individuals have had the courage and the foresight and the strength of character to have a go.
Look at what one individual has done, time and time again, down the ages. Think of John Monash—the Australian who has probably had more impact on the world at a key moment than any other. Think of Winston Churchill. Think of John Howard. Think of Jesus of Nazareth. Think of all the people who have had a go and made a difference to our country and to our world, and ask yourself: Why can’t I, in my own way, do something similar?
It was my great privilege to be educated by the Jesuits. In those days the Jesuits had a Latin phrase: genus humanum vivit paucis. It was translated for me, “The human race lives by a few.” Our challenge is to be among the few who make a difference, and not to be among the many who go with the flow. And remember this—particularly when success seems far away—effort does not guarantee success, but lack of effort certainly guarantees failure.
I was lucky enough to be leader of the Liberal Party for six years. The greatest honour of my life was to be twenty-eighth Prime Minister of this country. Let me assure you that Peter Dutton is a worthy successor to my party’s best leaders and I’m proud of him. There would have been dozens of political savants telling Peter Dutton not to oppose this divisive Voice. “The opinion polls are against you, do not oppose this Voice,” they would have said. And yet that is exactly what he has done because he is a man of courage and conviction.
Likewise, there would have been many telling him that nuclear power is politically toxic in an Australian context. Yet the one thing that he has been most consistently urging us to consider is the prospect of nuclear power on land, just as we will have nuclear power at sea.
And then there’s the policy that came too little too late to the last election: to allow young people to take some of their superannuation savings and devote them to a deposit towards a home of their own. In short, I think I can assure you that being Labor-lite is not a mistake that Peter Dutton will ever make.
As people who care for our country, I hope you will support Peter Dutton. First, to defeat this divisive Voice; and then, to give Australia a better government. Because having a better government is a big part of making this great country even better.