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ACM Home arrow Anthems arrow Constitutional Essays arrow The Australia I Know

The Australia I Know Print E-mail
Written by Prime Minister John Howard   
Friday, 20 August 1999
Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop

Life is all about personal courage, about character, about the capacity to do the right thing to care for one another in times of trial and times of difficulty. No figure in Australian history more perfectly and completely personified the injunction to care for others in dire need. 'Weary' Dunlop did that and he did it in a way that has won him the affection, not only of those he preserved in life but of an entire nation.

In our highest aspirations, I imagine, that 'Weary' Dunlop represents what so many of us would like to be as Australians.

He had that uncomplicated generosity and decency. He had enormous strength as well as all those laconic characteristics which we hold so dear as being part of the Australian existence and the Australian personality. He was also a champion sportsman Australian to his boot heels. And his legacy to successive generations of Australians will warm and sustain and inspire us.

He was also profoundly Australian in the greatest of all Australian traditions of mateship.

When he cared and treated for people he didn't ask what school they attended, he didn't ask what religion they professed, he didn't ask them which political party they supported.

Instead he just treated them and cared for them and led them and inspired them because they were fellow human beings.


There are many great heroes in the Australian story, but that generation of men and women who went into captivity in the darkest days of World War 2 endured grave hardship and tragedy, they travelled journeys, they wore burdens that few Australians have been forced to bear. And we owe them an immense debt of gratitude on this Remembrance Day.

'Weary' Dunlop was not someone who wanted to live out in hatred and so expiate some of the feelings of hostility he no doubt had about his treatment and that of his fellow Australians during World War 2. At the end of the war he was not one of those who said we should turn our backs on this region. As kind and decent as he was 'Weary' Dunlop was also a far sighted man. He taught us of the fruits of co-operation and the friendship of neighbours.

'Weary' Dunlop became a leading light in the Asia Australia society He played a very active role in the Colombo plan. Under the plan Dunlop shared his energy and his phenomenal surgical skills with the peoples of Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. He later returned to an Asian theatre of war to help the wounded in Vietnam.


It was a special privilege for me to meet 'Weary' Dunlop on several occasions. I have talked to people who knew him, who were treated by him, who served with him and who loved him. And he represents to me something to which all of us as Australians can aspire.

There is no clearer demonstration of the respect and admiration with which Australians regarded 'Weary' than the nation's spontaneous reaction to his passing-when around ten thousand people of all ages and from all walks of life turned out to pay their respects at his state funeral.


What was it about 'Weary' which evoked this extraordinary response from the nation?

It was our gratitude for his commitment to his country and his selfless service to his men.

It was the sheer horror of his experiences and those of his men. As 'Weary' put it, he felt that 'in the annals of human suffering, Australians had written something very special of their own, and handed on a precious legacy to the future.'


It was the appeal of his confidence in a better future, more extraordinary because of the suffering he had endured.


It was because 'Weary' himself personified the best of Australian character and values.

What is it that we can learn from Dunlop's legacy? It is perhaps the true meaning of being a neighbour.


Dunlop understood that being a neighbour has less to do with geography than it does with actions, that being a neighbour meant respecting the qualities and cultures of others as well as lending a hand so as to turn regions into neighbourhoods.


Recent Currency Problems


In recent months Australia has demonstrated just how strong are our credentials as a good regional neighbour through our support for the economies of Thailand and Indonesia.

I am proud that Australia has extended that helping hand. I am also proud that Australia is sufficiently strong to have been able to extend that hand.


We have been able to weather the recent currency turbulence as well as we have, and we have been able to help our friends as we have, only because of the strong foundations of our economy.


Australia with a bigger budget deficit, without a comprehensive reform programme, and severe speed limits on its economic growth would have been compelled to think twice about giving such support.


We have more than halved the underlying budget deficit in one year. By the turn of the century, Australia will have the highest nominal budget surplus in its history. Government expenditure will be at its lowest level as a proportion of GDP for over 25 years.


Over 1997 and 1998 we are predicted to have the third lowest public debt to GDP ratio in the OECD.


We have the lowest headline inflation rate in 35 years.


These dramatic improvements have helped deliver much lower interest rates, benefiting business and consumers alike. We have the lowest home interest rates in 17 years. Real business investment is at its highest level ever recorded.


Workplace reform, greater competition in energy and transport, and privatisation are bringing productivity improvements.


Over 1997 and 1998, the OECD. forecasts that Australia's economic and employment growth will be higher than in any G7 country.


The importance of the improvements brought about in our economic foundations in the past year and a half cannot be overstated. The currency problems in our region should have brought this home to all convincingly.


The Government is not resting on these achievements. We will build on these foundations by proposing the most visionary and comprehensive tax reform in Australia's history.


Australia's Relationship with our Region


Beyond what it has illustrated about our economy, the recent currency problems in the region have brought new and perhaps more realistic perspectives about the region and our relationship with it.


I am confident about the region's prospects, despite some of the present economic problems. Economic growth will be affected for a time, but the conditions are still good for continued growth in the medium term.


Those prospects will be realised if regional countries tackle economic adjustment quickly and continue market liberalisation. There is no alternative to maintaining solid macro-economic fundamentals. Greater transparency is being demanded and is unavoidable. Best informed markets will promote economic stability and growth. It will be crucial that economies do not turn closed and inwards. APEC's success is if anything more important.

Australia has a vital interest in her neighbours succeeding in transforming their economies. They must become more open and have sustainable patterns of growth. Sixty per cent of our exports go to East Asia. Through our participation in the IMF support packages for our neighbours and our practical help at a technical level-through for example the Reserve Bank-we are making a real difference to the region's prospects.


The point I want to emphasise tonight, however, is that recent events have surely shown that Australia should not regard itself as an anxious outsider in her region. Our actions build on a long and honourable tradition-which 'Weary' Dunlop personified and successive governments of all political persuasions have followed since the War-of conscientious and reliable support and neighbourly behaviour towards our partners in the region.


We have demonstrated beyond any doubt that we are a reliable regional mate. And I am pleased that this has been recognised in the region both in the personal comments that have been made by regional leaders to myself and other Government ministers and in the regional press.


We have acted from a sense of regional mutual obligation that is the foundation of any community And of course we would like to think that our neighbours would be there when we need them.


Another important point to emerge from the present economic problems in the region is the need for Australia to think of herself as a citizen of the world. Australia's economic and political destiny is naturally closely tied up with her immediate region.


I am unequivocally committed to deepening our engagement with the countries of Asia. However, in pursuing this objective the Government will not neglect Australia's interests elsewhere. Our policy is Asia first or Asia plus, not Asia only.


Over 60 per cent of the direct investment Australia sends abroad is directed towards Europe and the United States. Over 60 per cent of the direct investment we receive from abroad comes from the United States and Europe. Moreover, these economic links contribute profoundly to the manufacturing base of our economy and our technological leadership in the region.


The present visit of the Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Kok, is a reminder of just how strong and important our links with other parts of the world are. The Netherlands is a major source of investment into Australia. It is also the ancestral home of about 300 000 Australians.

This highlights perhaps Australia's greatest strength: we occupy a unique intersection of history, geography, cultural, political and economic circumstance. There is no other country in the world which has such an asset. It is an immense strength and never a weakness.

Some are inclined to see the economic, cultural and political differences between Australia and the countries in our region as a problem-or as worrying gaps that should be narrowed by changing ourselves . Nothing could be further from the truth.


European and American linkages enhance rather than encumber or diminish the role we play in our region. Equally an understanding of the region adds value to our relationship with the United States, Britain and Europe. For example, during my recent visit to Washington President Clinton accepted my suggestion that it might be useful for Australia with its different perspectives on Indonesia, to share its views with the United States. Australia and United States officials subsequently had some discussions which I think will make some small contribution at least to understanding between two important friends of Australia.

We share interests with our neighbours in a stable and prosperous region and on an active and highly recorded participant in building the region's future. Our unique characteristics and our linkages with other parts of the world in cultural, political and strategic terms-which make this contribution especially effective and make it especially highly regarded in the region.


This is demonstrated at a political level by the commitment to partnership with us by Japan and by the recent responses of countries such as Indonesia and Thailand to our assistance.

It is demonstrated through the close defence relationships we have with regional countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.


It is demonstrated by the large number of students from the region studying at Australian institutions.


It is demonstrated at the most important level by the large numbers of immigrants from our region who have made their homes in Australia and who are playing an influential and welcome part in shaping and building Australia's economy and society.


Our success in creating a successful, diverse, tolerant and united nation is an immense achievement. It is a beacon in our region and the world. Those who seek to diminish that achievement do Australia a great disservice.


Our success reflects the aspirations and values that 'Weary' Dunlop held dear and so remarkably fulfilled in his life.


Our success is also founded on a political heritage that has given our society a stability and security that has been unmatched anywhere in the world.


The Constitutional Debate


There are other firm foundations which also provide us our strength. They are our unique national character, our system of government and our constitution.

It is therefore appropriate tonight for me to put the constitutional debate in proper perspective to debunk some myths about Australia's independence and our system of government.


As you all know, I am not a republican. The Australian people knew that when they elected

me Prime Minister. I take an unashamedly Burkian view of Australian institutions but I am, above all, a passionate democrat with sufficient faith in the Australian people for them to set their own destiny.


I have a responsibility to guide the debate in an open, candid and constructive fashion. That involves honestly telling the people my own views but facilitating a process from which clearly defined options for choice emerge so that the Australian people can then make an informed and considered judgment. Whatever my personal views may be this uniquely is a matter for resolution by all of the Australian people. It is my fervent wish that if change is to occur that it occurs in circumstances that unite, not divide the Australian people.

We all know that when the vote ultimately comes, one of the options is retention of our present system with the undoubted strength and stability it has brought. Yet at this stage, it is utterly unclear what the alternative to the status quo might be other than a vaguely defined Republican alternative.


Therefore there is a heavy onus on the Convention to explore whether or not a consensus can be reached on what kind of alternative model can be put to the people at a referendum.

This is not to say that the merits of the present system should not be discussed to the Convention. But there is little point in Republicans spending the time trying to convince anti-Republicans to change their minds and vice versa. It would be better for all of us, if we are to have a mature debate, that we focus on defining what the options might be-if that is possible.


To those on the anti-Republican side who think that even to discuss the shape of a Republican option is to give ground in the debate - I beg to disagree.


I believe there are many Australians who have a disposition to support change, but they will embrace change only if the alternative to our present Constitution embodies a safe, stable, workable and secure alternative-and, above all, the essential, seamless continuity of our current Westminster system of government, where real executive authority resides within the Cabinet drawn from and responsible to the Parliament.


National leadership demands that all our citizens, irrespective of whether they argue against constitutional change or in favour of it, have the right to present their case and have it heard in a spirit of tolerance and openness.


The debate is not about who is the better, more patriotic Australian. There are people of good will in this debate who have genuine differences. There are decent, loyal and passionate Australians on both sides of the argument. There are Liberals who believe in an Australian republic just as there are committed Labor people who defend what we've got. The debate will never be well served by a scorecard of which personalities line up with one side of the debate or the other.


The issue is ultimately what system of government will best deliver a united and stable Australian nation. A temperate and sober debate on the real issues is required, not one based on sloganeering and personalities. Paramount remains my desire to conduct this debate in such a way that if change is to occur, it should occur in a unifying rather than a divisive fashion.


That is why I promised, before the last election, to establish a Constitutional Convention to examine the question of Australia's head of state. The return of the Convention Bill to the Parliament after it had been rejected was testament to the Government's sincerity and determination to provide full and open discussion on this constitutional matter.

That we have a written constitution at all is a revelation to many Australians. The Hawke Government's Constitutional Commission reported in 1988 that almost 50 per cent of all Australians were unaware that we had a written Constitution, and that in the 18-24 year age group the level of ignorance rose to nearly 70 per cent. The Keating Government's Civics Expert Group reported in 1994 that 82 per cent of Australians knew nothing about the content of our constitution.


This is a poor indictment upon our education of civics amongst Australians. If this debate can at least raise awareness about the way each of us are governed then this is a worthwhile development.


That we are having this debate at all should be kept in perspective. It is an important issue but not the only important issue.


What I will not permit is the debate to distract the Government from what many Australians properly regard as their higher priorities. That was the fate of the previous government to their considerable detriment.


Whether Australia becomes a republic is not an issue that weighs heavily upon Australians as they go about their daily lives. It cannot be a substitute for ways to relieve the pressure on families or to help small business get going again so as to help ease the unemployment problem.


After all, an Australian republic would deliver not one extra job, not one extra hospital bed, not extra policeman on the beat, nor one extra cent paid off the national debt. Fixing what's really broken will always be the priority of my Government.


The Australia I know


I am not one of those people who believes that Australia suffers from an identity crisis. I believe that the Australian identity is so distinct and our shared values so robust and so many of our past achievements such a legitimate source of pride, that we don't need endless naval gazing.


The almost constant carping on what some people claim to be wrong about Australia requires all of us to get a proper perspective by focussing on what is right about us. That we are a truly independent nation where Australia answers to no foreign power and where our ultimate strength is derived from the sovereignty of our people.


That we are free to think, to move, to speak, to worship, to elect governments, to be afforded the proper privileges of our legal system, to own and dispose of property, to raise a family and educate our children.


That the rights of citizenship are balanced by our obligations and responsibilities to those close to us.


That we live in a land where the individual is paramount and where the family unit is the corner stone of our lives.


That our patriotism is quiet but deep.


That we stand as a united people under one flag irrespective of whether Australia is the nation of our birth or of our choice. That our lifestyle is defined by abundance of light and space, by our love of sport and competition and the rich diversity of cultural pursuits.

That the future is ours with an eagerness to meet the challenges of a world made small by technology and the onset of globalisation.


That modern day relationships with neighbours of the region are mature, durable, to our mutual advantage and decidedly in the national interest.


That being Australian embodies real notions of decency and pragmatism in a classless society which lives up to its creed of practical mateship, which brings along those who are disadvantaged and which extends the gift of welcome to those who come to our shores.

If so much is right with Australia how can it be that so much is fatally wrong that requires the most fundamental constitutional change since Federation?


I am ambitious for Australia to succeed and for its people to prosper but that does not mean that I have to celebrate the centenary of nationhood by tearing up its birth certificate.

Ask me why I stand against radical change and the answer lies in the simple yet compelling truths that I have every right to defend the Australian experience and that I have every faith in Australians to meet the real challenges ahead.


That also requires an honesty to confront contemporary problems with practical and durable solutions.


The challenge for those who argue the case for a republic is simply put: can they demonstrate that change would deliver better governance? Will it deliver more political stability and freedom than we now enjoy? Will it deliver social and economic independence?


Preconditions for change


The beauty of our Constitution is just that. It's ours.


Despite what my predecessor attempted to claim, that the Commonwealth Constitution was a creation of Whitehall, it is a distinctly Australian document, having been drafted and approved by Australians at the time of Federation.


That the Constitution may be altered only with the approval of the Australian people at a referendum is a rare and precious provision in a world where most constitutions may be altered by parliaments or by governments, without the consent of their people.


Those two great Australian commentators on the making of our Constitution, Quick and Garran, wrote ''The Constitution is the master of the legislature, and the community itself is the author of the Constitution ... Sovereignty resides in [those] in whom is ultimately vested the power to amend a Constitution of Government'.


The essence of a republican form of government is that ultimate sovereignty resides in the people, and that all public office holders derive their authority from the people, either through election by the people, or by appointment by officers themselves elected by the people precisely the form of government we enjoy in Australia. What this means is that we have always been a crowned republic.


So why embark upon the onerous task of redrafting the Constitution to achieve precisely the form of government we have experienced since Federation?


It was with considerable foresight that Quick and Garran in 1901 contemplated the proper circumstances upon which change to the Australian Constitution should occur. They stated that the double majority which our founding fathers had written into section 128 of the Constitution requiring the approval of an amendment by a majority of voters in a majority of States was an essential safeguard. It had been provided, not to prevent or resist constitutional change, but to protect the federal system and to prevent constitutional change being made in haste or by stealth.


Its purpose, they wrote, was to encourage public discussion and to ensure change only occurred when there was strong evidence that it was 'desirable, irresistible, and inevitable'.

These, I believe, are the touchstones against which any change should be tested.

I call on every Australian, when they consider the question of a republic, to ask themselves whether the proposal for change meets each of these three requirements.

Is it desirable? Is it irresistible? Is it inevitable?


How often have we heard the claim that a republic is inevitable? Australians with no firm allegiance one way or another may have found themselves drawn to the republican cause by the argument that because some regard it as inevitable, their minds have somehow been made up for them. But this is not sufficient.


However inevitable some may believe a republic to be, desirable and irresistible it is not.

I wish to debunk two myths that those who argue for a republic have sought to espouse: first, that Australia can only ever be truly independent by changing to a republic and secondly, that we do not already have an Australian as our head of state.


An independent nation


Needless to say, I remain one of the great number of Australians who have yet to be convinced that we can be made any more free or independent or democratic or sovereign or profoundly more Australian than we are today.


We don't need a licence to be independent because we already are. We certainly don't need some written ratification of the great worth of each Australian citizen because it is already apparent that Australian citizenship is one of the most cherished prizes in our world.

Australia is a fully independent nation. There are those who believe our independence came with Federation, others identify the shores of Gallipoli, others still identify later years such as the Hawke Government's Constitutional Commission which identified 'some time between 1926 and the end of World War 2'.


The ties which republicans tell us they want to sever do not exist today, have not existed at all for over 50 years, and were substantially severed at least over 70 years ago.

Associated with the republican argument is the notion that we need to assert our independence by becoming a republic to ensure our full engagement in Asia. Or from certain businessmen that we need to rebadge Australia.


This has always been a nonsense. The Coalition regards our engagement with Asia as our highest foreign policy priority We are inextricably linked with Asia for the long term. Recent currency turbulence in the region reminds us that our prosperity as well as our security is linked with the region. We seek closer engagement in Asia because of the profound benefits which can flow from countries in the region as well as the realisation of our mutual interests.

But none of this depends upon changing our constitutional arrangements. On my visits to the region I have never perceived a desire for Australia to become a republic, and even if I did, what reason would this be to change our constitution? Why would an Australian Government supposedly assert independence from Britain by acceding to pressure from a different nation?


If Australia starts disavowing its history or disowning its institutions simply because some believe that countries in the region will respect us more for doing so, then we are gravely mistaken.


This view is even reflected by regional figures. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew said in 1994: 'I don't think Asia understands what the argument is about. Australia would not generate greater esteem in Asia as a republic than it does with its present constitutional arrangements.'


An Australian Head of State


Just as I am unconvinced by the argument that Australia should change its constitutional form of government for reasons of perceived international advantage, so too am I unconvinced by the claims that it is only through a republican form of government that we can 'have an Australian as our Head of State'.


To my mind, we already have an Australian who is, to all intents and purposes our Head of State. We first had an Australian in the position of Governor-General 66 years ago and it would now be inconceivable and totally unacceptable for anyone but an Australian to hold that position in the future.


Our Constitution has evolved over the years through both legislative changes and Constitutional practice, to enhance the effective role and the inherent 'Australianness' of the position of Governor-General.


Australians are a pragmatic and practical people who disdain legalistic distinctions. In a pragmatic and practical way, the role of our Governor-General as Australia's effective Head of State has been clearly established and will continue.


The Convention


[At the] Constitutional Convention the first question to be dealt with is whether Australia should become a republic. But it will not be the only question.


The greatest task of the Convention will be to consider the relative merits of one model for an Australian republic against another. The heaviest onus will lie upon republicans to set out with clarity why they believe one particular model should be favoured. In this regard the blank cheque theory of constitutional change is simply unacceptable. Those who want change must say what sort of change.


Some republicans want the people to elect the president, some want the Parliament to appoint the president, some want the Prime Minister to make the appointment, and others want the appointment to be made by a specially-constituted committee.


The onus will also lie upon the advocates for change to achieve a degree of unity and compromise on the favoured model. For their part anti-republicans will be asked to listen to cogent argument and play a constructive role in the debate.


It is my strong belief that an elected President in the Australian political culture would inevitably create an alternative political power centre certain to rival that occupied by the Prime Minister with the distinct possibility that an elected President could have a political allegiance quite different from that of the Government of the day.


A potent cocktail for political instability would have been produced and warnings against this type of change were given by the former Governor of Victoria, Mr Richard MeGarvie, earlier this year. He argued that we already have one of the world's oldest and most successful democracies, and that we 'would immediately corrode and ultimately destroy our democracy' if we were to use any method of election to choose the president.


An elected presidency raises all types of issues not least of which is the likely politicisation of the office of head of state. Political parties would likely run candidates and it would be undemocratic to deny them the right to do so. We may therefore be unwittingly sacrificing an independent and representative head of state for one that may represent only a bare majority of Australians and who may be the least independent of all.


The position of the States is also unclear. Given that each State has its own Constitution, it would be feasible for one State or more to wish to retain its own constitutional position including their own relationship with the Crown.


Thus, there is far more to this republican debate than meets the eye.


The more one tries to simplify the case for change, the more it becomes complex and confusing, and the more it threatens the very freedoms that those who quite sincerely advocate change are trying to enshrine.


The more one argues for an independent nation, the more one realises that we have been independent all along.


The more one seeks an Australian head of state, the more it becomes clear that we have had one for years.


The more one seeks to empower the Australian people, the more one understands that we are already amongst the most sovereign human beings on earth.


The more one tries to prove that an Australian republic is 'desirable, irresistible, and inevitable', the more one realises that it's really none of these things at all.


And the more one seeks to radically change this country the more one appreciates that it's really not worth the risk.


My foremost desire is to let the Australian people be heard on this important issue. The Australian Constitution belongs to them and it is not up to republican or monarchist alike to put words into their mouths or make up their minds for them. The role of the Convention will be to ensure that they have informed choice on the relative merits of the current system as against change and between the various models for change.


I believe this to be in the national interest and I call on all participants to ensure that national interest is well served.


Conclusion


The legacy of 'Weary' Dunlop provides us with an opportunity to appreciate what is precious about Australia: our political and economic stability; our international linkages; our skills and technology; our diversity; and above all, our values as individuals.


The region welcomes us for what we are and what we stand for. It was for the same reason that the region opened its arms to 'Weary' Dunlop. The foundation for his respect and understanding of others was the deep understanding of his own worth and that of his own history, culture and values.


'Weary' Dunlop personified the mateship which lies at the core of Australian values and our sense of nation. He revealed to us what being a neighbour is really all about.

 
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