The 2013 Barton Lecture was delivered by The Honorable Malcolm Turnbull MP at Newcastle City Hall on Thursday April 18, 2013.
A self-professed ‘notorious republican’, Mr Turnbull reflected in his lecture on Edmund Barton as a founding father of the Australian Constitution – a document Mr Turnbull described as “more frustrating than inspiring”. He refuted the idea that the Constitution is the “birth certificate of an independent nation” as Australia in Barton’s Day was not by any means an independent country, but rather part of a greater British entity.
In discussing how Barton, at the constitutional convention in 1897-98, left amendment provisions in place which make constitutional reforms almost impossible to achieve, Mr Turnbull drew on his own experiences as part of the Republican Movement and the 1999 Australian republic referendum. Turnbull asked if the final step of the journey Barton began would be when Australia chooses its own head of state.
Questions submitted by audience members covered a range of issues of current interest. In response to a question asking how to improve the level of political discourse in Australia, Mr Turnbull offered that politicians should lead by example, and also suggested that Question Time could become more meaningful under a different format.
Turnbull also covered his time working as a young lawyer – in particular his years with Kerry Packer -advising the law students present “don’t be churlish and disrespectful, but don’t be too deferential”.
Mr Turnbull also responded to questions about the future of Australia’s public broadcasters, added his thoughts on the government’s proposed changes to superannuation and covered the Coalition’s plan for the National Broadband Network.
One question that was not asked, but that Mr Turnbull raised himself, was his opinion on the New Zealand government’s decision to legalise gay marriage. He drew applause from the audience with his statement that “I believe arguments against gay marriage are very unpersuasive and I would vote for gay marriage being legalised in Australia.”
He explained that, while supporting gay marriage was not his party’s policy, he hoped that a free vote might be given were the Coalition to win the next election. A free vote would allow members of the Coalition to vote with their consciences rather than along party lines. As a frontbencher, Mr Turnbull cannot currently vote in support of gay marriage without resigning his position.
The debate for a free vote was raised in 2012 but was concluded against in the party room. Mr Turnbull advised that this would be determined in the next parliament.
The Barton Lecture, first presented by the University of Newcastle in 2008, was established to explore Australian politics and Constitutional issues.
To check out the #BartonLecture tweets capturing the event, read our Storify.