In his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell wrote:
"No good idea succeeds simply because it is a good idea. Good ideas must have champions – people willing to believe in them, push for them, fight for them, gain adherents and other champions, and press until they succeed … Bad ideas don't die simply because they are intrinsically bad. You need people who will stand up and fight them, put themselves at risk, point out the weaknesses, and drive stakes through their hearts."
To me, Powell's words summarise Australia's crisis of political leadership.
Australia's political leaders today lack courage and determination to push for what they know is needed for Australia's future success. They're not championing good ideas, pressing them until they succeed. And they don't fight the damaging, and sometimes downright stupid, policies and practices taking hold.
For over a decade, Australia's political leaders have been paralysed and afraid. Afraid to upset some noisy interest group. Afraid to make some part of the community unhappy. Afraid to take anything away, regardless of whether it's affordable or achieving anything. Afraid the media will ask, "Can you guarantee no one is worse off?" Because you never can.
Political leaders are telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to know.
They tell us the government can keep borrowing money, even to pay for everyday expenses like pensions. That we can enjoy the same standard of living indefinitely and our social support system isn't under threat, even as more and more Australians collect more in benefits than they pay in tax. That they can introduce big-spending initiatives and figure out how to pay for them later, jockeying to spend the most regardless of whether this delivers better outcomes.
It's driven by politicians concerned about popularity. Yet politicians have never been so unpopular in all the time I can remember. Because people believe they're driven by self-interest rather than a vision for Australia's prosperity.
The debacle over section 44 of the constitution shows that's true.
It's one thing that some politicians unwittingly found they were dual citizens. The bigger concern is the major parties ducking and weaving to avoid accountability, steadfastly resisting an audit of all parliamentarians' eligibility to represent us.
Rather than uphold the fabric of Australia's system of government, they hoped to get away with wilful blindness.
Last week our Prime Minister said: "What is an audit? Does that mean somebody is going to undertake extensive genealogical research on every member of Parliament and senator? Undertake extensive research into foreign laws?"
Yes, Prime Minister. If that's what is required.
Native title claimants are subject to extensive genealogical research to prove they are descended from the original owners of land. And the Australian government only has to ask, and foreign embassies will help ensure a speedy confirmation of foreign citizenship status. Even if it is hard, Australia's constitution and the Parliament's integrity are worth it.
Months passed with Parliament expecting us to rely on MPs and senators owning up. Yet the Stephen Parry debacle shows they can't be trusted to speak up – about themselves or others.
For the rest of us, self-regulation works on a "trust and verify" basis. We're trusted to comply, but authorities routinely check and if problems emerge, we get audited. That's how government treats us in regards to tax and welfare. We expect it of politicians in regards to the constitution.
The Prime Minister has proposed a solution of legalese embedded in convoluted process; a pointless exercise where politicians make declarations they've effectively already made to the best of their knowledge, which the High Court says is irrelevant. It will deliver continued instability for months, with daily accusations feeding mounting community distrust and contempt.
Both major parties have been pathetic on this issue. But the Prime Minister leads the government and must show leadership.
Make no mistake. This is the Turnbull government having its Mike Baird "greyhounds moment".
The constitution is the foundation of Australia's identity. Australians are subject to the constitution, not the other way around. Section 44 isn't optional.
There's another thing most political leaders don't like to talk about. The foundations that make Australia a great nation are under threat. At their core, the Western principles that underpin Australia are ideas. Good ideas. And they need champions. There are many threats to those principles. People who want to displace them. Competing ideas that cannot be reconciled with Western principle. And at some point, we'll have to choose.
The principles and institutions on which Australia was founded will not prevail simply because they're good. Australian political leaders must stand up and fight for them. That includes giving us confidence section 44 of our constitution is being upheld.
This is an edited extract of the speech given by Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO at the launch of his book Warren Mundine – In Black and White (Pantera Press) on 8th November 2017.It was first published in the Australian Financial Review on the same day.
Politicians must uphold our Constitution
8 November 2017
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO