Good afternoon, and on behalf of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, I am pleased to welcome you to Parliament House.
The Prime Minister is sorry he can’t to be here to welcome you in person, but he asked me to pass on his apologies.
I know he would have wanted to greet such an outstanding group of students who are interested and engaged in the democratic processes of our country, because it’s something he’s passionate about.
I understand you’ve already had a tour of this beautiful building, and had an opportunity to sit in on a Senate question time.
I’m sure you enjoyed learning about the symbolism incorporated into the building that harks back to the Westminster traditions upon which our democracy is built, but which also reflects the uniqueness of our own land.
When you sit in the House of Representatives chamber at Old Parliament House tomorrow morning you will, again, see many of those symbols of Parliament.
Parliament is the place where the decisions that define our democracy are made following extensive, and often heated, debate.
The very existence of our federation, parliament and our constitution were matters of great debate back in the 1800s.
In 1889, when Sir Henry Parkes suggested the time had come for an Australian Federation, few agreed with him.
Many of those arguments remain today – that the larger colonies could be more powerful within a federation than smaller ones; that each colony had its own characteristics which might be lost after Federation.
The arguments for and against federation were argued strongly around the colonies.
In a time without mass media they debated in much the same way you will over the next couple of days, face-to-face, in convention halls, on the streets and across the dinner table.
Even after all the colonies agreed to become one, our constitution was still a matter of debate in Britain, before finally being agreed as an Act of the British Parliament.
And once that was agreed we still had a great debate as to where our new nation’s capital should be located.
And, with acknowledgement of the other great cities around Australia, I do think Canberra, and the great national institutions located here (including this building), provide a great sense of national pride.
Of course, the Australian Constitution will be your focus over the next couple of days.
As you know, this is the foundational document upon which our democracy is built.
It provides the legal framework for our government and the basis of Australia’s existence as a nation.
And naturally, the Constitution reflects the values and beliefs of those who drafted it, as well as the political realities of the day.
When we reflect on that point, though, I think it’s a testament to those first drafters that the Constitution has stood our democracy in such good stead for so long.
Having said that, it is not necessarily a good thing to think of the Constitution as set in stone.
It should be a living document, one that can be altered to better reflect the nation we are now.
The best example of this is the 1967 referendum, which altered the Constitution to formally recognise the Aboriginal peoples as citizens of this nation.
I’m sure there are changes you could think of making today that would better reflect the nation we are now.
But that raises the question: how do we go about changing the Constitution, when we feel the time is right?
I’m sure you’re aware that of the 44 referendums put to the Australian people only 8 have ever past.
To ensure a successful referendum, politicians and you, the future leaders of your communities, must work together to demonstrate to our fellow Australians the benefits of supporting the referendum.
That means convincing the majority of Australians in the majority of states to vote yes.
You might ask: Why is bar set so high?
If we want to make changes to the constitution, then there has to be broad agreement on the rules under which we will all be governed.
So while it may be a high bench mark, I believe, and I trust you’ll agree, it is appropriate.
The challenge we face in passing a referendum is how we go about achieving a consensus.
And really, this is a question that we as politicians face on a daily basis.
To do this, you gather your evidence, you present your case, and just as importantly, you listen to the concerns and criticism of the people on the other side.
Because there will always be people who hold opposing views.
But if you can come together and understand the reasons why people hold the views they do, then you have a chance of entering into a dialogue and reaching a consensus.
As I said, if we’re going to talk about changing the rules that govern us, then consensus is a must.
In your discussions at the Convention you’ll have a specific focus on possible changes you could make to this essential building block of our democracy.
As you go through this process, I would encourage you to not only think about what changes you would make, but also about any concerns you think others might have, and how you would engage with those concerns to reach agreement.
Listen to your colleagues, respect their views and work together to reach mutual agreement.
This all goes towards training to be an engaged citizen in a healthy democracy.
Active engagement might be as simple as enrolling and voting in an election – an important act which is the right and responsibility of all Australians.
The franchise is something we should all take seriously.
Not all countries offer its citizens that right as we do.
While most of you may not yet be 18, you can register for the electoral roll from the age of 17.
I urge you to enlist and encourage your friends and peers to also do so.
Thinking carefully about how to use your vote, and casting it, is one important way to actively demonstrate your citizenship.
There are many ways to engage in the political and social discourse around you.
Reading and thinking about what is happening is a great first step.
Perhaps it will lead to a more direct involvement in politics or the law.
You could end up seeking election yourself at either the local, state or federal level.
Our elected representatives took many different paths to get here, but I think it’s fair to say everyone here wants to make a positive difference, represent their community, and make this nation the best it can be.
We may not always agree on how this should look.
But as I said, how we engage with those differences of opinion, how we debate and compromise and move forward is what being a democracy is all about.
We all get to have a say and to join in.
We all have the opportunity to engage in our democratic process, and we all have the ability to influence the course of a debate – and in turn the future direction of our national community.
As a first step, when you get home, I hope you’ll share your experiences at this National Schools’ Constitutional Convention with your friends, school colleagues, teachers and your families.
Congratulations to you all on your interest and active involvement.
I understand some of my parliamentary colleagues will be joining you shortly.
I hope you find the experience of participating in the 23rd National Schools Constitutional Convention stimulating and inspiring.
I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward to reading your Communique.