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Greens put "Honourable" title in history's dustbin

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Lee Rhiannon 3 Apr 2011

With my election to the Senate and with the prospects of a new crop of state Greens MPs taking their seats in parliament I have been thinking about what it was like when I first entered the NSW Upper House.

In many ways this is a story about how the trappings of Australia's colonial past are slowly being discarded.

I was elected in 1999 and in the weeks between the March election and the start of parliament in May I was thinking a lot about my new life as an MP. I took great interest in the form the swearing-in ceremony would take for myself and other new MPs so I would be clear about what I had to do. What I found out was informative, although two aspects did concern me: taking the title “the Honourable” because of its links to the Queen and also swearing allegiance to the Head of England.

When the then Clerk of the Upper House John Evans told me that it was just custom to take “the Honourable” title and I could become an MP without accepting it I decided to get the wheels turning.

The Greens from our formation have had a strong commitment to an Australian republic so I felt this was a small but important contribution I could make to end a system of titles and honorifics, which bind us to our colonial past and mimic England’s entrenched hierarchies of class and privilege.

So I wrote to the then Labor Treasurer Michael Egan, who was the senior government person involved in the official proceedings, to put my request that “the Honourable” title be dropped from my swearing in.

Thanks to the helpful NSW Parliamentary Library I had dug out an interesting link between Mr Egan and the shift in attitudes to “the Honourable” title. In 1972 he was a key adviser to Leslie Johnson, at the time a Whitlam government minister and so close to the action of those heady days. One of the first acts of the then prime minister Gough Whitlam was to decline appointment to the Privy Council, which carried the title “the Right Honourable”.

For the record Malcolm Fraser accepted the title “the Right Honourable”. Bob Hawke declined the appointment and all links with the Privy Council were abolished in 1986.

Mr Egan never replied in writing to my request. I was told verbally by his office and the Clerk’s office that he did not agree to my request. I informed them that if at the swearing in ceremony Mr Egan used the title “Honourable” when referring to myself I would publicly state in the ceremony why I was not accepting that term.

The swearing in went ahead as I had requested and I became the first member of the Legislative Council not to take this honorific. Since then all Greens MPs elected to the NSW Upper House have declined to take the title.

“The Honourable” title dates back to 1856 when the then NSW governor, Sir W. Denison, on the formation of the first parliament in Australia wrote to the Queen of England with the request that members of the Legislative Council be “entitled to the titular designation of 'Honorable'”. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr Labouchere, replied on behalf of the Queen granting the request.

Some of the Coalition Upper House MPs strongly objected to my decision and attempted to present my actions as disrespectful of parliamentary tradition. Former Liberal MP Patricia Forsythe (and current executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber) even made a speech about it: She takes exception to my comment describing, “the Honourable” title as “… another part of the colonialist trappings of this place that we need to relegate to history’s dustbin.”

In my original letter to the Clerk John Evans about the title issue I had stated my respect for traditions, but traditions that are not offensive. I stated in that letter “… tradition needs to be a dynamic process that also reflects the current mores of our society.”

The removal of the colonial trappings has certainly not been confined to action by the Greens. In 2006, on the Iemma government’s instigation, the NSW Lower House dropped the term "the honourable member".

The big breakthrough came when the oath to the Queen was replaced with the loyalty pledge thanks to the Iemma Labor government’s decision to introduce the Constitution Amendment (Pledge of Loyalty) Act.

The oath that I and all MPs elected prior to 2007 had to take reads: "I [member's name] do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Her Heirs and Successors according to law. So help me God." This form of the oath was adopted in 1902.

The current pledge with healthy republican language reads: "[Under God] I pledge my loyalty to Australia and the people of NSW." The “Under God” reference is optional. The new Act also changed the oath for ministers so it no longer refers to "Her Majesty's executive council", but simply the "executive council of NSW."

The cleanup of colonial trappings has gone beyond language changes. In 2006 the Royal Coat of Arms was removed from both the Legislative Council and Assembly chambers and replaced with the State Coat of Arms. Former Upper House MP Peter Breen championed this change.

In 1999 when she first became president of the NSW Legislative Council Meredith Burgmann had the painting of the Queen removed from her office.

The Greens NSW at its December State Delegates Council passed a proposal by consensus that requests “all Greens NSW elected councillors and members of parliament to refrain from using such (Honourable) titles”.

As NSW Labor attempts to resurrect themselves, maybe they could take inspiration from the Whitlam years and join the Greens in going for more people friendly language in parliament and reject out-dated honorifics.

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