Opinion: Rex Jory: Here’s why Australia needs a state of the union address
Rex Jory, The Advertiser
February 10, 2019 5:08pm
The federal parliament should institute a state of the union address, to be given by the prime minister of the day, perhaps on the first day of sitting of both houses of Parliament each year.
The speech should be based on the US State of the Union speech, traditionally delivered by the president at the beginning of each calendar year in office.
I’m not suggesting that Australia introduces a State of the Union address simply because the Americans do it, but because it seems to be a sensible idea.
In the US the SOTU speech is regarded as one of, if not the, most significant events on the political calendar.
It is a huge and anticipated piece of political theatre which commands the attention of the American people. The SOTU is an annual report card of the nation which generally contains an assessment of the national budget and outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the economy.
But it also allows the president to outline legislative initiatives and address issues of national concern or which are regarded as national priorities.
The speech is invariably free-ranging and is designed to allow the president to speak directly to the people from Congress.
Last week, in his SOTU speech, President Donald Trump embraced many issues which are troubling the American people including immigration, North Korea, women in the workforce and his much-debated plan to build a boundary wall between Mexico and the US.
But he also suggested a change in the national attitude to the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, a crusade to eradicate HIV/AIDS within a decade and new funding to fight childhood cancer.
In essence, it was a non-political speech which embraced some of the hopes and dreams of Opposition Democrats as well as his own Republican faithful.
It was difficult for Democrats to attack the speech and at times Democrat members of Congress stood and applauded his ideas.
It is in this spirit that a SOTU speech could be introduced in Australia. The prime minister could take a largely nonpartisan view of Australia’s economic and strategic position in the world, while at the same time airing possible solutions which might later emerge as legislation.
As the US Constitution says: “(The President) shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”.
Similar words could be used to establish the tradition of a SOTU speech in Australia.
While the SOTU is not mandatory in the US, successive presidents have drafted them, almost without fail, since George Washington delivered the first version of the SOTU to Congress on January 8, 1790.
What began as a communication between the president and Congress has evolved as a communication between the president and the people.
Thomas Jefferson submitted written SOTU addresses from 1801 which were read by the clerk but in 1913 Woodrow Wilson resumed the idea of delivering the speech personally.
President Jimmy Carter submitted a written Union address in 1981.
While the Australian parliament provides the prime minister and government ministers the opportunity to inform the public of emerging trends, problems and issues of good fortune, the message is often lost in the rowdy and confrontational atmosphere of either the House of Representatives or the Senate.
A more considered, less political and perhaps more nonpartisan speech summing up the coming year across the nation would be informative and possibly unifying.
As in the US, the opposition leader would have the right to deliver an answering speech, perhaps rebutting some of the SOTU ideas but possibly embracing others.
Many people will say Australia should not automatically follow trends which have evolved in the US. Quite right.
Our system of government is broadly a copy of the British Westminster pattern.
But if the Americans come up with a good idea, then Australia should not automatically reject it. An SOTU address would be a good idea in Australia. Let’s adopt it.