Wednesday 27 May marks 200 years since the birth of Henry Parkes. Best known as the ‘Father of Federation’, Parkes rose from humble beginnings to become Premier of NSW five times, making significant contributions to democratic and social reform over four decades of public life, including the introduction of universal male suffrage, free secular education for children, the introduction of training for nurses in public hospitals, and funding the state’s first public library.
Parkes’ vision for social justice and equal opportunity infused his work. To commemorate the bicentenary, the Henry Parkes Foundation has released a new book, The Crimson Thread: Ideas for Australian Society. Published in association with ETT Imprint, it gathers together speeches by eminent Australians delivered for the Foundation since 2001.
Launching the book at NSW Parliament House on Wednesday, Professor Dame Marie Bashir acknowledged Parkes’ contribution to the distinctive nature of Australian society: “Many of those characteristics for which Australians are renowned across the world – egalitarianism, the rewards of integrity, access to education, fine health services, and working towards the common good – can find these ideals in an examination of the example and leadership of Henry Parkes.”
The Crimson Thread explores contemporary issues in the context of Parkes’ vision and achievements. The result is a diverse collection ranging across the shape of federal government, options for a republic, the continuing importance of public education to a healthy democracy, the challenges of a national railway system, social justice and constitutional reform, as well as evolving multiculturalism and the broader ‘crimson thread’ of kinship that is emerging to unite Australians today.
Contributors are John Bannon, Marie Bashir, Neal Blewett, Linda Burney, Lyndsay Connors, John Faulkner, Geoff Gallop, Helen Irving, Philip Laird, Ted Mack, Susan Ryan, Gordon Samuels and George Williams.
In the background throughout the book is the example of Parkes himself. As Professor George Williams states in his contribution: “Across many fields, Parkes was a reformer, and an extremely successful one at that. He demonstrated the qualities needed to achieve social justice in a tumultuous and unforgiving political process. He showed that this can be realised when it is backed by a clear vision, sound political judgement, persistence and a willingness to convince the community of the need for change.”
At a time when “democracy is drowning in distrust” according to John Faulkner, Australia needs to rekindle some of this spirit.
“This is essentially an ‘ideas’ book calculated to encourage reflection,” says Professor Brian Fletcher in the introduction. “It is a true feast for those committed to keeping Australia at the forefront of liberal democratic nations, and is particularly germane to an age in which personal ambition and the search for power and wealth seem to have replaced the ideologies which once inspired politicians and citizens alike.”