Old Parliament House, Canberra, 5 November 1999

It seems very fitting to be here in this building tonight, on the eve of the referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. It was here that the Constitutional Convention was held in February last year, that decided on the model for the republic that is being voted on tomorrow.

And of course constitutional reform is on the agenda in the UK too, in areas such as reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the election of a mayor for London.

There was an article about all this in The Telegraph in Britain this morning, accompanied by a cartoon. The cartoon showed people dressed in clothes dating back some centuries, manhandling some barrels, with the caption: "Aren’t you going about constitutional change in a rather reckless way, Mr Fawkes?"

I can assure you, however, that we have searched the cellars of Old Parliament House this evening, just in case anyone was minded to commemorate that anniversary by blowing up the entire staff of the British High Commission and their guests - we have over 300 people here tonight, a tribute to the hard work that all the organisers have put in.

Tonight’s ball is in aid of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a cause I am delighted we are able to support. And we are lucky to have as our guest, Michael Long, who is on the Board of the RFDS in Western Australia, in Victoria and federally.

Michael is a busy general surgeon working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, with a deserved reputation as a teacher of students and young doctors. He learnt to fly at the age of 18, following the death of his father, who had been a distinguished pilot with the Australian Flying Corps in Europe in the First World War and later with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Michael has amassed over 8000 hours flying, many on behalf of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He has flown up to the Kimberly’s over 50 times, visiting many of the most remote communities in Australia. I noticed when I was driving in that region in August that straight stretches of road are often marked "RFDS Emergency Landing Strip." I am glad I never had to compete with Michael for space on the road!

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is one of those institutions that seems quintessentially Australian. It is indeed the largest aeromedical service in the world. It has its origins in the Aerial Medical Service set up in Australia in1928, using a de Haviland DH50 leased for 2 shillings a week from the fledgling Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service. The Aerial Medical Service later became the Flying Doctor Service and then the Royal Flying Doctor Service when it was awarded its Royal warrant in 1955.

And it is the treatment and support that the RFDS is able to give to people in remote communities that make it so special. Providing medical services to people who would otherwise have to drive hundreds of miles to see a doctor. Medical services that can quite literally be the difference between life and death.

The RFDS treats over 300 people every day at its clinics, and makes 100 flights a day - 35,000 flights a year. It flies over 10 million kilometres a year. It has 17 bases and 38 of its own aircraft - which nowadays cost very much more than the 2 shillings a mile that QANTAS used to charge. And the RFDS itself does not charge for its emergency work, its telephone or radio consultations or its healthcare services.

So it does depend heavily on external funding, and I am delighted that the British High Commission is able to contribute to that this evening.

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