Yes, we can... ...rewrite the Australian Constitution

YES, we can... ...rewrite the Australian Constitution, BookPod, 2018

Klaas Woldring, DACC Secretary and former Political Science Associate Professor, is a migrant from the Netherlands who writes about governance system change in Australia which, in his view, is long overdue.

The recent decision by the High Court to declare five more MPs illegal on account of dual citizenship is most deplorable. As with the previous cases since 1981, it is a black letter approach, legalistic, costly and essentially unnecessary. More by-elections will be held soon. The intent of the Constitution makers in 1901, when all citizens were British subjects and Australian citizenship did not exist, was to protect the Empire from potentially conflicting foreign loyalties. None of those now found to have dual citizenship have endangered the Australian nation they represent, knowingly or unknowingly. Why did  the High Court not urge the Government to start a completely independent inquiry into renewal of the Constitution? The Australian Constitution can hardly be amended. Of the 44 attempts to amend this Constitution 36 have failed. Several other attempts were contemplated but came to naught. Since the four abject failures in 1988, Governments have shied away from any further attempts.

The 1901 Constitution is an archaic document that does not serve Australia’s modern multicultural society well. Information and education about this important document has also been very inadequate. The reasons for the amendment failures are essentially three. 

First of all, Section 128, requires a national majority as well as a majority in a majority of states, three majorities!  However the equality of the states, insisted on in 1900, has been adversely affected by the much more rapid growth of population in the Eastern States. This is now also a questionable justification for the continuation of federation now.

Secondly, the adversarial, often toxic two-party-system mitigates against change. Unless the two major parties are in agreement an amendment has no prospect of passing.

Thirdly, the initiative for an amendment can only originate from the Parliament, not from the people themselves. In practice that means the Government itself.

The drama over Section 44 inspired him to write a book about the need for a new Constitution to replace current colonial federation created by an Act of the British Parliament. 

The title of this short book Yes, we can... ...rewrite the Australian Constitution speaks to the fact that a sovereign people can decide to rewrite their nation’s Constitution when its amendment is all but impossible.

The pressing need for this increases as public confidence in Australia’s system of governance is at an all-time low. It is not just the two-party in-fighting and petty blame game so common in our parliaments and press interviews, Klaas claims.

The interconnections between the problems we face are not always obvious and, as the book explains, the Westminster practice of appointing Ministers from a small pool of professional politicians is not delivering the competence required to tackle them.  Far from it!  The pool for recruitment of top talent is extremely small.  The country is caught in a vicious circle in terms of its governance and piecemeal tinkering has reached the end of the road.  However vicious circles can be broken when the problems they cause become obvious to everyone. While growing public dissatisfaction is a prerequisite for reform, new ideas also need to emerge, be voiced and acted upon. These could come from a wider pool of “middle ground” minor parties and Independents, possibly drawn from the Senate in particular. The current Constitution does provide scope for new initiatives coming from the Senate, in Section 53. Minor parties and Independents could also campaign for the introduction of proportional representation in the form of a party list system for both houses of Parliament. The Dutch system is quoted as a suitable example to follow. The famous Dutch-Australian Professor Arend Lijphart is quoted several times in support of that system.

Party List is used in 90 countries around the world, including New Zealand, in other words a tested system. The adoption of Party List PR would also greatly enhance the representation of women and ethnic minorities in Parliament, where they remain grossly under-represented today.

There is much more that is lacking in our 1901 Constitution, which is sorely required today. Think of the protection of the environment, for example. Not even the democratic system itself is protected properly. Taking the country to war is done by the very few in power.

Indigenous people did not count at all in 1901, and must now have a seat at the table. The recent Uluru recommendations were not accepted in our current frozen and archaic Constitution, but could be incorporated in a new document.

Australia faces a more fundamental threat. Its old fashioned Constitution is no longer fit for purpose.  A bold young and forward thinking country needs a Constitution to match. We need to start talking about this. The independent public broadcaster, the ABC which has “education” in its Charter, could and should start regular programs presenting innovative governance system renewal discussions.

Klaas Woldring’s latest book ‘Yes, we can…rewrite the Australian constitution‘ was published in March and is available from Amazon, Bookpod and all good book stores. It is also available at the Dutch Australian Cultural Centre in Smithfield ($20).

You can also listen to a SBS PodCast interviews with Klaas about options for constitutional reform through the links below.

See also:

Yes, we can... ...rewrite the Australian Constitution (cover)

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