Referendum debate just constitutes the preamble
During the negotiation stage after the 2010 election, one demand from the Greens was a referendum to incorporate indigenous people in the Constitution before the 2013 election. Julia Gillard signed up.
Now she has stated that the referendum will not be held, as she feels the people are not yet sufficiently in support. Whose fault is that? In essence, it is the task of a government which is seeking to change the Constitution to devote resources necessary to convince the public.
It is no easy task to get enough support to satisfy the requirement of a double majority. Only eight of the 44 referendums put to the people since 1901 have passed. Obviously, the voters need to be convinced. Apparently they haven’t been, so the promised referendum is postponed.
In its place, the Gillard government has proposed an Act of Recognition, which will acknowledge “the unique and special place of our first peoples”. This is planned to be an interim measure, which would be the first step to a referendum held sometime before the 2016 election.
That may satisfy some lobby groups, but it will not end demands for constitutional change. It would only delay a controversial referendum.
The report from an expert panel set up by the government made three key recommendations. One demanded the removal of “racist” sections in the Constitution. About time. That should be put to a referendum as soon as possible, with strong bipartisan campaign. Sections 25 and 51(26) should be removed.
The demand to include a new clause in the Constitution which prohibits racial discrimination would be a first step to a Bill of Rights. That, alone, will engender broad and passionate debate, and will tend to divide rather than unite the people who will make the final decision – the voters.
The third recommendation is filled with potential controversy. The panel recommended that the Constitution should be amended to include a commitment to the “advancement” of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, with recognition and protection of their culture.
This seems to be in conflict with the first key proposal. If all clauses which make reference to “race” should be excluded, then on what grounds is there logic in recommending that a new reference to “race” be inserted?
One solution may be to place such in-principle commitments to the indigenous people in a Preamble. Currently, the Constitution contains very few principles. It is essentially a document about mechanics – the structures of government. Under what principles the government should work is not mentioned. It doesn’t even include a reference to the fundamental principle of responsible government.
Maybe it should do so, but can you imagine the furore of a referendum campaign based on a proposal for the insertion of “principles”?
The solution could be to set out some principles of Australian society and democracy in a Preamble. John Howard attempted this is a referendum in 1999. Over 60 per cent voted against the proposal.
But some of the opposition could have been due to the text of the proposal – it was hardly the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in either content or style. A Preamble establishing principles for Australia, written with some passion, including a section concerning indigenous people, could well receive majority support.
But the first step should be to encourage Australians to get to know their Constitution. A study in the 1994 found that 87 per cent of the respondents had a total lack of knowledge about the Constitution.
The government needs to focus on public education to deal with that problem before proposing a referendum. So, step 1: provide every elector with a free copy of the Constitution.
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