Monday, May 25, 2009

Is our constitution under threat?

That got your attention.

The good news is that it is not the democratic part of it but the Federal part of it. It has historically been assumed that the Federal nature of our constitution has been zealously defended by the conservative side of politics, whereas the ALP was more centrist.

This has probably been an illusion. Our parties id not set out with a fundamental cleveage between centrists and states righters like the original division between Republicans and Democrats in the US (Republic = an elected strong central power, Democrat - highly dispersed authority), though that American distinction is now more historic than current (also, did you know the US Civil War was more about the question of the power of the national government to legislate about slaves than the right to own slaves).

In our history it so happened that Labor Governments had most of the responsibility for prosecuting WWI and WWII, both of which necessitated national approaches. But he Gorton and Howard Governments were far more centrist than the Hawke Government, but not as much as hitlam.

But now we have two elements of the conservative side questioning the current constitutional arrangement. Firstly Barnaby Joyce writing in the SMH does some interesting analysis of the composition of the Senate to demonstrate that the current arrangements result in a metropolitan focussed Senate, whereas one version of its purpose was to ensure against "dictatorship by the majority" that being ensuring that the big states didn't dominate the small. Joyce proposes a revision to the geographic areas that elect Senators - though I would caution against his proposal of regions electing two senators.

As I wrote in a submission to the Howard Government review of the question of the double dissolution provisions having equal numbers results in a very distorted relationship between voting preference and outcome. (I can't find the submission on-line).

Barnaby seems keen on also reforming the underlying concept of regional government, but also on generally dispensing with States.

Meanwhile another column has appeared about Tony Abbott's forthcoming book. This again reminds us that Abbott plans to have a crack at the underlying constitutional issue. My understanding is that he addresses the procedural conundrum of abolishing states - you almost need a set of seven simultaneous referenda that all succeed. His alternative is to amend section 51 of the Australian Constituition in such a way that the "default" position is that the Federal Parliament can legislate on anything. In this way the Australian Government can progressively take responsibility for greater areas of activity, with an endpoint of rendering the States irrelevant.

The two processes can work in tandem.

I'm forming the view that this is a far more important question of "national governance" than the current republican proposals. I just don't know what to call the movement. For the Abbott proposal I've thought of "Change 51" which sounds sort of funky. For the Joyce proposal I don't know. These are both more sopphisticated than the "Shed a Tier" crowd.

All suggestions welcome.

Note: Just to declare my interest on the republic question. I actually think a directly elected President is an important move, but only if we go the whole hog for an executive presidency like the Americans. Revitalise the Parliament, and create distinct contests between voting for the government and voting for parliamentary representation.

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