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 May 24 2003
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Referring to the voters won't work in Australia
Jun 12
Feedback Peter Brent

Forget the senate and simultaneous elections; the best piece of constitutional reform for Australia would be to change section 128 of the constitution, which inhibits amending the constitution without first putting any proposal to the public through a referendum. This probably seemed a good idea to our founding fathers but it is the wrong device in the wrong country and we should scrap it.

Consider this: 15 years ago the Hawke government suggested we alter the constitution to provide for fair and democratic parliamentary elections throughout Australia. Whack! Lost in all states, with 63 per cent voting no. Shall we recognise local government? Not on your Nelly, replied two-thirds.

Or this: in the late 1970s, a national poll showed 62 per cent of Australian voters favoured mandatory simultaneous elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Only it was not a survey; it was a referendum that failed the crucial double-majority proviso, requiring a majority in a majority of states.

A proposal for simultaneous elections was part of Simon Crean's package two weeks ago. On the weekend John Howard suggested a radical downgrading of the Senate's power to block legislation.

It's likely neither leader is serious and these reforms will go nowhere. Howard is indulging in his favourite pastime - playing with the mind of the federal opposition - and Crean wants to appear visionary.

But we should grasp this nettle. The founding fathers envisaged a mature citizenry. Instead they got us: possibly the least politically interested people in the democratic world, who prefer kicking elites to rational consideration every time.

The idea that "the constitution has muddled through for 100 or so years so why change it" is very Australian; a so-so argument for a so-so outcome. The High Court has taken up much of the slack; not exactly transparent democracy, but we can only hope it continues.

And even if the proposed constitutional reforms got as far as going to referendum, they'd stall at that point. Few things are easier in Australian public life than running a "no" case, and Australia may never pass any constitutional referendum again. Referendum defeats are getting bigger and, as 1977 showed, a few thousand voters in the small states can gum up a resounding national majority.

In 1974 Gough Whitlam put a proposal to change the necessary number of supporting states from four to three. In the face of opposition from the coalition, it got 48 per cent support. Not bad.

But we should go further. The next proposal should aim to excise the dreadful referendum process itself, perhaps replacing it with something like the American model, in which the constitution can be amended only through a large majority of a joint sitting of the House and the Senate and with agreement by the states. Politicians should keep putting it up again and again until the electorate submits. Let's reclaim the constitution from the demagogues and ratbags.

Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au, a website that looks at electoral behaviour.

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