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