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Author: Peter Brent Peter Brent is the editor of
Date: 20 Apr 2002
Words: 448
Publication: Australian Financial Review
Section: News
Page: 51
Just quickly: how many Australian constitutional referendums can you name? The republic, obviously. Plus Robert Menzies' famous 1951 attempt to ban communism. ``Aboriginals" in 1967. Any more? (There've been 44 in all.)

Four-year terms, of course, was buried two to one in 1988. Can you remember the part you played? Did you (a) give full and careful consideration of the issue or (b) give an arrogant government a boot up the wazoo?

Australians don't do constitutional reform. This is the accepted and to an extent self-perpetuating wisdom. And you can't argue against 36 knockbacks. But the record contains much grey.

The reader is here spared a full table of all 44 in descending order of the national ``yes" vote, with columns showing different variables.

Otherwise, you would see the above-mentioned proposal ``to enable the Commonwealth to enact special laws for Aboriginals" top the list with a whopping 90.77 per cent; and something called ``Rights and Freedoms" (1988) at the bottom of the page on 30.62 per cent.

The top 10 questions, plus only one other, get a tick under the column heading ``received bipartisan support?".

The 15 most dismal performers were held mid-term; those held concurrent with a federal election tended to split along party lines and score in the late 40s/early 50s.

Questions on different topics, but put on the same date, almost invariably receive near identical voter support, while a losing proposal, put again several years later but with bipartisan support, gets twice the ``yes" vote.

I could go on, but you get the picture with rare exceptions, a history of arbitrariness, with subject matter being wholly incidental to a proposal's fate. And, yes, only eight survived the process.

However, another five got the thumbs up from most voters, but hit the ``double majority" hurdle the requirement of a majority of states.

And another nine managed between 49 and 50 per cent support plus three states.

Our founding fathers were not always wise. Section 128, setting out the mechanism for change, stinks to high heaven, but the chances of changing it through itself are nil.

The villain is not just the ``double majority" proviso, it is the referendum requirement per se. We, and our political betters, are just not up to the task.

Most other countries handle constitutional amendment in the legislative realm for example by a three quarters majority of elected politicians. So should we. There is such a thing as too much democracy. Isn't that the idea behind four-year terms?

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