If one lesson can be learned from the conference on Constitutional Reform for South Australia held in Adelaide (August 17-18) as a prelude the constitutional convention in March or April next year it is this: The Constitutional Convention is doomed if it tries to take on all the ideas for constitutional reform that are alive and well in the minds of the 130 academics, lawyers, MPs and political activists who came from all over the country to attend the conference.
The SA Speaker, Peter Lewis, made this point after the conference saying that at least three constitutional conventions were necessary to help reform that state’s constitution and Parliament. In his view the first priority should be to look at citizen-initiated referenda, followed by the question of the size and role of parliament. But why should these items take priority over other measures discussed at the conference such as reforming the electoral system to provide for proportional representation, guaranteed seats for women or a civics education program to create a better-informed electorate to mention just a few?
Maybe we should find out what it is about the present political arrangements that people don’t like first before proposing solutions? National Party MP, Karlene Maywald, argued that we needed to identify first "what is wrong" with parliament before considering what should be done - a sentiment echoed by several speakers at the conference. No doubt academics and politicians have views about this too, but what does the public think?
Perhaps ordinary Australians have some ideas too, though none of them were heard from directly at the conference. Members of Parliament (including Ms Maywald) hold strong views that they are the true representatives of the public and are offended at any suggestion that they are not. But some would argue that the reason for holding a constitutional convention in the first place is because many ordinary people do not believe many of them are adequately discharging this role.
The spectre of the absent public was introduced in the first session of the conference by a Queensland lecturer in constitutional law, John Pyke, in the form of the proverbial taxi-driver. When Mr Pyke told his taxi-driver, whom he knew personally as an intelligent and reasonably informed person, that he was going to attend a conference on constitutional reform, the driver replied: Well, that’d be well over my head." This become a continuing theme of the conference, perhaps more implicit than explicit in the presentations, but always casting a shadow over the proceedings: What would Jane or John Q. Public, for whose benefit the word fest was allegedly being conducted, make of all this?
A good question. How would we would we find out what ordinary people think the real problem is so that their genuine concerns can be addressed in any solution? Conventional opinion polls might help but they cannot be the complete answer because they demand an immediate response and people might not know what they think until they really think about it. The former Tasmanian Green Independent, Christine Milne, made this point when she suggested the widespread complaints about MP’s behaviour were nothing more than a superficial response to a deeply held but unarticulated concern by ordinary people that they are being governed by people with whom they cannot identify and whose views did not represent their own.
Whether Ms Milne’s diagnosis is correct or not the point she makes is a valid one. We may not have all kicked the cat when we really wanted to kick the boss, but we probably have experienced outbursts of misplaced aggression. Another analogy might be with the work of a psychiatrist in diagnosing what is really bothering a patient; this may turn out to be something quite different from what the patient his or herself initially thinks is the trouble. We need time to talk these things out.
Representatives of ordinary people could be given this time though the use of focus groups. I would suggest that the first step the steering committee for the convention should take is to commission a series of focus groups in each of the 12 federal electorates to tease out what people think about South Australia’s political system and politicians and what they would like done about them. With this number of focus groups a fair demographic sample could be achieved, but this qualitative survey could be supplemented with a conventional quantitative survey of a representative sample of citizens state-wide.
This quantitative-qualitative approach has been successfully used in at least two major surveys in the United States in recent times - one by the Kettering Foundation and another by the Center of Policy Attitudes. Both surveys revealed some interesting insights about citizen’s attitudes to politics and politicians which were not revealed by conventional polls and surveys.
Politicians are no stranger to focus groups as both major parties rely heavily on them to try to gain political advantage at elections times and, therefore, should need no convincing about their worth for gauging public attitudes. If they are really serious about finding about what the people’s concerns really are about the democratic process, then there seems to be no reason why they would not employ this valuable tool in the cause of democratic reform.
The results of the surveys could be used by the convention steering committee to chose what question(s) should be put to the pre-convention regional town meetings and the convention itself. Probably there should be no more than two questions at the most. If any consensus emerged from the weekend conference it was that the convention would be set up to fail if too much was attempted at one time.
The prospect of failure is a real one. Another spectre that cast a shadow over the weekend talk fest was the ghost of constitutional conventions past. The SA Chief Justice, John Doyle, mentioned the republic convention as a salutary example of dismal failure. The North Territory statehood convention was another in which much talk delivered an empty result.
The failure of these conventions and others before them might tell us that we need to try something new - that leaving it to the "usual suspects" will not deliver us the results we want. A new approach has already been suggested for this convention: that is randomly selecting ordinary citizens as delegates instead of stacking the convention with the "usual suspects". This initiative seems to be under threat now because of fears that the issues to be considered will be too complex for ordinary citizens to deal with. But if ordinary citizens, with the benefit of expert advice over several days of deliberation, can’t grasp the issues, what hope is there of rest of us feeling confident that we are able to make an informed choice at a referendum? And if we don’t feel confident, we are likely, quite sensibly, to vote no to constitutional change as we usually do.
This seems to suggest that solution is not take matters out of the hands of ordinary people because they are too complex for them to understand, but to involve ordinary people to the utmost at every stage of the process so that what comes out at the other end might be not only intelligible to ordinary voters but actually address their concerns.