While New Matilda e-zine's proposal for a Bill of Rights (BOR) in 2006 is far superior to the 1999 Republic proposal and failed referendum (to simply impose an appointed president in place of a constitutional monarch), I think it will fail for much the same reasons.
Although the suggested Bill of Rights affirms the value of citizens, in a way the 1999 Republic referendum did not, it is still not a real exercise in participatory democracy. A far better way to advance citizenship and defined rights would be through promoting the need for a constituent assembly, to reconstitute our democracy. A new constitution would address important issues of democracy and Australian identity, in addition to a definition of rights.
The Bill of Rights proposal seems to have three main weaknesses. It pretends to be “non-political”, almost a technical exercise; it does not represent or advance participatory democracy; and it does not seek to engage with popular achievements in Australian history.
As a proposal from legal experts, New Matilda's Bill of Rights has sought the endorsement of other educated types. But are citizens' rights simply a matter of legal principle, or administrative revisionism? There is little discussion of the practical implications, mainly reliance on the (reasonable) proposition that “everyone else has got one, why not us”?
Yet might not a Bill of Rights, which included (for example) the rights of workers to freely associate and collectively bargain, make invalid certain sections of the Howard Government's industrial relations laws? If so, could this really be “slipped through” without being noticed? Rights might sometimes be aided by such accidents, but democracy and the building of citizens' conscience probably demands greater public awareness. A political struggle would be necessary.
There is then the question of the “ownership” of a Bill of Rights, created by some clever lawyers, but with few links to the achievements of Australian popular struggle. Yet an Australian Bill of Rights was obstructed in the 1890s, precisely because of the project of the “White Australian Policy”, and because the rejection of racial discrimination would have had to be central to any charter of rights. In these circumstances, should not an Australian Bill of Rights recognise the decades of post-war Aboriginal, migrant and popular struggle to defeat and reject the White Australia Policy? This is a particular historical achievement with which most Australian citizens would identify.
Important changes to the Australian constitution would best be done, not by simple amendment, but by a wide ranging discussion leading to a constituent assembly of the 21st century, to completely rewrite our 19th century document. This could be the basis for reconstituting and invigorating our democracy. Of course, there are powerful interests who oppose a lively democracy in this country; but that confrontation cannot be avoided.
The campaign for a constituent assembly and a new constitution is a large political project. It would require substantial organised support. Yet such exercises have been carried out in many other countries - South Africa, Thailand, East Timor, Venezuela, Bolivia - in recent years. Thailand's 1997 constitution, with its Bill of Rights, was, for example, immediately relevant in the popular resistance to IMF-imposed privatisations.
The particular advantage of a constituent assembly for Australia - after a substantial public debate - would be the rejuvenation of participatory democracy and the opportunity for the population to create and identify with its central national institution, perhaps for the first time. In recent years, participatory democracy has been crushed by the combination of neo-liberalism and reaction. Corporate-backed elites have damaged and undermined important popular shared institutions, such as the pension and the public health system, by privatised schemes. Trade unions are now so crippled in function as to be almost illegal. Participatory democracy in the workplace and universities has been savaged.
Both major parties have been responsible for this damage, driven by their desire to gain some administrative rank within the Australian oligarchy, and the corporate media has acted as the ideological enforcers of privatisation, repression and war.
Yet most recent policy changes have been, and remain, vastly unpopular. Most Australian people oppose the wars of aggression, the privatisations that undermine shared institutions, restrictions on the rights of workers, corporate subsidies dressed up as “foreign aid”, and attacks on the rights of women and Indigenous people. Such policies have been entrenched by the Australian oligarchy, led by media, mining and investment conglomerates. Public disempowerment mutes the despair and anger felt by many.
In these circumstances we have to recognise a crisis in Australian democracy, which calls out for a reaffirmation of citizenship, such as suggested by a Bill of Rights. However the process is very important. As one famous Latin American leader said, “representative democracy without participatory democracy will always produce elitism”.