In late November 1996, over 200 people gathered in Bathurst to celebrate the centenary of the 1896 Peoples Convention. In serious deliberations over the Australian Constitution, delegates reached some idealistic and optimistic conclusions. It seems likely however, that because the preoccupations of Australians have changed so dramatically between 1996 and 2006, such a gathering today would express very different concerns.
The 1896 convention was credited with reviving the federation movement which had lost momentum after promising beginnings in 1891. The 1996 convention, which included some descendants of 1896 delegates, was also a catalyst for constitutional reform.
While the 2001 centenary of the signing of the Constitution would provide opportunities for improving the document, the political circumstances were uncertain. The Coalition Government elected in early 1996 had been taunted by republicans, and Prime Minister John Howard had promised to hold a constitutional convention rather than a plebiscite on the issue. However, the Bathurst discussions were well focused and the temper of the delegates was mature and moderate. Working parties examining the various chapters of the Constitution made sensible recommendations.
While the 1996 Convention rejected radical proposals and recognised the limitations of its expertise, it was enthusiastic about the potential for progress. Suggestions included a new preamble which would give priority to recognition of Indigenous people, fixed terms for the House of Representatives and the restoration of “vertical fiscal balance” between levels of government. Delegates were divided over the issue of a republic but a majority believed that it was likely to eventuate.
The Convention discussion demonstrated clearly that most Australians are interested in their Constitution and they can discuss it sensibly when given encouragement. It reinforced research suggesting that people who have the opportunity to discuss the document favour some reform. It showed that the Constitution should be regarded as the people’s document and they can be trusted to treat it respectfully.
The Convention issued a direct challenge to political leaders. Statesmen and women might have taken this groundswell of interest and built a grassroots movement. Indeed, many local government bodies held their own conventions, and delegates could have been drawn from these meetings to from state, territory and national meetings.
Unfortunately, the preferred model for the 1998 Convention in Canberra reversed this bottom-up approach. Half the delegates were appointed by the prime minister and the remainder were elected on a state basis using a voluntary postal vote. This restricted interest in the outcome and made voters dependent on elite leadership and media coverage rather than community dialogue.
History will judge that the 1998 Convention was heavily politicised, and that it was dominated by the republican issue. The referenda held in 1999 on the republic and preamble were, predictably, defeated.
In hindsight it seems that the negative vote was all too predictable and little more than a farce. In the atmosphere of cynicism evoked by the failures of 1999, the 2001 celebrations of the Centenary of Federation became an elite affair. They seemed to celebrate the imposition of authority on the dispossessed owners of this land and the children of convicts. And in the second five-year period since 1996, the political culture has changed dramatically, and certainly in some ways that would make the “Founding Fathers of Federation” uneasy.
The 1996 Bathurst Peoples Convention called for a Bill of Rights to be eventually entrenched in the Constitution. Many close observers have always felt that our political system already included adequate rights’ safeguards, including a culture of a critical media, a government responsible to parliament, free elections, party competition, a pluralist society and respect for the common law.
Critics of the Howard era have argued that these safeguards have been diminished. Media have become less critical as a result of ownership concentration and the appointment of cultural warriors to the board of the ABC. The ability of parliament to hold ministers accountable has been eroded because of the taming of the Senate and the emasculation of the independence of the public sector. The government has adjusted the electoral laws so that the greatest freedom is enjoyed by those who can make large donations to political parties in return for policy favours.
Some commentators have argued that as the parliamentary opposition is ineffective and such an unlikely alternative government, Australia resembles a one-party state. Increasingly, a pluralist society based on many autonomous civil organisations has been replaced by a corporatism in which churches, welfare agencies, clubs and sporting societies are dependent on government funds and so find themselves having to court government goodwill. Trades unions are being brushed aside.
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