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Re-imagining our democracy

By George Williams - posted Thursday, 7 February 2008

Such reform is vital to ensure that subsequent generations have faith in the system of government, and that it remains relevant and as good as possible.

Without this, popular support can weaken over time and with it the legitimacy of the democratic structure. These issues require a contemporary commitment to nation-building. While the focus has been on economic reform and grand achievements of infrastructure, like the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and population, with immigration, we have not paid sufficient attention to other big-picture issues, such as how power can best be exercised.

The political rhetoric hints at the problem, but rarely acknowledges the high cost of not reforming the architecture of government: the price of the broken federal system alone is billions of dollars wasted every year.


It is impossible to estimate the full cost, as inefficiencies multiply it in the private sector and across the community. The impact can be felt throughout society: poorly designed policies and laws reduce standards of services such as health and education. It provokes expensive battles for control between the commonwealth and the states, and binds some of the biggest challenges facing the nation in red tape. It can also cause inaction when no government accepts responsibility.

Addressing this is not for the timid, but failing to address it will store up problems that will rebound electorally. Having coast-to-coast Labor governments presents a historic opportunity to reform the system of governance without distracting partisan squabbles. Not to grasp this opportunity would be to squander a once-in-a-century political opening to develop a political framework that will serve Australia well into the next century, one that will be profoundly different from the last.

I am not railing against all aspects of our system. There is much to be proud of in our political traditions and rules of government. Australia is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world with a constitution that holds up well against many others. Nonetheless, we rest too often and too much on past achievements. We have not followed up the initial good work by ensuring the system is kept up to date.

The process of amending the Constitution has been invoked 44 times, but only eight proposals have succeeded. None of the eight changes was a major revision of the text although some of the changes have been of political importance. Two stand out. The 1928 referendum added a new economically significant section, 105A, which enabled the commonwealth to make agreements with the states to take over their debts, and the 1967 referendum deleted discriminatory references to Indigenous peoples and allowed federal laws to be made on their behalf.

One of the greatest impediments to re-imagining our democracy is that Australians are largely unaware of the underlying problems. Rather than being engaged and active citizens, many are woefully ignorant of even the most basic aspects of government. This has been demonstrated for years.

A 1987 survey for the Constitutional Commission found that almost half the population did not realise Australia had a written Constitution. The 1994 report on citizenship by the Civics Expert Group found that only one in five had some understanding of what the Constitution contained, while more than a quarter named the Supreme Court, not the High Court, as the top court in Australia. Only one in three felt reasonably well informed about their rights and responsibilities as Australian citizens.


Many Australians even believe we have a national charter of rights, according to a 2006 Amnesty International Australia poll of 1001 voters by Roy Morgan Research. Remarkably, after years of heated debate about terrorism and detention laws, 61 per cent of those polled believed Australia had such a charter. The level of error was derived in part from the frequent references to bills of rights in popular culture, including US television programs.

One reason for this is that the Australian Constitution was not written as a people's document. It was written as a compact between colonies to meet the needs of trade and commerce. Lowitja O'Donoghue, former chairwoman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has argued, "It says very little about what it is to be Australian. It says practically nothing about how we find ourselves here, save being an amalgamation of former colonies. It says nothing of how we should behave towards each other as human beings and as Australians."

Another reason for the lack of engagement is that the Constitution does not match the reality of how government actually works. It does not mention many of the most basic features of government, such as the office of prime minister or the cabinet. The text even suggests that ultimate political power is held by the governor-general, who is named by section 68 as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces with the power by section 64 to appoint and dismiss ministers. The Constitution appears to give the governor-general the powers of a dictator to rule over many aspects of the nation, according to the wishes of a foreign monarch.

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This edited extract from Thawing the Frozen Continent, one of several essays on the theme re-imagining Australia, Griffith Review, Edition 19, (ABC Books,, out February 8 was first published in The Australian on January 26, 2008. 

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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