The Australian Constitution: not broke, just well out of date
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Some say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, condemning Australians to battle on with our current outmoded Constitution, designed in the 1890s. David Donovan says Australians deserve a 2011 Falcon rather than a Model T Ford.
One of the standard lines used to deter people away from an Australian Republic is to simply say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Of course, the Constitution does still operate. Unfortunately it is far from being a good fit for our nation in the 21st century.
The entire Australian Constitution, in fact, is just a Schedule to a 1900 Act of the UK Parliament, reflecting Australia’s status in that British act as a “self-governing colony” (s8). In the 109 years since the Act came into effect the world has changed — now our Constitution needs to catch up.
The Constitution doesn’t reflect the way our system works in practice or our cherished Australian values of democracy, equality, and egalitarianism.
It is a rather startling fact that one of the only issues almost all the attendees at the 1898 Constitutional Convention agreed on was the White Australia Policy, enshrined in s51 (xxvi). One of the founding fathers, Australia's first PM Edmund Barton, said the Constitution must be able to "…regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth". Thankfully, as a nation, we have moved on from those days, though our Constitutions stays the same.
The last step keeping us from breaking free as a fully independent nation is our redundant, vestigial, tie to the British Crown, where the British monarch is placed the apex of our system. Under our Constitution, we are subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, with our Governor General (GG) being merely the Queen's representative (s2). To become this monarch, you must be born into a particular family, be Anglican, not be married to a Catholic, not be illegitimate and can only be a female if you have no brothers. There are no considerations of merit, equality, or any input from the Australian people.
The Constitution denies Australians sovereignty by placing the foreign monarch at the top of our system and subordinating her Australian representative. Though convention may dictate otherwise, our Constitution says clearly that the GG exercises power only at “the Queen's pleasure" (s2). It also says the monarch may disallow any law within a year of the GGs’s assent (s59) or withhold her assent from legislation (s60). The Queen also actively appoints and dismisses the GG, though she does so only on the advice of the PM by convention.
In all, it is a confusing and messy situation. The time has come for a truly Australian Constitution and a resident Australian head of state — the Australian people must be sovereign in our beloved nation.
The Australian Constitution is not completely broken, it still works…sort of. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best model for Australia for the 21st century. It's much like a still functioning vintage Ford Model T motor car – a vehicle that was manufactured at around the same time our Constitution was written – it might run, but a 2011 Falcon would run better, smoother and faster.