The Unlucky Country: Unfinished Australia needs a new Constitution

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The outdated Constitution of Australia is indeed “unfinished business” and system change is long overdue, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.

THIS WAS THE VIEW of Donald Horne – and many of his associates and friends – after the debacle in 1975 when Prime Minister Whitlam was sacked by the Senate and the Governor-Generalate headed by Sir John Kerr.

More than 40 years have passed since then, but basically nothing in the way of constitutional or governance reform has been achieved.

Some reforms have happened in electoral systems for upper houses – South Australia, NSW and the Senate – which have made them somewhat more representative. But everything else has been blocked by the conservatives in this country — a quite small minority in reality.

The political system is in deep trouble and Australians sense it. Human rights are under threat as well, especially of new migrants and refugees. A lot of drivel is being bandied about, regarding "Australian values”, s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, same sex marriage, border protection and the ABC. The urgent need to fully accept climate change is denied. It is time face up to the need for radical change. In foreign affairs, Australia is now far behind the times and criticised widely. Australia’s role of vassal to the U.S. President and Washington generally continues unabated even though the office is now occupied by an amateur — some would say a clown.

The obvious first step would be to introduce proportional representationparty list system, which would end the dominance of the major parties and government by the majority faction of one of them. Many Australians have never heard of this, even though it is used in 86 countries — including New Zealand, since 1996.

The other major measure to improve the quality of governments would be to do away with the Westminster practice of appointing ministers only from the elected representatives and then only from the party that has won the election. Given that the major parties each have no more than 50,000 members, the choice to find capable people is thereby further severely limited. Moreover, currently at least 50 per cent of all politicians follow the career path of staffers who have little other experience in society.

The current political leaders demonstrate no inclination to tackle governance issues. Former PM Rudd concentrated essentially on applying Keynes’ economics during the global financial crisis (GFC). During an election campaign, he did propose a kind of tripartite approach based on cooperation between government, unions and business — perhaps along the lines of the Dutch model, which has worked well there.

Nevertheless, full-scale questioning of the existing political culture and announcing a major inquiry to generate system alternatives did not yield results. Sadly, Rudd and the six ALP Premiers also failed to use a great opportunity to replace the Federation.

The conservative PMs, Abbott and Turnbull, have not presented any innovative governance system reform at all. Abbott toyed with the idea of reducing the States to administrative agencies of the federal government (first mentioned at a conference in Tenterfield, October 2008). As PM he was persuaded to try piecemeal tinkering once again, resulting in the failed Reform the Federation Inquiry. 

Meanwhile, a major shift in the old dividing class lines has been happening in much of the Western word. The old Right versus Left culture is being questioned everywhere. The middle class is missing out, particularly with the growing inequality of incomes and wealth resulting from the virus of naïve economic rationalist ideologies and the privatisation mania.

Globally, 65 million refugees are on the move. A complex Middle Eastern war is raging and causing great havoc in several countries. The foundations of the existing national state system, now counting over 200, are being severely tested. Preaching border security seems like yesteryear’s language and does not solve these major global crises. The UN, an organisation long overdue for major reform, is not coping as a peacekeeper of this system. In Australia, frequent reference is made to the “old parties” and not just by the Greens. How can Australia generate competent political leadership to deal with the mounting refugee crisis? Sadly, the ALP under Shorten is stuck in its own conservatism.

Much has changed since Horne’s The Lucky Country was written in 1964. Ours has become a multicultural society – a strong positive – but just how multicultural, really? The 49 per cent who apparently now want to keep out refugees and immigrants who are Islam adherents, don’t fit that description. Furthermore, parliaments, senior ranks of the public services, the judiciary, the police and corporate boards are still predominantly staffed by people with anglo-celtic names.

The Lucky Country by Donald Horne (image via Booktopia).

Donald Horne anticipated most of these developments quite well. I knew him as a senior lecturer and later professor in the school of political science at the University of NSW. He had been editor of The Bulletin for several years (also of the National Observer and Quadrant) and was very well informed on the history and practical aspects of Australian politics. Horne was already well known then as author of the bestseller, The Lucky Country, in which he criticised the quality of Australian politicians and also of business management.

Horne explained the term “lucky” further in his book Death of the Lucky Country (1976):

'Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck. I didn't mean that it had a lot of material resources … I had in mind the idea of Australia as a [British] derived society whose prosperity in the great age of manufacturing came from the luck of its historical origins … In the lucky style we have never "earned" our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.'

In that text, he also severely criticised the bizarre decisions by Sir John Kerr in November 1975, the then Governor-General. (Government by caprice – the Governor-Generalate, Chapter 5). The chapter dealt analytically with the many shortcomings of the archaic, colonial Constitution and the reliance on conventions that, in Kerr’s view, entitled him to remove the strongly reformist Labor Prime Minister Whitlam.

In 1977, following the debacle of Whitlam’s sacking, Horne (together with UNSW academics Sol Encel and Elaine Thompson) edited and partly wrote Change the Rules  a set of essays by several well-known commentators dealing with the Constitution, Australian democracy and the electoral systems. Their advice has become even more relevant today. In 1980, Horne wrote Winner take all? — a further major critique of the Australia’s two-party system, the lack of democracy, the role of the upper houses and the voting systems. He addressed forums in all major cities on the need for a new Constitution.

Horne was a progressive academic, promoting changes to “earn our democracy”. His conviction was unique because, right through the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s “progressive” mostly tended to mean “Left”. Later, it became “Left” or “Green” or both. “Conservative” was the opposite; it was synonymous with “pro-capitalist”. Horne didn’t fit neatly into either category. His inquiring and critical mind went increasingly beyond this ideological divide.

In 1977, a minor constitutional change was made by Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government. This was to ensure that casual vacancies in the Senate would go to the same political party whose Senator had vacated the seat. Up to that amendment, political parties were not even mentioned in the Constitution — a situation which had made it possible for the conservative premiers of Queensland and NSW to fill such vacancies with anti-Whitlam candidates. By 1990, under the impact of neoliberalism and the ending of the Cold War, the overarching Left versus Right dichotomy began to wane. The threat to and protection of the environment began to take over. Constitutional and system change went into the “too hard” basket.

Remarkably, the Labor Whitlam Government, which came to power in 1972 after 23 years of conservative governments, did act fast to introduce some significant reforms. Although most of them seemed to “frighten the conservative horses”, the incoming Coalition Fraser Government, after 1975, repealed none of them. Nevertheless, Constitutional reforms failed to be introduced after 1977 — such as the Federal recognition of local government and an important section 128 amendment. Sadly, the preceding extensive Inquiry into Constitutional Reform, from 1986 to 1988, ended with four failed amendment referendums. If this was not enough, the failed minimalist Republic Referendum, in 1999, made constitutional reform practically impossible, without strong popular pressure — which didn’t exist.

Horne favoured a republic for Australia, discussed in The Lucky Country and The Next Australia. He advocated a minimalist Republic, as did the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) later, in the early 1990s, as well as today. However, Horne saw it 'as happening within a radical national framework' and approached it from a quite different mindset. The ARM’s current belief that Australians would still only want an Australian as a symbolic republican head of state and no other major governance reforms is plainly wrong in my view. Should an Australian Republic continue to be governed by nine parliaments, nine public services, a negative adversarial political culture and obvious lack of reformist leadership? Should we not talk about the priorities of today? The decline in support for the Republican cause, as a minimalist project, is at least in part explained by that very attitude. It would make sense for Australians to now consider a maximalist republic, the essence of an Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) conference paper I presented in 1992, in Canberra.

Interestingly in Change the Rules (1977), Horne also referred to the Swedes, who successfully rewrote their 1809 Constitution in 1974. He wrote that Australians don’t need to wait until we have a major crisis — and it doesn’t have to take long either. That is now 40 years ago.

Here is the final paragraph of his first chapter in Change the Rules:

We have brought out this book to stimulate public discussion not only because our Australian constitution provides an inefficient instrument for modern government, and contains no liberal provisions, and, so far as representative democracy is concerned, is professedly undemocratic. We have also brought out this book because there are within the constitution, interpreted literally, the elements of civil discord and political chaos.

The dangers of an essentially two-party parliamentary system, staffed by often mediocre politicians and combined with a dysfunctional, costly federal system, should be obvious. This combination ensures that an inordinate amount of time is spent, often wasted, by the major parties on finding fault with each other, “playing politics”. It is the cause of frequent inability to arrive rapidly at sound decisions about major infra-structural works, new national policies, or even to arrive at sensible solutions at all.

The Constitution of 1901, more broadly the “Rules” in Horne’s terms, is frozen in time and colonial conventions. It does not mention the prime minister and provides no guidelines at all regarding the involvement in wars. Thus, the unmentioned PM can take the country to war without any democratic backing; there is no requirement for a mandate – no parliamentary debate even – no plebiscite, and no referendum. Just a phone call from the U.S. President will do. This is how Australia was drawn into the Iraqi disaster, the Afghan conflict and earlier Vietnam. Horne’s 1964 book was seen as a “kick in the pants” for the Australian Government and business management. It was, but did not result in major changes then, nor after the questionable dismissal of a reformist PM in 1975 either.

There is no shortage of real competence in Australian society, but it is too often not available for political leadership positions. That can be said of both political governance as well as business management. This is the result of systemic failures. This also applies to the traditional, inherently adversarial industrial relation system. Attempts at workplace democracy and employee share ownership did not really get off the ground in Australia.

At least four obvious problems should be dealt with and be presented for public debate:

  1. electoral system;
  2. Westminster practice;
  3. replacing Federation; and
  4. rewriting the Constitution.

If no political party is game to start the ball rolling, could we appeal to the ABC to start the media debate? After all, the public broadcaster has education as a definite major role in its charter. This type of education is seriously lacking in Australia. Sadly, the people are ignorant about alternatives.

How about rewriting the entire Constitution of Australia and moving away from more than a century of fruitless piecemeal tinkering? This is indeed “unfinished business”. Donald Horne was perhaps ahead of this time. But system change is long overdue now.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University. He taught at the School of Political Science (UNSW) as a Tutor, with Donald Horne from 1973 – 1975.

Turnbull says he supports the idea of a Republic but not yet. (Source @9NewsAUS.) 

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