Democracy News

Rethink Australia: democracy activists

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This is the first in a new series by IA on "democracy activists", or people who are looking at improving the way we are governed and making politicians more accountable to the people.

ONE NOTABLE group of activists is
Rethink Australia, which aims to "modernise" the Australian Constitution.

The principal of Rethink Australia is Rodger Hills. IA spoke to Rodger to find out more about what Rethink Australia is and why the Constitution needs updating.

IA: What are the aims of Rethink Australia and why do you think they are important?

RODGER HILLS: Rethink Australia is about modernising the Australian Constitution. We want to keep all the important checks, balances and institutions of our existing Constitution – protecting what works well, but adding new material to allow our system of government to cope with the demands of a new century. We want ordinary citizens in to be involved in the process through public consultations and public deliberation forums.

The bulk of our Constitution was drafted in the 1890s when Australia was a far-flung and vulnerable British protectorate. Today, in the 21st century our globally connected, modern society deserves a Constitution which reflects our independent sovereignty; which meets internationally recognised standards of best practice; which sets high benchmarks for government; which both strengthens and clarifies the important role that citizens play in the life of the nation and which also mirrors faithfully our modern culture, principles, values and aspirations.

IA: Why is Rethink Australia different?

Rodger Hills, chair of Rethink Australia

RH: Rethink Australia is the only initiative creating the means for a citizen generated and citizen backed modernisation of the Australian Constitution. Sure, other great organisations are calling for a constitutional bill of rights, recognition of local government and so forth. They are all waiting on our political leaders to recognise the need and take up the challenge.

But it’s going to be a very, very long wait. The adversarial nature of our Westminster system of government acts against the kind of bipartisan support needed to deal with the complex and long-term constitutional changes called for by a bill of rights, recognition of local government and other long-overdue improvements to the Constitution.

On the other hand, deliberative democracy processes like citizens' assemblies/juries are ideally suited for these difficult issues as they rely on careful consideration by a broad range of ordinary people after an extensive informative process. We believe that citizen involvement in the constitutional modernisation process is vital so as to secure a widescale “yes” vote at a referendum.

As far as I am aware, Rethink Australia is the only initiative here or anywhere else that has proposed using deliberative democracy processes to modernise a national constitution.

IA: As chairperson, you appear to be spearheading the project, how did it get started and how did you get involved?

RH: It is clear to anyone who has actually read the Australian Constitution that it just doesn’t reflect the way the country is run, let alone the way it should be run to create a better future for everyone. After publishing my constitutional awareness and civic education book, The Consensus Artifact (ISBN 9780646478296), I was captivated by the idea of redesigning the Australian Constitution. But rather than forcing change from the top down, I envisaged a grass-roots change from the bottom up, with the Australian public determining the changes they wanted to see, rather than having politicians and vested interests decide it for them. The problem was, I didn’t have any idea how to go about generating the kind of widespread public participation needed to achieve this goal.

Then by chance, I was invited to be a facilitator at the Australian Citizens Parliament held in February 2009 in Canberra. This extraordinary deliberative event proved to me that a large body of ordinary Australians could easily deal with complex political issues and calmly and rationally come up with answers. It also demonstrated to me a working model for creating widespread public participation, the piece of the puzzle I had been missing until that point.

Inspired by that experience, I contacted a number of colleagues with the idea of creating an initiative to modernise the Australian Constitution using deliberative democracy processes to provide the substance of those changes. With their encouragement and advice, the Rethink Australia initiative was born. Citizens Charter, the organisation supporting the initiative was formed about a month or so after that.

IA: Who and/or what is Citizens Charter and how is it funded?

RH: Rethink Australia is an initiative of Citizens Charter, a non-partisan, non-government and non-profit organisation established to bring about improvements in the quality of democracy. Citizens Charter is run by committed people from all walks of life and a vast range of political views. They share in common, the desire to see government serving the people and not the other way round. Citizens Charter receives no money from any political party or the government. We rely solely on funds and in-kind donations from the Australian public.

IA: What other people are involved in this project and what are their roles?

RH: In addition to myself, Citizens Charter has two other Directors, Siobhan Marren and Joshua Leung who, up until recently, have not been able to devote much time to the organisation due to other commitments. As a result we rely heavily on the generous input and advice of a voluntary Advisory Group. This extended pool of expertise includes experts in deliberative democracy, constitutional law, civic education, campaigning and so forth. Without their help, Rethink Australia wouldn’t have got off the ground. We are also partnering with other organisations interested in constitutional modernisation to share resources and expertise. Rethink Australia has also benefited greatly from pro-bono support provided by a number of commercial organisations, like Divus Design and the Care Network.

IA: You have been involved in several non-profit organizations in senior roles, yet you are qualified as an industrial designer; how did this happen?

RH: One of the main subjects of my undergraduate Built Environment / Industrial Design course was Environmental Studies. It was a comprehensive subject looking at all the evidence that had been stacking up since the late 1950s that we were screwing up the planet. This subject and my lecturers inspired me to get involved in energy efficient building projects, then local barter/trading schemes and eventually disability services. I have always tried to use the management and strategic expertise I have gained in the commercial world for the benefit of those less fortunate than myself.

For me it is not about “giving back” it is about reducing inequality. One way is to share financial wealth around with those who are disadvantaged. I have never been wealthy so I share my time, enthusiasm, creativity and business expertise around with organisations where those resources are in short supply. It’s all about sharing, cooperating and helping to float everyone’s boat not just a privileged few.

IA: Why are you interested in reforming Australia’s constitution and system of governance?

RH: This is a question that comes up time and again and it is easy to answer. The Australian Constitution is the highest law in the land. All other laws, all other regulations, all other governance processes and government services flow from the Constitution. If we experience a lousy health system, a poor education system, crumbling infrastructure, political mismanagement, and so on, it is because our Constitution isn’t up to the task. Sure we have elected political leaders that are supposed to work for the benefit of the public, but the Constitution gives them no guidelines or instructions. It sets out no minimum standards for the public services we get. So all politicians have to do each year is the bare minimum needed to get re-elected. And they can easily buck-pass their responsibilities by claiming interference from a different tier of government, lack of funding or any other excuse and we the people have no way of holding them accountable. If we vote them out and a new lot in at the next election the newcomers aren’t’ compelled to do a better job either. That is one of the main reasons why we need to modernise the Australian Constitution.

IA: Reforming the Constitution in any major way is difficult; do you have any realistic hope of succeeding?

Rethink Australia on YouTube

RH: One of the major reasons for involving the Australian public in this dialogue over constitutional modernisation is to come up with a set of clauses or sections that can be added to the existing Constitution that the majority of people can either agree with or at least live with. They are the ones, not politicians, who will come up with material on human rights, recognition of indigenous peoples, sustainability measures, high standards for public services, local government recognition and a workable structure for a republican form of government. This eliminates one of the main hurdles of the current constitutional change process. As things stand we have to wait for politicians to haggle over proposed changes to the Constitution behind closed doors and all the public gets to do is vote yes or no at a referendum. Rethink Australia is giving people the chance to create the material that will eventually be put to a national vote. Because a large number of people will have been involved directly and indirectly in creating these recommendations the chances of them being passed at a referendum will be much higher. So yes, I do have a realistic hope of this process succeeding.

IA: What are the main challenges?

RH: By far the biggest challenge we face is a complete lack of understanding by a majority of the Australian population of how our system of government works. Without this basic knowledge, trying to get people to see that the poor public transport, health and education outcomes they and their families live with each day is linked directly to inadequacies in our Constitution is a very difficult task.

Once you get past this hurdle and convince people that the Constitution needs modernising, most people are highly cynical that we would ever be able to get our politicians to stop squabbling long enough to get a reform bill through parliament. Even if that milestone could be achieved people don’t believe the Australian public would vote for such major wholesale change to the Constitution at a referendum.

The other major problem is really a logistical one. How do you educate, motivate and involve the broadest section of the Australian public in the dialogue over constitutional modernisation?

This is the reason why Rethink Australia is employing deliberative democracy processes. These processes have been proven over the last 20 years to be effective in a) educating the public about complex political issues, b) gaining widespread public engagement in political decision-making and c) creating democratic legitimacy that allows people who weren’t immediately involved in the deliberation process to trust the integrity and independence of the people who were in way they never would with politicians.

IA: How important is an Australian republic?

RH: Isn’t it about time we broke the shackles of our colonial past? Isn’t it time we became a real independent Nation and elected our own Head of State? Isn’t it time we had a democratic republic by, of, and for the Australian people? Isn’t it time that, as a Nation, we aimed for high ideals?

Over the last 200 years, Australia has become a culturally diverse country which embraces its Indigenous heritage and welcomes immigrants from around the world. The British Monarchy is no longer a suitable symbol for an egalitarian and independent nation. The next natural step in Australia’s evolution as a democracy is to become a republic.

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