April 29

Bill of Rights abandoned

The national newspaper, The Australian, is rejoicing over the demise of a bill of rights, a matter beyond ACM’s remit and on which supporters will have different views. But the reasons the newspaper gives fall precisely within our mission.

The editor says the Rudd government's decision to reject a bill of rights is a recognition that Australia's robust constitution, its strong parliamentary tradition of lawmaking, its independent judiciary, and its intelligent civic culture are the best protections for citizens.(“ It's over: Mr Rudd gets it right on a bill of rights” 26/4)

Others are rejoicing, including the Menzies Research Centre which under the leadership of Julian Leeser played such a significant role in routing the push for a bill of rights ( see this column on 28 May ("General Peter Cosgrove: Don't leave the bill") and 21 May ( "A Bill of Rights").

…central constitutional institution ignored…

What ever we think of a bill of rights, it should be acknowledged that the Australian Crown is of course an integral part of our robust constitution. The Crown is not only  a constitutional guardian and as we have called its executive  role here, a constitutional auditor.

It is also crucial because of the allegiance it receives and the protection it thus offers to the other institutions which ought to remain beyond the machinations of  party politics. These are the judiciary, the armed forces , the public service and the police.

This central role of the Australian Crown is hardly  examined in most civic education courses; it is high time that it was. (Last year we launched a new educational resource in response to this glaring need.)  

The editor says that far from protecting minority rights, statutory codification risked pitting the judiciary against the parliament by, in effect, becoming a third house of parliament.  

The editorial continued: "As former prime minister John Howard, a long-term opponent of a bill of rights, said last year, if you want parliament to be taken seriously, don't hand its authority to others."

….a debate for another day…



In any event the editor is undoubtedly right that with this decision, a bill of rights is a debate for another day.

It was probably no more than a coincidence that  the eminent constitutional lawyer and great proponent of a bill of rights – and a gracious man – Professor George Williams, has just failed in his latest attempt to gain ALP preselection, this time in Canberra.

Readers may recall the NSW ALP invited me to debate Professor Williams on the topic" Forward the Republic" last November.

Professor Williams has since strongly re-affirmed his support in his regular Sydney Morning Herald column  for a bill of rights (”Human rights: People with power don't want to give it up,” 27/4)  

An office bearer in the republican movement, Professor Williams would have been a major advocate in the Caucus for the holding of a series of plebiscites with a view to Australia becoming some sort of politicians’ republic.

Unlike most republicans in politics,  Professor Williams supports  a directly elected presidency. He believes the latter could be achieved by codifying the reserve powers.  Former prime minister Paul Keating and former attorney general Gareth Evans once attempted this, but gave up saying it was impossible.



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