‘We need a new vision splendid’, wrote Democrat Senator Andrew Murray in The Age of 11 July, 2006. He recalled that when Peter Costello said our federal arrangements needed drastic revision, some people dismissed his comments as short-term opportunism. As with Mr. Costello’s rather transparent flirtation with republicanism, some see this as mere brand differentiation from an older Prime Minster in those areas where this is a permissible exception to the rule that the cabinet appear united on policy.
Of course, a government can go too far in allowing so called conscience or similar divergences. At some point, the unity of the government itself will be under challenge. The 1999 referendum probably went further than is sensible in allowing the public portrayal of cabinet divisions. This was so public, and so bitter that any future coalition leader is now on notice that a repetition could be fatal.
But to return to Senator Murray, he says that our political and social contract is under real strain. He says it is not just that the Commonwealth has the money and the States want to spend it. He believes that some of this strain comes from a ‘creaking constitution and institutions’ and the consequent need to modernise our governance. He also blames what he sees as the centralising tendencies of the Howard government.
He is critical of what he sees as a mere managerial solution, such as that proposed by the Business Council of Australia. The Council’s discussion paper of 24 June, 2006, ‘Modernising the Australian Federation, has a focus on efficiency, and sees no need for radical changes to the powers of the states and the Commonwealth and no major change to the constitution.
The Senator thinks this approach is wrong. No reform of the Australian system will be successful, he believes, unless it accommodates revised checks and balances. “I’m talking political economy, a holistic approach,” he writes. “You cannot fix the economic or the social effectively without also fixing political governance. And that means reassessing the constitution, the separation of powers, a republic, whether the federation should stay, and if it should, in what form, and the powers that states and the Commonwealth should each have.”
He proposes another convention, but this time a standing convention for say, ten years, with a permanent secretariat with a budget sufficient to allow for ‘full engagement and dialogue’ supplemented by a ‘university-based institute for constitutional change, producing discussion papers and fostering public awareness and debate.
Those who say our Constitution is creaking under the strain, shows its age and is in need of reform really want a different constitution from that which our founders chose. ‘Reform’ has long been shorthand for centralism, and in recent years has been extended to a vastly increased political role for the judges as well as, of course, some sort of a republic. As to its age, the American constitution is twice as old as Australia’s, but there would be few who would call for a drastic change to it. As John Stone said on the ABC on 13 July, 2006, ours is one of, if not the finest constitution in the world. The Australian people were more fully involved in the development and adoption of our Constitution than any other people in the modern world. They determined the essence of the new nation in the Constitution’s covering clauses when they agreed, in each of the colonies, “humbly relying on the blessings of Almighty God … to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown… and under the Constitution…”
The intention of the founders, and, most importantly, the people was very clear. Had the politicians and the judges kept more to that intention, many if not most of the problems of overlap, of centralisation and of financial irresponsibility by the states would have been avoided. In particular, if the external affairs and spending powers of the federal government and parliament had been limited to the list of powers which the people agreed the federal parliament may legislate on, the States would have been left alone to do what the constitution and the people intended. If Canberra’s power to make grants to the States had been ended soon after federation, as the Constitution clearly suggests, the States would not have been reduced to their present mendicant status.
The problem is not in the Constitution, it is in those who have changed its intention without seeking the approval of the people, and in the knowledge, it should never be forgotten, and that the people would have been most unlikely to agree. This is a story well documented in the publications and on the website of The Samuel Griffith Society- (I should disclose that I am on the board). The answer is certainly not in the dissolution of the States, or in the transfer of even more powers to the Commonwealth, or in a vast increase in the power of the judges to govern us, or in the grafting of some unspecified republic onto our Constitution, at least unless and until the people approve of any or all of these. In the meantime, the consequences of the present unsatisfactory situation will be considerably mitigated by sensible working relationships between Canberra and the State capitals, such as those that seem to have been reached recently. But above all, what is needed is a return to the principles of the constitution of our one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown, principles to which the Australian people have given their consent and which they have so recently affirmed.