April 15

Let us hear from the defenders of federalism.


It is fundamental to academic discussion, to policy formulation and democratic debate that all sides be heard. (I am not referring to the need for fairness and balance in reporting and assessment – that is another issue.)

Let me give some examples of how not to behave.

,,,Republic Advisory Committee…

In 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating appointed a nine member Republic Advisory committee with Malcolm Turnbull to examine the constitutional and legal issues of Australia becoming a (politicians’) republic. Only those known to be committed to this end were appointed.   

…Griffith University Constitutional Futures Conference…


In 2002, Griffith University, in conjunction with The Australian and the Australian Republican Movement, hosted a conference in Brisbane, the “Australian Constitutional Futures Conference.”  The Vice Chancellor, Dr Glynn Davis – a member of the Keating-Turnbull Republic Advisory Committee – delivered a paper.

As the hosts said, the conference was to restart and broaden the debate about “the” republic and the constitutional framework “we” need for the 21st century.  

Precisely which Australians the organisers meant by the word “we,” apart from themselves, is not clear.

Although this conference was hosted by a university – a taxpayer funded university, it should be noted – no one who was not committed to Australia becoming a politicians’ republic was invited to speak.

…personal attack…

One speaker was allowed to launch an unacceptable and very personal attack on the Crown, the Sovereign and the Royal Family. 

He referred to the monarchy as “rancid” and “corrupt,” “a menace to democracy” with “a cavalier disregard for liberal values.”

It was, he said, a” corrupt institution … prepared to subvert the rule of law… and allow criminal activity to go unchecked within its walls.”

He said that the monarchy has “little interest in anything other than self-preservation and that it will ride roughshod over the rule of law, if necessary, to achieve that aim.”

 We said at the time that we found it extraordinary that such a disgraceful paper would be accepted. The speaker was Mr. Greg Barns, campign director of the republican campaign in 1999, and successor to Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the movement in 2000.

Having allowed this, it should have dawned on the University and The Australian how remiss they were in not inviting a contribution from those whose views, after all, prevailed in 1999.

At the very least, they could have invited a paper to be published with the others, excluding of course the highly offensive and completely unjustified attack on The Queen and the Royal Family.   

How could a university have allowed this? Incidentally, we cannot find any record of the Conference on the Griffith University website.

…2020 Summit….


In 2008, the former Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, now the Vice Chancellor of the University  of Melbourne, Dr Glynn Davis, was made co-chairman of the 2020 Summit with the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  

The highlight of the Summit was the resolution of the governance panel that Australia become some sort of politicians’ republic. This was adopted by a predictable landslide, 98:1 with one abstention (former Governor-General Sir William Deane). 

Of the 100 persons appointed to the panel, only one was a constitutional monarchist; the organisers probably assumed he was in favour of Australia becoming a politicians' republic. 

No known constitutional monarchist, who have a well known interest and record in governance, and who applied for appointment, wwas chosen. A leading republican said the proceedings were so mismanaged it desended into a mad hatter's tea party.  

 The plenary session passed the resolution by acclamation and with a predictable standing ovation.

The resolution was unfortunately so legally flawed –embarrassingly so considering the number of lawyers present – that it was quietly changed several days later on the Summit website.


Federation was another topic at the 2020 Summit. But no one from the leading and probably only federalist body in the nation, The Samuel Griffith Society, was invited. ( I should say that I am a member of the Society’s Board )

The panel recommended a new process for a comprehensive overhaul and reinvigoration of Australia's federal system, including all levels of governance. They wanted a more efficient truly national economy with a substantial change to the federal model. An independent federation commission should be created, they said, to drive fundamental and sustainable improvements to federalism.

….Constitutional Values Survey….


Now the Federation Project of Griffith University (with Charles Sturt University, University of New England and University of Melbourne) has commissioned Newspoll to undertake its second  Constitutional Values Survey. (The first was in 2008.)

It should be obvious that without there being a public debate, in which federalists such as those of the Samuel Griffith Society are heard, the results of such polling will be of limited utility.

The polls reflect what often happens when a referendum is announced.  First there is strong support. After the public hear the debate, such support usually falls. This is so even when the media show extraordinary bias, as the mainstream media did in 1999.

But let us return to the subject of this poll. The academic in charge of this project, Professor AJ Brown has a thoughtful piece on the survey in The Australian, 10/4, “Fix the broken wheel of state and give the boot to the knee-jerk reaction”.   There is also a news report by Mike Steketee in The Australian, (10/4) “Government should be on the level”.

…radio interview…

Alan Jones, the nation's most inluential broadcaster, interviewed Professor Brown recently. To hear this follow this link .

…the key question…


A key question in the survey was:

“Thinking of the federal government as being the highest level of government, and state and then local as being lower levels of government. Which one of the following comes closest to your view about where decisions should be made?”


The answers follow:


This exercise reminds me of a definition of an opinion poll I heard cited by the nation’s leading psephologist, Malcolm Mackerras.

It went something like this:  “An opinion poll consists of the answers of those willing to respond to uninvited questions put without notice on matters on which the respondents have not had time to consider.”





…has civics education failed?…



A government survey revealed last year concluded that only one in three Year 10 students know what the Constitution is. This was after very substantial Federal funding to improve students’ knowledge about these matters. Fortunately, common sense tells people that we have something exceptional in Australia – why else would we be so successful.

But without greater understanding of the system, and especially of the principles of federalism, opinion polling will not provide the answer to the weaknesses in our federal system.

Those weaknesses, in my view, are the result of the machinations of many politicians over the years, and of the centralist gloss put on the Constitution by a succession of High Court rulings.

It is unfashionable in elite circles to be a federalist. But when we are discussing federalism, surely we should hear from the federalists.

After all, they are the moral and intellectual guardians   of what was intended to be the essence of our constitutional system, and which has been almost always supported by the people whenever they have been asked in the only instrument which measures this, the referendum.




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