Among the dominant faction of our political elite the Australian people have acquired a bad name. The reason is simply explained: whereas members of the elite almost always want the ordinary punters to record an affirmative vote at referendums the people take the opposite view. Consequently the Australian people, in the view of that elite, have a bad record when it comes to reforming the Constitution.
I take the opposite view. The fact that only eight out of 44 proposals put to the people to change the Constitution have succeeded says much about our politicians. It does not say that the people have been foolish. Quite the contrary. Ordinary people are, in my opinion, always a lot smarter, more tough-minded and more fair-minded than the political class believes them to be.
So, why have only eight out of 44 proposals succeeded? I think there are two reasons. First, politicians are motivated by the promotion of their own glory. Second, politicians are subject to fads. That is why I have titled this talk “Recent fads of the Australian Constitutional Change for Change’s Sake Brigade.”
To understand what I mean let us go back one hundred years. We imagine we are in October 1909. Alfred Deakin is our great Prime Minister, currently serving the third of his three terms. Waiting in the wings is another great Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher. He has already served a short term of seven months (from November 1908 to June 1909) but is waiting for the landslide victory he will inevitably enjoy in the autumn of 1910.
At that time no one would have said the Australian people had shown bad judgment in the matter of amending the Constitution. Only one proposal has been put – and it was carried easily at a referendum held in conjunction with the December 1906 general election. So no one thinks the framers of our Constitution made a mistake to bring the people into the process. The Americans had not done that but we had – and we were proud of it because it demonstrated the fact that we were ahead of the Americans in democratic thinking.
At that point, however, the first fad sets in. It goes from 1910 all the way through to 1951. That fad takes the form of supposing that the welfare of the Australian people can best be advanced by adding to the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament under section 51 of the Constitution.
From 1910 through to 1951 there were 23 proposals put to the people. Of those, 20 proposed an amendment to section 51 to add power to the Commonwealth Parliament. Only one was accepted. The other 19 were rejected. Given the unique nature of the one success I feel I should say something special about it.