EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Three constitutional amendment proposals before the PM
, May 11, 2013
While the media’s attention is focussed on the Gillard government’s rapidly worsening financial position — with the budget shortfall for 2012-13 now forecast at $12 billion — it is possible that Australians will be called upon to vote on up to three highly contentious referenda proposals at the time of the September election.
In February, the federal parliament carried legislation, with bipartisan support, which foreshadowed a constitutional amendment to recognise indigenous people within the Commonwealth constitution.
The legislation was the result of deliberations of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, appointed by Ms Gillard after the 2010 election, to examine ways to amend the constitution to include direct reference to the role of Australia’s first people.
The parliament adopted an act of recognition for Australia’s Aboriginal people, but at the time the Prime Minister said that there was insufficient time to have the amendment ready for the September election.
In light of the bipartisan support for her legislation in parliament, this was always a curious statement. Certainly, the Expert Panel did not come up with a single proposal to be put to the people, and, clearly, there were strong differences of opinion as to how its principal recommendation should be implemented.
However, more recently, the Prime Minister has reportedly adopted a proposal from the NSW Independent, Tony Windsor, to have a referendum on writing local government into the Commonwealth constitution. At the time of writing, the exact wording of this proposal has not been released — and it may not have been determined.
At first sight, such a proposal would seem reasonable, given that local government is a vitally important part of Australia’s structure of government, and it remains unrecognised in the constitution.
However, such a proposal radically contradicts the nature of the constitution, which was written to establish the distribution of power between the states, formerly independent colonies, and the commonwealth government.
It is a matter of regret that over the past 100 years, both the Commonwealth government and the High Court have undermined the power of the states, and increased the power of the Commonwealth.
State governments have always recognised local government, and one of the more important functions of state legislatures is to protect, guarantee and enhance the operations of local government.
But direct recognition of local government by the Commonwealth constitution would further undermine our federal structure by elevating the local power to the level of a quasi-federal entity.
It would have serious and possibly unintended consequences. Direct recognition would allow a centralist government to by-pass the states and deal with local government directly, further marginalising state governments. It could even make local government directly dependent on the federal government, further undermining the authority and legitimacy of local government.
It would radically change Australia’s constitutional structures by establishing a federation based on states and municipalities, but all dependent on the Commonwealth.
If Australia’s founding fathers had wanted to do this, they would have done so. Instead, they created an authentic federalism within the constitution by dividing power solely between the Commonwealth and the states.
A further proposal from the Independents is for a referendum on same sex marriage. The very clear intention of such an initiative is to reverse the overwhelming decision of both houses of the federal parliament on the issue just months ago.
The move comes just weeks after both New Zealand and France voted in favour of same sex marriage. However, the referendum proposal has drawn support and opposition from people on both sides of the political fence.
Interestingly, it was strongly supported by the Greens’ leader, Christine Milne, but opposed by the homosexual activist and leader of a group called Australian Marriage Equality, Rodney Croome. Having claimed, repeatedly, that a majority of Australians support same sex “marriage”, it was surprising, to say the least, that Croome would argue that politicians were elected and paid to make laws and “not abdicate responsibility by handballing to voters when it gets too hard”.
It was even more surprising to read his comment that “there’s simply not enough time before the election to develop the question and the campaigns around same-sex marriage”.
It may be that Croome fears that an election campaign, which will be a referendum on the Gillard government, is not the time to put the issue of same-sex “marriage” to the people.
Each of these proposals will have profound long-term significance for Australia. The sooner the details of the proposed constitutional amendments are released, the better.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.