Tuesday, 12 March 2013

You mean Australia has a constitution?

When we go to the polls on 17 September we will be voting for the next Prime Minister!

The Prime minister is the Head of State!

The phrase "Head of State" is entrenched in the Australian Constitution!

The Ministers belong to the Prime Minister!

The incumbent Prime Minister's partner is commonly known as the "First Bloke"; if Tony Abbott becomes the next Prime Minister, does that mean that his wife Margaret will become known as the "First Sheila"?

Those statements are somewhat simplistic but they do highlight some of the myths that are portrayed to us by the media and others. More of that later.

So how well do we understand our own Australian Constitution?

Back in 1987, a survey was conducted for the Australian Constitution Commission.

That survey found that 47 per cent of Australians were unaware that Australia has a written Constitution.
Similarly, and in the 1994, a report on citizenship by the Civics Expert Group found that:

Only 18 per cent of Australians had some understanding of what is in the Constitution.

Only 40 per cent could correctly name both Houses of the Federal Parliament.

More than a quarter of those surveyed nominated the Supreme Court, rather than the High Court, as the 'highest' court in the land.

But understanding our Constitution is not straight forward!

There many aspects that need to be comprehended. 

Decisions of the High Court, State Constitutions all of which are subject to the Australian Constitution, and other outriding documents such as the Statute of Westminster and both the Australia Acts all impact on our overall constitutionality. 

Additionally, there are more than 20 occasions where the phrase "Until the Parliament otherwise provides" appears in the Constitution which means that one has to suss out the relevant Acts of Parliament to fully understand the whole picture! Capping off all of this are the several sections which are either spent, redundant, no longer have any application or were transitional to facilitate the federation process.

However, that doesn't mean we should steer clear of trying to understand the Constitution.

Rather, it should be an incentive for us to do quite the opposite. An instructive guide for beginner's has been on the Australian Republic Unplugged website since well before September 1999. The quality of that guide has progressed from a very simple web page to a variety of means including a PDF version, CD-ROM and DVDs - both of which have morphed into podcasts and YouTube versions. 

The latest incarnation is in iBook form for the iPad and offers an electronic and interactive version for those on the go. It's not designed to turn you into a constitutional lawyer but, hopefully, will get you started on the road.

Now, to those statements made at the beginning:

At the next Federal Election we will not be voting for a Prime Minister; the constitution is quite clear in that, as voters, we will be voting for a member to represent us in our respective electoral division.

The Prime Minister is not Head of State despite the efforts of two highly respected reporters who have tried to infer this. Firstly, Helen Daley back in in 2003 and more recently in 2012 Liam Bartlett made a similar assertion.

The phrase "Head of State" is not mentioned anywhere in the Australian Constitution nor in the two outriding constitutional documents i.e. the Statute of Westminster and both of the Australia Acts.

On the ownership of the Ministers, the Constitution quite clearly states in Section 64 that members of the Federal Executive Council "shall be the Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth"!

As far as the last item goes, let's leave it up to the wags to decide although the now much used "First Lady" is an American thing that doesn't fit with our Westminster system. It is a bit like using the term "guys" when referring to both men and women - impractical and erroneous!

No comments:

Post a Comment