SPEECH - Tabling of the Report on the Inquiry into Constitutional Reform and Referendums

  • Speech

On behalf of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, I present the committee's report, incorporating a dissenting report, entitled Inquiry into constitutional reform and referendums, together with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

By leave—I would like to make a few comments. At the outset I want to acknowledge the work of the outgoing chair, the member for Fisher, the newly elected Speaker. I'm sad he's not in the chair to witness this, but I thank him for his contributions. I also want to acknowledge the work of the secretariat and my parliamentary colleagues for their collaborative approach on this inquiry and report.

The committee received 21 submissions and seven supplementary submissions, and held four public hearings between September and November 2021. On behalf of the committee, I'd like to express its appreciation to the individuals and organisations who shared their views with the committee and informed our deliberations on those issues. The committee particularly gives its thanks to the officials from Ireland who shared their experiences of the constitutional convention and citizens assembly in that country.

In this final report, the committee makes 10 recommendations which propose the establishment of a new joint parliamentary committee to allow constitutional issues to be examined on an ongoing basis, amendments to modernise the way in which referendums are conducted, and measures to strengthen awareness and understanding of the Constitution among school students and the wider community.

Australia's Constitution is the foundation document of our federation and nationhood. However, Australians' understanding of the Constitution and our capacity as a nation to have an informed debate on constitutional reform appear to be at a very low ebb. Results from the national assessment program conducted in Australian schools in 2019 found that only 38 per cent of year 10 students—students who are on the verge of voting age—met or exceeded the civics and citizenship assessment standard which measures students' understanding of Australia's system of government.

It's been 23 years since the last referendum, the longest period between referendums in Australia's history. There are many Australians who have never experienced voting in a referendum or have never engaged in a deliberation and debates leading up to a referendum.

This inquiry commenced in June last year. It was an opportunity for the committee to hear from experts in the field about what has and has not worked in educating the public on the Constitution and to examine whether the current processes for constitutional reform and the conduct of referendums are appropriate in contemporary Australia. This inquiry was not about specific changes to the Constitution but about understanding our capacity and readiness for constitutional review and reform.

During the inquiry the committee was struck by how little attention is given to constitutional review in Australia at the present time. The committee heard that there is no established process for review and no department or agency of the Australian government mandated to consider constitutional review or consultation. This approach does not allow the time or the environment for a broader and more considered review of necessary or desirable constitutional changes.

To that end, the committee recommends in this report that both houses of the Australian parliament establish a joint standing committee on constitutional matters to review the Constitution, consider constitutional matters and inquire into proposals for change. Amongst other responsibilities, the joint committee would be required to consider and make recommendations to parliament relating to constitutional conventions, and the committee should be mandated to exercise functions relating to the referendum process once a referendum proposal is taken forward.

Another consistent message in evidence given to the committee was that modernising the referendum process is long overdue and that changes to the process need to be considered now and not during the middle of a referendum campaign. The committee heard that the referendum act is outdated and not suitable for a referendum in contemporary Australia. For example, the act limits the Australian government from funding a neutral education campaign on the topic of the referendum. So it's prepared to limit that neutral framing but it has not contemplated any limits on foreign donations to referendum campaign organisations, for example.

The conclusion of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in 2009 was that these are longstanding issues that been left unresolved by successive governments. I do want to pay particular tribute to the member for Isaacs and shadow Attorney-General, who was very instrumental in bringing to life many of those issues through his work with that committee at the time.

As such, the committee recommends not only that certain provisions be amended in the referendum act but that the Australian government ensure that the act is reviewed and modernised well in advance of future referendums, because we are not referendum ready, despite some important potential referendums coming up to face this nation. The committee's report also recommends that an independent expert panel be established in the lead-up to each referendum to provide advice on aspects of the referendum process.

Finally, the committee found that there is strong need for increased public literacy and engagement with the Constitution. In addition to the alarming statistics amongst school students noted earlier, the committee heard that only 82 per cent of Australians surveyed had even heard of the Constitution before and that there is a large deficiency in knowledge of what is actually contained in the Constitution, including knowledge about referendums. The committee noted that, while there is currently a National Schools Constitution Convention program held annually, there is an extremely low attendance rate amongst year 11 and year 12 students nationally. A much wider expansion of the project is needed to ensure that students in rural, regional and metropolitan areas can equally participate, and the program needs to be expanded to accommodate more students from years 9 to 12.

The committee also heard that education campaigns and initiatives on the Constitution aimed at the wider population are limited and inadequate. It recommends in this report that the Australian government develop and implement a public awareness and education program on the Constitution, the constitutional framework and Australia's democratic system. Education is critical to ensuring that Australians are more engaged with our Constitution and are able to go to the ballot box fully informed about any referendum question before casting a vote.

The committee did not agree on all issues. It is the view of Labor members that we need to inspire Australians to engage in our Constitution, to understand its significance as the country's founding document, to seek reforms to ensure its relevance to contemporary Australia and to debate how it might better shape our nation going forward. We believe this engagement should be on a regular basis to help strengthen public knowledge and participation in all matters relating to our Constitution. In our additional comments, my Labor colleagues and I put on record our preference for the government to establish a process for regular constitutional conventions. This is a recommendation that government members of the committee have unfortunately rejected.

The Constitution should not be treated as a static historic document. Indeed, the Australian Constitution is necessarily a living document that can be adapted to meet the needs of Australians, now and in the future. That's what the original framers intended and that's the evolving nature of nationhood. I commend the report to the House.

I move:

That the house take note of the report.

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