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Monday, 23 June 2008
Page: 5649


Mr DREYFUS (8:29 PM) —On behalf of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, I present the committee’s report, incorporating an additional comment, entitled Reforming our Constitution: a roundtable discussion together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.


Mr DREYFUSReforming the Constitution: a roundtable discussion is the first report of the committee for this parliament. Despite dramatic change and growth in Australia as a nation over the last 100 years, Australia’s Constitution remains very much as it was originally drafted. Over that time there have been 44 referenda to amend the Australian Constitution, of which only eight have been successful. It is now over 30 years since there was a successful referendum to amend the Constitution. This is the longest period since Federation without even minor reform to the Constitution. In addition, the present decade may be the first since Federation during which there is no referendum held.

To progress debate on constitutional reform, the committee conducted a roundtable discussion on 1 May 2008 with 14 eminent and expert participants: Professor Larissa Behrendt, Mr Peter Black, Professor Tony Blackshield, Professor Hilary Charlesworth, Professor Greg Craven, Professor David Flint, Professor Michael Lavarch, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Professor Kim Rubinstein, Professor Cheryl Saunders, Ms Khatija Thomas, Ms Anne Twomey, Professor George Williams and Professor Leslie Zines. The roundtable took place shortly after the 2020 Summit and consequently was able to apply some of the ideas raised in the governance stream of that forum to the context of constitutional reform. This report brings together those discussions and puts to the parliament and the public of Australia some key questions about what we want from our Constitution. The report considers various means of changing the operation of the Constitution. It is telling that formally amending the Constitution, the most transparent and publicly accountable means of change, has become the least often used.

Another much criticised area of the Constitution is the disqualification provisions for members of parliament, particularly those relating to foreign allegiance and office-of-profit under the Crown. Before the last election, I was involved in giving advice to a number of people on these disqualification provisions and had direct experience of the lack of certainty in their interpretation.

The roundtable considered the appropriateness of the three-year election cycle for the House of Representatives. All states, with the exception of Queensland, have now moved to four-year election cycles. Consideration of fixed four-year election terms should be on the Commonwealth agenda.

Federal-state responsibilities and negotiating more cooperative federal-state approaches are other areas of constitutional contention. We need to consider reforms that will bring the Constitution more in line with current practice and enable cooperative federalism to operate effectively. One consequence of our Constitution’s separation of federal and state responsibilities is the proliferation of intergovernmental agreements. Of most concern is the lack of transparency and oversight applied to agreements of this nature. For this reason, the committee has recommended scrutiny of intergovernmental agreements by a parliamentary committee, as currently happens with international treaties.

There have been calls for our Constitution to recognise the special position of Indigenous people as the first Australians and traditional custodians of the land. The roundtable considered proposals for this recognition to be included in the body of the Constitution or in a new preamble to the Constitution, which could encompass a broader statement of identity, aspiration and belonging for all Australian people.

The government has committed to engaging in a process of public consultation around a charter of rights for Australia. While the roundtable and the committee did not make any recommendation regarding a bill of rights, this is another key issue in debate on constitutional reform. I am hoping Australians will engage more with our Constitution, recognise its importance as the founding document of our nation and debate how it might be reformed to be the document that shapes our nation into the next century. Public involvement in these issues is critical. I hope that this report challenges and assists in changing the current freeze on constitutional reform.

I extend my thanks to all members of the secretariat team who assisted with the various tasks for this inquiry: Clare James and Jane Hearn, for their work with the roundtable; members of other committee secretariats who assisted in the drafting process—Dr Mark Rodrigues, John Carter and Mr Kevin Bodel; and especially the committee secretary, Dr. Anna Dacre. I thank the participants in the roundtable who engaged in robust and constructive debate to help bring these complex issues into a form that is meaningful and relevant to all Australians. Finally I thank all members of the committee for demonstrating their commitment to progressing constitutional reform in Australia. (Time expired)