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Constitutional Centenary Foundation Chairperson discusses possible changes to the Constitution.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: As you would have seen over the last couple of days, the Constitutional Centenary Foundation is hard at work, half way through its 10-year mission to raise the level of debate around how we're governed, and that pace is quickening with 2001 looming. Well, I spoke to the chairman of the foundation, Sir Ninian Stephen, about the problems of inspiring greater discussion across the Australian populous, and asked him first if political impartiality was a crucial issue.

SIR NINIAN: I think political impartiality is one of the difficulties that the foundation faces. It's essential that it should be impartial. At the same time, it's difficult to promote the sort of fervent interest that one would hope surrounds this topic if one retains impartiality.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: The options are so enormous. Cheryl Saunders has been talking about recasting the Constitution, introducing references to institutions that currently don't appear in the Constitution, changing the structure of government, introducing a president, not introducing a president - all these options seem very confusing. Do you think perhaps there is too much choice in terms of the public having a grasp of what the essentials are here?

SIR NINIAN: Well, possibly. We've got five years still to go and that's a fair span of time, and lots of time to consider a whole lot of topics. So I think that we'd be underrating the capacity of the Australian community if we say that they can't understand these things spread over the next five years.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: So is there a process by which we should introduce these issues for public debate?

SIR NINIAN: Well, what you're doing at this very moment I think is part of that process. I think it's an excellent thing that the media is interesting itself in it because, really, it's very largely the responsibility of the media to do this.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: But what would you suggest would be the issues that we need to tackle first?

SIR NINIAN: Oh, well, as it happens, you probably know that we've selected what we call five driving forces, and the first one of those is Australian values, and the very first thing that we are concentrating on is this question of Australian values. Archbishop Hollingworth is chairing a round table early this year in which we hope to better define and work out what true Australian values are because, really, it's those values that dictate the sort of mechanisms of government that we want, to give effect to them.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: That seems, to me, to be taking the debate right back to the grass roots. We decide what we agree, as a nation, are appropriate values for our community and then we work up to a legal framework that reflects that. But, to date, the debate has been full of legal nicety. Have we sort of leapt in at too far down the legal chain, if you like, and forgotten what we need to consider first?

SIR NINIAN: Yes, well, I think your reference to legal niceties is a very good point because most referendums in the past have been concerned with very tiny legal niceties, of high significance but nevertheless, when they're spelt out in black and white on paper, they appear to me mere legalisms, and that certainly doesn't arouse interest on the part of the community. So that it's a good idea, I think, to get back to fundamentals and that's what we're seeking to do.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: On the issue of referenda, they don't have a particularly strong record in this country and, as we've discussed, the possibilities for change of the Constitution in the way we govern ourselves are enormous, which would require a pretty massive structural change and referenda to support that. Is the Australian populous going to have time to, in the next five years, to really come to grips with all that in a position to pass referendum in a way that they haven't before?

SIR NINIAN: No. Well, I think I'd be unduly optimistic to think that we're going to have a whole array of referendums - I call them referendums rather than referenda - which fundamentally alter the Constitution that, after all, has worked pretty well for the last almost a hundred years. I think that what we have to do is to pick those areas which the community generally feels are no longer appropriate, and part of the task for the next five years is to isolate those particular areas and decide what changes, if any, we want in them.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: Have you any preferences yourself for what sort of shifts and changes would be appropriate?

SIR NINIAN: No, well, I purposefully refrain from expressing any preferences because I don't think my preferences have anything at all to do with the question.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: Reflect your legal positions of the past, I think.

SIR NINIAN: Well, perhaps.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: But in terms of the pace of change, how well can we expect the Australian public to keep this in the forefront of its mind when there are so many issues pressing on everybody's back pocket and general day-to-day existence?

SIR NINIAN: Oh, well, I think the answer to that depends very much on the media. It's really the task of the media to, if it believes that these issues are important, as I think it should, to keep presenting them to the public because really, nowadays, communities depend very much for the expression of views and the reflection of those views on the media that serves them.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: And you're quite comfortable with the way in which the issues have been treated to-date?

SIR NINIAN: Indeed, yes. I think so. I think that, certainly in the last two days, I think the media's been very responsive.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: What about television because, clearly, print media hits a certain market but not the whole market.

SIR NINIAN: No, that's true, yes.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: So how can you go about meeting the expectations for access to this debate of people who watch television principally?

SIR NINIAN: Oh, well, I think television stations give coverage to matters that they think are of significance and also matters of course that they believe that their viewing audience believes it wants to see. And that latter feeling has to be aroused, I think, and that's what we hope to do.

LYNNE HAULTAIN: Chairman of the Centenary Foundation, Sir Ninian Stephen, and I was speaking with him yesterday regarding changes to the Constitution and how to get involved in the debate.