Parliamentary inquiry to consider constitutional reforms and referendums

By Melissa Coade

Sunday September 19, 2021

The house standing committee on social policy and legal affairs will hear evidence for its inquiry into Australian constitutional reform and referendums from Monday.
The house standing committee on social policy and legal affairs will hear evidence for its inquiry into Australian constitutional reform and referendums from Monday. (Adobe: Adam Calaitzis)

Australian referendums will get the once over from the house standing committee on social policy and legal affairs, which will hold its first public hearing on the issue today.

Starting Monday, the committee will hear evidence from academics, research institutes and the Attorney-General’s Department for its inquiry into constitutional reform and referendums.

The idea to hold the inquiry into constitutional reform and referendums followed the committee’s examination of the Attorney-General’s Department 2019-20 annual report. 

According to the inquiry terms of reference, the committee will examine opportunities to improve public education about the constitution; hear suggestions about mechanisms to review the constitution; and the effectiveness of the arrangement for the conduct of referendums.

A total of 17 submissions for the inquiry have been made to the committee to date, among them a personal letter from constitutional expert UNSW Sydney Professor George Williams proposing four changes to improve the conduct of referendums and make the best use of public funds.

Williams wants to see the establishment of a constitutional commission to oversee the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars for any future referendum and ensure referendums are not called over ‘failed short-term proposals’. He argued that his proposal for a small, ongoing commission to review the Australian constitution and generate proposals for constitutional reform that are recommended to parliament will change the quality and nature of all future referendums.

“The commission has the potential to receive a large number of ideas, and should promote education about the constitution and open debate about reform,” Williams said. 

“It would exercise its judgment on which ideas to progress and what priority to give them as part of its work.”

The constitutional expert said that membership to the commission must be broad and inclusive, with appointments open to governments from state and territory jurisdictions, as well as Opposition parties — not just the federal government of the day.

“There is no point in creating a body that is incapable of bringing about broad political and community support for whatever proposals it puts forward,” Williams said. 

He also called for a constitutional convention to be held every decade; the establishment of a referendum panel to oversee the public education initiatives in the lead-up to referendums; and amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (which Williams says has changed little since it was first adopted almost 100 years ago).

“The Referendum Act prohibits most commonwealth expenditure on advocating a Yes or No vote in a referendum,” Williams explained.

“Australia’s history of referendums shows that this restriction can allow the public debate to be monopolised by groups that have an interest in opposing reform or, even, in confusing voters. 

“This, for example, was what happened in Western Australia and, particularly, Queensland during the referendum campaign of 1977. As that campaign shows, state governments, which are free of any such spending restrictions, can use their own resources to advocate an outcome without the Commonwealth being able to mount an effective response,” he said. 

Professor Williams’ recommendations were from the themes of a book he co-authored with David Hume in 2010 called People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia.

Committee chair and Queensland LNP MP Andrew Wallace said the inquiry was an opportunity to have a ‘fresh look’ at referendums and whether the process was suitable for contemporary Australia.

“The last referendum to change the Australian Constitution was held in 1999,” Wallace said. 

“The committee looks forward to discussion with expert witnesses to hear their ideas on how the conduct of referendums could be modernised.”


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