Is the lack of Constitutional knowledge linked to political mistrust?

The article we wrote last week about moving towards four-year fixed terms in the House of Representatives gained a huge social media response. We had hundreds of comments on Facebook. A very high proportion of these commenters stated that they would vote ‘no’ in a referendum to move to four-year terms. In fact many responders stated that they would like to ‘recall’ the current government right now, just two and a half months after an election.

This had us at CEFA thinking about a couple of constitutional matters. Is there a correlation between trust in politics and the level of knowledge about our System of Government.

Earlier this year a survey was commissioned to examine the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy. The results were not good. Trust in Government and politicians is at the lowest levels since 1993 and satisfaction with democracy is at the lowest levels since 1996.

This discontentment was displayed in the feedback we received about the topic of our article last week.

So how do we increase trust and change attitudes?

For years we have been banging on about the need for non-partisan education about the processes of Government and the Constitution to help improve trust in our politicians and democracy. It seems that some people don’t believe education will help. Have they just given up? Do they have hidden agendas? Or do they believe that the problem lies elsewhere? 

Here’s a statement that some people make about the problem being elsewhere: If we had better politicians, people would trust them more. But is that true? Or if we all knew a bit more about how the rules in the Constitution we might have more trust for these people to get on with their jobs?

By knowing what is in our Constitution we can better understand what can happen in Government. For instance, one thing that popped up again and again in the comments on our Facebook page last week was the wish to ‘recall’ the government. But there is no way to ‘recall’ a government. Do Australians understand that? Or is this an extreme point to be made about how much a person dislikes the government?

We’re all a bit insecure

It appears that nothing is stable anymore. The media reports that we don’t even know who’s going to be the Prime Minister next week! We feel like we don’t know what is going to happen and it makes us all a bit nervous. But, we can always rely on our Constitution. It is the bedrock of our democracy and it is stable. It outlines the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, the role of the Executive and how the Judiciary operates. We can rest assured that these three branches of Government will function as stipulated in Constitution.

By understanding our system of government and Constitution we can feel more at ease. Because of our shared democratic values and adherence to the rule of law, Australian democracy is not going to come crashing down. Our Prime Minister can’t go around sacking judges like what happened in Turkey, the military aren’t going to take over the government like in Thailand and our leaders aren’t going to encourage extra-judicial killings like in the Philippines.

It doesn’t mean we can’t have our gripes. But with better knowledge of our democracy, we can better pre-empt what might or can happen. 

What is the Constitution?

The Australian Constitution is a national set of rules that specifies how we are governed. Prior to our Constitution being enacted in 1901 each of the six Australian states were separate colonies with their own laws and governments. Each of these colonies came together in the 1890’s to construct our Constitution and ultimately form our country – the Commonwealth of Australia. 

The Constitution was drafted over a series of Constitutional Conventions (meetings) which set out the relationship between the federal government and the newly formed states.  The British Parliament then passed an Act with the purpose  of ‘constituting the Commonwealth of Australia’. The British Act commences with the preamble, then what we call the covering clauses, the last of which states, "The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia shall be as follows:" and then sets out 128 sections.

These 128 sections define the powers of the Executive Government, Parliament and Judicature. Known as the separation of powers, each of these arms of government has a chapter outlining their function in the Constitution. Among other things, the Parliament creates laws, the Executive Government administers the country using these laws and the Judicature ensures the laws and administration of Government are within the powers outlined in the Constitution. All legislation passed by the Parliament must be written in accordance with the Constitution. In her book Five things to know about the Australian Constitution Constitutional expert Professor Helen Irving states:

A Constitution like Australia’s is a powerful thing. It is the overriding and supreme determinant – the final tie breaker – on questions of law. It shapes the way in which policies are put into effect by government; it determines what sort of laws can be made and, directly and daily, affects the lives of all who live within its reach.

The first, and most fundamental thing one needs to know about the Constitution, is that governments can only do what the Constitution permits. A breach of the Constitution – through an attempt to wield powers that it does not grant or exceeds the limits of those that it does – cannot stand.

Why aren’t Australians proud of our Constitution like they are in the US?

Many would argue that our Constitution is actually better than the US Constitution, yet most Australians don’t even know what’s in it. Shouldn’t all children be taught to take pride in our Constitution, the foundation of it, its story and processes of operation?

Some of the problem here might lie with what happened in 1999. We had a referendum that divided the nation. Hearts were broken and for many the wounds are still raw. Some people can’t feel pride in a Constitution they don’t believe reflects contemporary Australia, while others think the Constitution remains incomplete because Indigenous Australians are not recognised. It can seem like the Constitution is a dusty old anachronistic book that has no relevance today.

But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure there are bits that some experts, politicians and people might like to change. But fundamentally our Constitution and System of Government work very well. And if we do want to change it, for instance to recognise the first Australians, then all Australians need to understand the Constitution better. Every single person in Australia has an equal vote at a referendum and this means every single Australian needs an understanding of our Constitution.

The problem with misinformation

Almost daily, we notice a lot of misinformation about our Constitution in the media and in online message boards. Just last night on the ABC, Clarke and Dawe stated that Plebiscites are:

 A device provided for in the Constitution

However, plebiscites are initiated through legislation and not stipulated in the Constitution. The AEC state:

 A plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution.

Another place we look to for feedback about how Australians feel about certain issues is the r/Australia community message board on the Reddit discussion website. There are regular exchanges about the Constitution. However, very often when someone asks a question, misinformed answers are provided by others on the message board. For instance a question thrown up on this site recently was:

Can the governor general just up and order one [a royal commission into the banks]

And the first answer was:

In theory yes. The governor general doesn't really need the PM’s permission for anything, they have full executive power on a lot of matters.

This is incorrect (click here to read an article we wrote about the G-G’s powers).

We don’t mean to criticise Reddit or its users. We are very impressed that people are asking these questions and want to know more about our Constitution. The problem is they don’t know where to find the answers.

What is CEFA doing to improve Australians knowledge of our Constitution?

We run programs that reach schools, university students, first-time voters and the general public. And very soon we’ll begin implementing our Australian Constitution Centre in Canberra (we’ll have some very exciting announcements about this very soon). This will be a place where all Australians, including children on their Canberra school camp, will be able to visit to gain an understanding of why we have a Constitution, what’s in it and the importance of it.

We want every Australian to understand our Constitution. Please tell you family, friends and work colleagues about our free weekly CCF. Anyone can sign up by registering with us.

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