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Beware conservative slogans for Indigenous inclusion


Aboriginal flag jigsaw piece alongside an incomplete Australian flag jigsawThe choice of Adam Goodes and Fred Chaney as Australian and Senior Australian of the Year respectively will help to build much-needed momentum for the campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. They are both committed to the reconciliation movement. But such necessary change must be approached in a way that is open-ended rather than closed.

The Prime Minister has chosen initially to frame the changes as not about changing the Constitution but completing it. He may have done so in the search for an approach which might resonate with Australians who are risk-averse when it comes to constitutional change by referendum.

Tony Abbott's tactic to soothe any concerns that may exist in the electorate looks at face value to be a clever one. He may see it as just playing with words. If 'Completing the Constitution' becomes his campaign slogan it may even be adopted by the Opposition and other advocates of a Yes vote. That would be a mistake.

The idea of a completed Constitution may be attractive but it is a dangerous one for advocates of any future constitutional change. To complete something, according to dictionary definitions, is to end, conclude or finish it. Alternatively something which is complete is perfect, full or entire. Such language is inappropriate when discussing a constitution and reformers should beware of it even if it improves the immediate chances of passing any particular constitutional change.

Reformers always need a good angle and this Abbott angle is quite a good one. But constitutions shouldn't ever be described as complete or incomplete. Rather they evolve just as communities evolve. Constitution-making should be an ongoing process.

Constitutions should be on the table for discussion and not on the mantelpiece for adoration. They are living documents that should reflect community attitudes, rather than relics of a time many years ago. As community attitudes change so it makes sense for constitutions to change. Realistically constitutional change will lag behind social change. But constitutional change should come eventually. Reformers should be upfront about challenging conservative opposition to change and ready to make the arguments for change, as difficult as that might be.

Though the overall success rate is low the conservative parties have a much better record than the Labor Party when it comes to sponsoring constitutional change. This improves the chances of these Indigenous proposals being accepted by the Australian community. Conservative parties are inherently better at reading and reflecting the conservative leanings of the Australian community.

But progressive parties and groups should hold the line on how issues are framed, because their long-term electoral success needs the community to be always open to evolutionary change. The short-term should not be allowed to crowd out the longer-term even for seemingly good reasons.

The Prime Minister may or may not have thought through the wider implications of his choice of words. Give him the benefit of the doubt. If he has not then he should think again. But very few words are uttered in politics these days without being road-tested in focus groups.

If he has thought through his approach then reformers should reject the wider implications of 'completing the Constitution'. It may have a nice ring to it but it incorporates a very conservative message about constitutional change. Future constitutional reform should not be dogged by a reading of history that says that there is no need for further change because the Australian Constitution was completed in 2014/15.

Rather than 'Completing the Constitution' what Australians should be about in this referendum is 'Doing the Right Thing' by putting in place 'A Constitution for a Modern Australia'.

We should be open to changing our constitution just as its drafters were in S. 128. Change is not a dirty word and that should never be inferred just for the sake of a catchy slogan. All reformers should put their heads together to come up with a better one as the Indigenous referendum draws near.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Australian flag jigsaw image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Adam Goodes, Fred Chaney



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Existing comments

Could it be that this Prime Minister - a self-confessed conservative - is consciously (or even unconsciously) promoting this slogan to help sand-bag the constitution against future attempts to replace the monarchy with a republic?

Ginger Meggs | 30 January 2014  

A really helpful piece. Thanks, John. Language matters, not to mention your counsel that the Constitution is a living document.

vivien | 31 January 2014  

Does Mr Warhurst really believe that a politician's catch-phrase is going to somehow remove S128 from the Constitution, rendering it fixed for evermore? And if he believes that "Change is not a dirty word and that should never be inferred just for the sake of a catchy slogan", why did he make such an inference? As for constitutions being "living documents that reflect community attitudes" we have the framers of our constitution to thank for it necessarily reflecting majority community attitudes and not just those of academics.

John Vernau | 31 January 2014  

No, John V, I don't think that anyone believes that 'a politician's catch-phrase' is going to remove the means (i.e. S128) of amending the Constitution, but it could blunt the will of the electorate to consider any further change. One-liners such as Tony (and others) use have proved very effective in the past. And the inevitable need for future change, albeit excruciatingly difficult, is surely what the framers of our constitution, understood when they included S128. So what's with the gripe about 'academics'?

Ginger meggs | 01 February 2014  

Thanks, Mr or Ms meggs, for your comment. Mr Warhurst says that "all reformers should put their heads together to come up with a better[slogan] ... ". From the context it is reasonable to infer that he believes slogans to be influential over the electorate. His suggested 'A Constitution for a Modern Australia' implies that he, an ex-academic, might have a few reformist ideas to hand. As silly as the "Completing the Constitution" is as a slogan, it could hardly have the particular force that Mr Warhurst seems to ascribe to it unless it were somehow able to remove Section 128 from the Constitution, which has been, is and always will be changeable so long as S128 is not removed through that federally democratic process that you describe as "excruciatingly difficult".

John Vernau | 03 February 2014  

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