So back in the day when I was a little law student, I had to take a course in legal history so that we could understand the origins of the legal system we were hoping to work within one day. My memory of that constitutional law class is pretty rusty (I do recall that the hefty textbook made a great monitor stand) but given we are all about to vote in a referendum, I thought it would be a good topic for this month as a bit of a quick refresher for us all.
Why is the Constitution important, what does it actually do?
The Australian Constitution established our national system of government, the federal judicial system, and the scope of their power including the ability to override state-based legislation to the extent that there is any inconsistency. Most countries have some form of a constitution in written form, in the USA it’s called a “Bill of Rights” for example, but there are still a small number of countries that have no single constitutional document and instead rely on various written statutes and common laws that taken together effectively establish their system of government, Canada being one. Our Constitution came into effect on 1 January 1901. Once enacted, the Constitution granted Parliament the power to create and change legislation but as you probably know, there is an exception to every rule, and in this case, the exception is that the Constitution itself cannot be changed by Parliament, it can only be changed through a vote by the majority of Australian citizens.
So why do we need a referendum?
Before the Constitution can be amended, the approval of the people of Australia is required, through what is known as a referendum. Any proposal to initiate changes to the Constitution by Parliament starts as a Bill that goes through various readings before being passed by an absolute majority. The next step is a public referendum where all eligible Australian citizens are required to vote on whether they agree to the proposed changes being made to the Constitution. We will all be undertaking this task in October by voting on whether we agree to “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. In order for any proposed change to be made to the Constitution, there must be approval by the majority of voters nationally, as well as a majority in the majority of the States (at least 4 states).
I cannot get my family of 3 to agree on what to have for dinner so it’s not hard to see why of the 44 proposals to change the Constitution in the past that only 8 were successful. Whatever your view is, this referendum is your chance to have your say by voting “Yes” or “No” to the proposed alteration.