Improving constitutional awareness


In his Australia Day address last month the Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, lamented the poor level of knowledge of the Australian Constitution among the community, and particularly among younger Australians. In doing so he hit on one of the rare issues on which monarchists and republicans actually agree.

The GG’s comments came in the wake of polling suggesting a fall in support for an Australian republic, and an increase in ‘uncommitted’ voters on this issue: people who don’t know or don’t care whether Australia becomes a republic. Among the smaller type of this latest Newspoll was a lower level of support among young people, many of whom were still in school at the time of the 1999 referendum and are therefore largely unfamiliar with the main arguments for and against the move to an Australian republic.

Australian Republican Movement

Australian Republican Movement

Republicans have more at stake than most when it comes to constitutional education and awareness: most analyses suggest that the poor level of constitutional knowledge was a major factor in the 1999 republican referendum’s failure. It certainly contributed to the effectiveness of the monarchists’ cynical slogan, ‘If you don’t know, vote No’.

Last year’s Senate Inquiry into an Australian Republic examined the issue of Australia’s constitutional awareness and education, and found that there was a ‘general lack of understanding in the Australian community of the Australian Constitution and system of government.’ The Committee noted in its report, The Road to a Republic , that all sides of the republican debate had stressed the importance of constitutional education and awareness and concluded that it was ‘the key to effective participation in any proposed constitutional reform, including reforms leading towards an Australian republic.’

These concerns have been further reinforced by the Youth Electoral Study, recently undertaken by three Australian academics on behalf of the Australian Electoral Commission. Prompted by the fact that only 82 per cent of young Australians 17-25 years of age were enrolled to vote at the time of the 2004 federal election last October – compared to 95 per cent of older Australians – the report sought to establish why so many young people were disengaged from the political system.

The researchers found that only half of the young people they interviewed would vote if it was not compulsory, and among the reasons given by respondents for not voting was lack of knowledge. Only half felt that they knew enough about the political issues, the voting system and the political parties to vote. These results are a little surprising given the improved civics education introduced into Australian schools over the last decade through the Discovering Democracy program.

Clearly more needs to be done.

In the 1990s the Constitutional Centenary Foundation (CCF) did a fine job preparing and disseminating materials to schools and community groups regarding the operation of Australia’s constitutional system. Established in 1991, the CCF was an independent and non-partisan body, supported and funded by all Australian governments, which promoted public discussion, understanding and review of the Australian constitutional system. The CCF provided impartial materials prior to the 1999 republican referendum and coordinated Constitutional Convention programs through schools and local councils. Unfortunately, funding for the CCF ran out with Australia’s Centenary of Federation in 2001, and little has emerged in its place.

The Australian Government granted rare tax deductibility status to the Constitutional Education Fund of Australia (CEF-A) in 2003. According to its website, CEF-A ‘has been established to help all Australians gain a better understanding of the Australian Constitution and the Constitutions of the States of Australia.’ The Governor-General is the Patron-in-Chief of CEF-A, which financially supports an annual Governor-General’s prize for undergraduate students. CEF-A shares its Executive Director, Kerry Jones, with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), and is run from the ACM’s Sydney office. The ACM regularly appeals to its members to contribute to CEF-A. Despite the inclusion of several republican academics on its advisory board, the Australian Republican Movement and its members have not been approached to be involved in their program or activities.

While the ARM welcomes all initiatives to improve Australians’ constitutional awareness, we are sceptical that CEF-A – with its links to an organisation dedicated to the preservation of Australia’s constitutional monarchy – can possibly do this in an impartial manner. We also question whether CEF-A is an appropriately independent organisation for the GG – who stated in his Australia Day address that he was ‘not advocating changes to our existing system of government, nor…supporting the status quo’ – to be involved with.

Among its extensive recommendations in The Road to a Republic, the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee last year proposed that a fully resourced parliamentary committee be established to facilitate and oversee ongoing education and awareness programs to improve Australians’ awareness and understanding of the Constitution and our system of government. The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness would also be responsible for the preparation and dissemination to voters of independent information, rather than partisan arguments for the Yes and No cases, in the lead-up to any future republican referendum.

Whether Australia moves to a republic or not, efforts to encourage a significant improvement in Australians’ knowledge of their constitution is warranted. A new and impartial Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness would be a great start.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.