Australia: Can we avoid a future that is truly frightening?
Yes, if we begin building a new Constitution now - one in which we are political equals and can cooperate in charting the safest path to the future of wellbeing and security we all want.
The last few months, culminating in the announcement about the AUKUS agreement and the release of the 2023 IPCC Synthesis Report, have probably crystallised for many Australians a realisation that they are headed towards a future that is truly frightening.Australia along with the rest of the world is facing the prospect of self-harm or even self-annihilation, although the IPCC is of the view that it is not too late to avert the worst of climate change and any sensible person could see that it is certainly not too late to avert a nuclear war.
But how did it come to this? How did we get into this mess in the first place? There are millions of reasons of course, billions of paths that nations have trod that led us here, especially colonial and industrial nations. But Australia’s path to this moment has been locked in by our addiction to a sclerotic political system that is driven by a moribund, inherently discriminatory and fundamentally racist Constitution – a Constitution which does not state the sort of country and society we want to live in, the values we wish to share, the rights we are entitled to as political equals, and the government’s obligations to those who elect them.
Australia has a Constitution which provides no voice for the electors. We have no right to have a voice on whether we go to war. No right to set our own preferred future. No right to be listened to when we say we want something done on climate change – or anything else for that matter. The only thing we have is a Constitution that excludes the people from a reasonable share of power in their own democracy and therefore from a reasonable chance of some control over their future.
This powerlessness is something we have done to ourselves through the structure of our polity. We have not done it deliberately of course, but nevertheless we have been steadily consigning ourselves to a fateful future that in all sanity we would not wish to visit on ourselves or our children – ever. This potential fate to which we are now too close for comfort has crept up on Australians like the heat that might creep up on a frog in a very slowly warmed pot – were the frog not to have the sense to jump out. And the path towards this fate, at least in regard to planetary heating, has been steady not because Australians failed to understand the need to do something about it (on the contrary) but because they failed to persuade politicians of the need to do something about it.
It is a matter of record in Lowy Institute polls that in the 16 years between 2006 and 2022 the proportion of Australians who wanted the government to do something to prevent climate change never dropped below 80%. As early as 2006, over 90% wanted the issue to be addressed, with approximately 70% of that group wanting something done immediately “even if this involves significant costs”. So while the people of Australia at the start of the 21st century had the foresight to see that it would be in their interest to begin taking steps to stop climate change sooner rather than later “even if this involves significant costs”, or at least consider taking steps “that are low in cost”, successive federal governments failed to establish a plan to prevent or mitigate climate change and conservative governments in particular used any argument they could, no matter how unfounded, to kill off every chance of the Australian people to rise to the challenge of climate change and protect their economic interests and their children’s future. In the last year both major political parties – Labor and Liberal/National – have also done their best to kill off Australia’s independence in sovereignty and our safety from war.
However, this is not to imply that it will be helpful at this time to heap blame on the major parties and to engage in politician bashing (however much some might deserve it). Reacting to the perfidy of their policies that have driven us towards destruction is necessary, of course. But time also needs to be spent urgently on re-thinking the system which has bogged down both politicians and the people of Australia themselves – the system which the powerful have been so easily able to use (and misuse) to create the mess.
The system which has created the mess is the exclusive system of governance embedded in our Constitution. We call it democracy but it is a poor shadow of the idea. Australia’s governance system as it is encoded in the Constitution is nothing more than a system in which the electors are forced to cede all power and control over their lives and futures to the governments they elect. This might seem sensible for the sake of order were it not for the fact that the governments we elect have no reciprocal obligation to us. There is nothing in the Constitution which states that those empowered by it are responsible to the people. They may as well not exist after they have voted. Instead we have a system which locks power in for the tiny few who can hold it at elections and this completely stymies the powerless in their ability to develop a vision for the sort of nation they want to build over the longer term – a nation in which they are political equals and can cooperate in charting the safest path to the future of wellbeing and security they all want.
We have stumbled along for just over 120 years with a Constitution that provides no guidance as to the purpose of the nation and the destiny we wish to share. And unless Australians look beyond the limits of that system, history would strongly suggest that they are likely to be repeatedly drawn back into the vortex of the adversarial and short-term arrangement of politics and elections that ensures power is held totally by a tiny few, excludes the vast majority of Australians, and drives the nation in destructive directions.
On the face of it the current government recognises that this is unworkable. The nation's Treasurer Jim Chalmers recognises that if we are to achieve an acceptable level of wellbeing for all, then an inclusive democracy is essential. “It’s time for democrats to understand that economic inclusion is fundamental to the health of democracies and the safety of nations”, he said in his recent essay, Capitalism After the Crises.
Chalmers wants conversations with the Australian people, particularly on the economy and taxation. But unless we can upgrade our political system to enable more Australians to have a voice beyond a vote and to speak in a coherent fashion about what they want in the future then they will have as little power of persuasion as they have had throughout the 21st century and, accordingly, little if any chance of evading the ghastly future that is now so uncomfortably imminent.
Alongside all the activism and protest that must be organised to help us avert that fate, another more transformative process needs to be organised. This process is one by which we might create a far more productive relationship with politicians – one which compels them to listen respectfully to those who elect them. That can’t be done with the current Constitution. It can only be done if Australians accord themselves a right to express their sovereign will for the future of the nation and to express that in a manner that is coherent enough for politicians to understand when they take their oaths of office.
Put simply, Australians need to organise themselves to be persuasive before it is too late, to think well ahead of their politicians about where they want to go as a nation and lift the sights of those they elect towards that destination. To do this they will need to start again with a constitution that gives them a rightful share of power – because at the moment they have none and this is the cause of the mess. Australians need a people’s constitution. It may take a decade (which is a shame because we really don’t have the luxury of that time) but if we wish to avert the worst of climate change and geopolitical tension then the quickest path through to safety is to build a new governance system of political equality and inclusion. That can be done with a people’s constitution. Find out how at Australian Community Futures Planning.
Bronwyn Kelly’s essay in reply to Jim Chalmers can be accessed here.
Find her new book The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy at https://www.austcfp.com.au/publications