Republic cheered in fight for rights

Sydney Morning Herald
21 April, 2008
By Ruth Pollard

AUSTRALIA'S creaky constitutional framework would get a makeover - with a republic, a bill of rights and a preamble in the Constitution recognising indigenous people's custodianship over the land and sea - under proposals adopted at the summit.

The idea of a republic is not new, but the proposal received some of the longest, and heartiest, applause of the final session.

Tackling the often divisive issue in a two-step process, delegates voted overwhelmingly for an initial plebiscite on ending ties with Britain, followed by community consultation and a referendum.

Despite the urgings of the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, for a republic by 2010, the summit agreed to the longer timeframe of 2020.

In his closing address the Prime Minister acknowledged the popularity of the idea.

"The Australian republic seemed to get the thumbs up, unless I misread the mood of the room," Kevin Rudd said.

It is just shy of 10 years since the 1999 republic referendum was defeated, leaving the republican movement and the public generally badly bruised by the process and dissuaded from further action by John Howard, a staunch monarchist.

But things may have changed.

"All of the opinion polls indicate, and have for many years, that there is majority support in Australia for breaking the nexus with the crown," said Chris Sidoti, a delegate who is an international human rights lawyer and former Human Rights Commissioner. "It provides a way of addressing some of the divisions in models that occurred in the late 1990s the tragedy was that the whole republican movement was set back by those divisions."

The Special Minister of State, John Faulkner, put the republic on the agenda at the summit's start, acknowledging governments were reluctant to press for structural change because they so often lost: 36 of 44 referendums for constitutional change have been defeated. He urged delegates to work towards a revitalised democracy.

"Look forward to a nation unafraid to consider substantial change a nation with a constitution that accords full and proper respect to the first Australians, a nation where individual rights are protected, and an Australian republic, a fully independent nation with a head of state of our own."

Australians will be consulted on how best to protect their human rights, with delegates urging the Government to develop a bill or charter of rights.

Delegates called for freedom-of-information laws to be overhauled and for laws that protect press freedom to be strengthened to ensure that neither journalists nor whistleblowers are punished for doing their job.

Governance experts pushed for an overhaul of the system of federalism, proposing a constitutional convention to define roles, responsibilities and structures as well as a national co-operation commission to oversee intergovernmental agreements.

A recommendation from last weekend's 2020 youth summit in Canberra was also adopted: automatic voter enrolment, which some predict will immediately enfranchise up to 1 million people.

Maxine McKew, the parliamentary secretary for early childhood education and child care who co-chaired the "Future of Governance" sessions with the News Limited chairman John Hartigan, said that by 2020 the face of Australia's parliament would have changed completely.

Politicians would be judged on how well they communicated with their constituents and how fully they embraced open governance and the spirit of reformed freedom of information laws.

"[They] will be legislating against the backdrop of a constitution that is regularly reviewed by a constitutional convention and sworn in by an Australian head of state," Ms McKew said.

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