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Does SA have the constitution to improve its democracy?

South Australia’s founding Constitution was updated by parliament ahead of the 1936 centenary. In the final of a series of articles on improving our democracy, Alan Reid says the approaching 2036 bicentenary is the chance for another reset.

Photo: InDaily

Photo: InDaily

A bicentennial democracy project would result in a number of benefits for South Australia.

A general outcome could be that the process itself might generate greater community understanding of, and commitment to, democracy; and greater trust in our democratic institutions.

But there could also be more tangible outcomes between now and 2036, and in the bicentennial year itself.

Democratic developments between 2023-2036

It will be important to recognise that outcomes from a bicentennial democracy project would not have to wait until 2036. The project could be used to scrutinize, consolidate or modify current policies, structures, and practices between now and 2036, and so allow for change along the way.

There are many possibilities for focus in any of the four broad areas of investigation suggested in the third article. As an example, let’s take one of them – the area of citizenship participation – and assume that one of its sub-themes is youth participation. The process for this area of focus might begin with a Youth Assembly where young people identify issues and obstacles to their engagement in civic and political life, and then plan how these might be investigated over the next few years.

As ideas are generated and tested, those that are broadly supported could be consolidated by the coordinating committee for the project, and then forwarded for consideration to the Committee of Parliament with oversight of the project and, if supported, to Government.

For example, and continuing the youth participation theme, Parliament might review the electoral laws with a view to changing the voting age; and/or education agencies might be asked to consider proposals to better incorporate an education for active citizenship in the Australian school curriculum, and enhance associated teaching practices. The point is that none of these changes need wait until 2036.

Youth engagement is just one segment of the area of citizenship participation. There are a myriad of other possibilities, such as a sub-theme involving discussion about how social media can be used to enable rather than work against a civil and respectful discourse about public issues; or a sub-theme exploring the idea of citizens’ assemblies and their relationship with Parliament.

The point is that within each of the broad areas of investigation there is an almost limitless number of questions and considerations. Out of each of them could emerge ideas and experiments comprising a carefully managed program of ongoing democratic renewal and innovation.

The key thing would be to ensure that any changes are consistent with the agreed purposes, principles and values set out in the framework for democracy guiding the whole project.

A new State Constitution and other resources?

Apart from ongoing work over the next decade, the project could also culminate in some important democratic documents released during the bicentennial year, such as a new South Australian Constitution.

South Australia’s first constitution was assented to by Queen Victoria in 1856 just twenty years after the colony began. It established the basic formal structure of our political system with a bicameral Parliament – the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council – along with such matters as the size and relative powers of each chamber, who had the right to vote, the frequency of elections, presiding officers, and key rules governing the processes of Parliament.

Over the next 77 years, the 1856 Constitution was amended a number of times to allow for changing circumstances or ideas. Then in 1934, the SA Parliament decided to develop a new Constitution which consolidated the amendments, and clarified other sections. The 1934 Constitution retained the same basic structure as the 1856 Constitution.

At the time of the bicentenary in 2036, it will be over 100 years since our second and current Constitution Act was passed. That is, our current Constitution was largely shaped in the nineteenth century. Why not develop a new Constitution over the next decade, and unveil it as a key aspect of the bicentenary as the State moves into its third century?

If that was to be done, it would be important to go beyond a simple consolidation of the numerous amendments that have been made to the 1934 South Australian Constitution. Although the Constitution can only be changed by a majority of both Houses of the SA Parliament, there is no reason why citizens should not be involved in the process of suggesting and deliberating about some of the key changes required.

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The Bicentennial Project suggested in this series of articles provides the ideal mechanism to enable citizen involvement in constitutional change. Thus, the coordinating committee for the project might aggregate the many ideas that emerge from an ongoing investigation into various aspects of democracy including its institutions, citizen participation, accountability and rights and freedoms.

These ideas could form the basis of further consultation with citizens and constitutional experts, leading to a full report to Parliament. Of course, Parliament would make the final decision about the content and shape of the final document, as required by the current Constitution.

A process which engages citizens with constitutional change at the level of agenda setting and deliberation, rather than simply voting on outcomes decided by politicians, would be groundbreaking. It responds to a key challenge for representative democracy today, which is how to connect citizens’ voices in the public sphere to the institutions of representative democracy.

After all, if in a democracy power ultimately rests with the people, it is hard to understand why citizens should not play a key role in establishing the rules for the representative institutions that will govern them.

Our current Constitution was largely shaped in the nineteenth century. Why not develop a new Constitution over the next decade, and unveil it as a key aspect of the bicentenary as the State moves into its third century?

The passing of a new South Australian Constitution Act could become one of the key events in the bicentennial celebrations in 2036. Not only would it provide the structure for our democracy into the rest of the century, it would be a document that is genuinely owned by the South Australian people.

A bicentennial project could also contribute to bringing together and showcasing many of the State’s most precious historical resources to tell the South Australian story. For example, the mooted Adelaide Museum of South Australia’s History (AMoSAH) would be a wonderful community resource from which to describe South Australia’s role in pioneering aspects of democracy, such as how women, First Peoples and migrants fought for political rights and contributed to the process of democratic change.

More than that, AMoSAH could also be one of the venues where citizens work together to consider approaches to refreshing our democracy. What better way could there be to involve the community than by connecting the State’s past to fresh imaginings about its democratic present and future?

Conclusion

A Bicentennial Project to renew our democracy could return South Australia to the position it once held as a leader in democratic practice. This could have a number of important social, economic and cultural consequences.

At the local level, it would enrich democratic life in South Australia by improving our institutions and increasing the engagement of citizens in civil society and political life. The end result would be better decision-making about matters that affect the lives of all South Australians.

At the national level, South Australia would be recognised as an innovation hub for democracy, attracting attention from other states and territories interested in new strategies and approaches in action. It could also be an impetus for much needed democratic reform as regards to our model of federalism and as regards to national government.

Importantly, South Australia would also be an example to democracies across the world about what can be achieved through considered and extensive community participation in democratic life. The flow-on effects to other polities could help to arrest the much-documented growth in authoritarian populism and the associated decline in democracies around the world.

Given what is at stake, why shouldn’t South Australia take the lead in showing the rest of the world how democracy can be both protected and promoted?

Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion, University of South Australia, and a member of the Board of the History Trust of South Australia

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