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Guest blog by Steven Carritt

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Gateway’s CEO, Paul Thomas, is currently on annual leave. In his absence, this week’s guest blogger is Steven Carritt. Steven is a director of Gateway Credit Union and is currently the Convenor of the Risk Committee. He is also a past Chairman and Deputy Chairman and passionately believes in the mutual banking sector and the role it plays in the Australian banking system. Steven was a career banker who notched up a track record of success in every senior leadership position he occupied. 

A new democracy

I have recently been reflecting on the way the political process in Australia operates. By that, I mean mostly what we have seen over the last 10 years. Though it could be that there have been other similarly turbulent periods during the 116 years since Federation, which marked the creation of what we now know as the country Australia. But it is hard to look back at the last 10 years or so without acknowledging there seems to have been a fundamental change in the way that politics now operates. And it doesn’t seem to have served us well.

Of course, there have been many reasons put forward as to why this has happened including the 24-hour media cycle, 3-word slogans as a substitute for detailed policy, the rise of social media, the emergence of micro parties and preference farming in the Senate and the politics of “no”. Some of my favourite reasons include the rise of the opinion poll and the short length of our election cycle.

Perhaps the current debate over energy policy is a prime example of an issue that encompasses so many of the things that are wrong with how politics is now done. But there are many others. So, how are we going to find our way through some of the seemingly intractable issues that Australia is facing? Is the way we do parliamentary democracy in Australia broken? And if it is, could we ever change it?

As I mentioned earlier, the Australian Constitution has been with us for just over 100 years. Prior to that “Australia” consisted of 6 separate British self-governing colonies; being Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Perhaps what is less well known is that Fiji and New Zealand were part of the push for a federation in the Australasian region. But the journey from self-governing colonies to the passing of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) on 5 July 1900 was not a short one. It was 1867 when Sir Henry Parkes first proposed a Federal Council body, although it took until the early 1890s before the momentum really got going. It culminated in the proclamation of the Act on 1 January 1901.

While the founding fathers of our Constitution were undoubtedly wise and went through a long and very considered process, the key question for me is whether the current bicameral Parliamentary model remains an appropriate one for our times. For instance, should we have an ability to co-opt or appoint non-politicians to serve for relatively short periods to solve seemingly intractable issues. We currently have bodies like the Productivity Commission and Royal Commissions who do detailed work. But too often the recommendations sit in reports on politicians’ desks gathering dust. Or the reports are cherry-picked to suit the ideology of the current incumbent party.

The recent discovery by (at least) 7 of our parliamentarians that they may be ineligible to sit in parliament due to issues around nationality, demonstrates that there are some parts of the Constitution that have not kept pace with other social changes. This issue may be interpreted as minor in the scheme of areas where the Constitution could or should be changed. But it still points to the need for some sort of review of at least some elements of the Constitution. But my preference would be for a substantive review.

Changing our Constitution is hard work – it can only be done by referendum. We have had 44 referendums (and only 19 times at the polls) since Federation, with only 8 being successful. To pass, a referendum must achieve a double majority; a majority vote across Australia plus separate majorities in a majority of the States. So, a major rewrite would be very hard. History has shown that a successful referendum requires 3 things. Bipartisan support by the major political parties, popular ownership by the people (that is, an issue that is not just owned by either the politicians or the elite), and a popular and robust education campaign that is presented in a clear and non-adversarial manner.

And that leaves me wondering whether significant change at the Constitutional level would ever be possible. Perhaps it would take longer to change than it took to get written. But there are groups who hold on to the hope of change in the way we do democracy. One such group is newDemocracy. It is an independent, non-partisan research and development organisation and I think some of the different decision models that have been put forward by that group are worthy of thought.



Steven Carritt



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