Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


19th National Schools Constitutional Convention; Tabling

5:05 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

the Australian Constitution. I note a friend and fellow scholar in these matters, Senator Dean Smith, from WA. I welcome the fact that we have provided an arena for young people—and senior students particularly—to explore constitutional issues, encourage debate and increase student awareness of constitutional matters. This year, the communique states that students were discussing whether water and health should come under Commonwealth jurisdiction in our Constitution. While our federation has expanded—and I do welcome WA—since the founding document was agreed to, one thing we can be sure of is that our Constitution still ensures that the people of Australia are sovereign in the conduct of our affairs.

The first national convention that tried to get a constitution up and going failed dismally—because state parliaments sent their chosen few to discuss whether a constitution was agreed to or not. It was when the people decided who was going to speak for them that our Constitution was agreed. The chosen delegates came together and constructed the document after undertaking consultation right around the nation in the latter part of the 19th century. There was a third constitutional convention under Whitlam in 1973. Again that did not include the people, again delegates were chosen by the federal and state parliaments and again it was a failed project. The take-home message for us is: include the people of Australia in such discussions. They are sovereign and they like to be involved in any discussions about the Constitution.

The states are uniquely represented and reflected in this place. I think that the unique thing about our Constitution is that our states, on forming a federation, continued to have their own relationship with the Crown. That was very different from other approaches developed over time. As a result of external pressures—the Great Depression, the world wars—the Commonwealth's role has become more pervasive over time. I think that has been to our detriment, particularly so in the case of the taxation power given to the Commonwealth. That has allowed the Commonwealth to dominate Commonwealth-state relations through the grants system.

Our Constitution is difficult to change, and so it should be. The young people at the convention went through a mock process over a couple of days. They covered how to conduct a referendum: construct a question, debate it and then take it through the voting process. Their two questions were whether to give the Commonwealth jurisdiction over water and over health in the Constitution.

I note that previous conventions with young people over the last three years have looked at how to increase Commonwealth power. Previous topics included whether we should be a republic and whether federalism was a dead construct. These are the sorts of things we are getting our senior students to discuss instead of getting them to look at how the Constitution enshrines their sovereignty and disaggregates power—and the effect of that on their lives. But I was delighted that young people were interested enough to come up to Canberra and participate in the debate. I think we could do a lot more of that in our schools.

I wanted to let the Senate know the outcome from the 117 formal votes that were lodged. As an aside, after three days of discussing and debating how to conduct a referendum, I think the fact that there was one informal vote from that highly educated population was probably a result of someone exercising their freedom as a citizen rather than as a result of a lack of education about the voting process. That said, the vote to have the Commonwealth take over health was defeated. Young people of Australia voted no quite resoundingly. The only anomaly was my home state of Victoria, so I have some work to do with those who voted yes. I think, though, that that outcome might be because the GST carve-up is making it particularly difficult in Victoria for the state government. The way we spend our money locally is under increasing pressure because of the changes in the GST distribution.

The second vote was over the Murray-Darling Basin system—whether water should come under Commonwealth jurisdiction. After a lot of debate—and the communique goes into the detail—young people decided to say yes. They thought that was a good thing because rivers cross state boundaries. I note, however, that the only state to vote no—and the only state which usually votes no to any constitutional change—was WA. I note that New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory are all impacted by the Murray-Darling Basin system, both economically and socially. For WA, there is not a lot of impact, yet they were not prepared to cede that power to the Commonwealth. I find that fascinating.

I am delighted that young people from around Australia came together to debate our founding document. I am pleased to see that our young people—and you can see this from the communique—appreciate the importance and the value of localised decision making. They appreciate that states are an important facet of our federation and that they need to be retained. That these young people could see the value in that is, I think, great news for the Senate.

Question agreed to.


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