Opinion Piece - Let's develop pride in our Constitution

Around 4 million Australians tuned into the television coverage of the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last Saturday night. It seems 21 million other Aussies had something better to do.

And yet the Monarchists argue that the Royal wedding highlights a growing level of local interest in the family firm with a monopoly on providing our Head of State.

The reality is different.

A recent survey found that most Australians are almost evenly divided in the belief that either the Prime Minister, Governor-General or Queen of the United Kingdom is our Head of State.

Of those who think they do know, 30 per cent say the Governor-General is our Head of State, while 24 per cent say it’s the Prime Minister. Only 12 per cent of Australians admit that they don’t know.

This compares with just the 34 per cent who correctly identified the Queen of the United Kingdom – Elizabeth II – as Australia’s current Head of State.

The Queen’s royal style and title in Australia is – ‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth’.

She is a citizen of another nation; she does not live here and never has. She is not one of us.

We are one of the few nations in the world where the majority of citizens don’t know who the figure head of the nation is. This is not something to be proud of. We have something better to do.

Our Head of State should be an Australian.

Our Head of State should be a person that we all know.

Australia’s Head of State should be a person that represents Australians above all other nations - someone we can all be proud of and our kids can aspire to be one day.

There are many reasons for our nation’s Head of State dilemma.

The document that establishes who our Head of State is, the Constitution, is irrelevant to most of us. It’s an outdated document that reads like an 18th English Royal Charter. It has not been updated since 1977.

Our founding document does not even mention that we have the oldest continuing culture in the world and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have nurtured this land for tens of thousands of years.

The very first few paragraphs establish the Queen of the United Kingdom as our Head of State and us as her possessions. As it goes on it gets worse.

The drafters of our Constitution believed we would be courageous and wise enough to update the document as our country grew and developed and they even established a mechanism for us to achieve this in section 128.

But they made it difficult to ensure that Australians understood the nature of reform and what was involved.

The period of time between the last referendum and today is the longest Australia has gone without the Australian people being consulted about updating our Constitution – it’s time for this to change.

The representatives of the people in the Parliament must provide more leadership on discussing our Constitution with Australians and what we need to work on changing to advance our nation.

The last time we had a serious discussion about the Constitution was in 1999. Since that time a new generation of Australians have matured to voting age. These young people would not recall the intense discussion and debate of the ’99 republic referendum. Some of them were not even born. Consequently they have little understanding of who our Head of State is and the important role they perform.

This is reflected in the recent survey results with knowledge of who our head of state is increasing with age.

What should we do about our lack of knowledge of our Constitution and our figurehead?

There is a distinct lack of leadership from the Prime Minister and his government about Constitutional education and reform. The 1999 republic referendum has left Malcolm Turnbull permanently scarred and he is no longer willing to fight for his once strongly held belief- a modern Constitution with an Australian Head of State.

Whether it’s Indigenous recognition or an Australian republic, the Prime Minister prefers excuses for inaction rather than conviction and inspiration.

Bill Shorten is leading where Turnbull will not, pledging to educate and consult the Australian people about Constitutional reform and developing a plan for a national vote on an Australian Head of State during the first term of a Shorten Labor government. Labor has also developed a plan to recognise the important contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Trait Islanders to our nation.

Leadership is the key to success in modernising our Constitution but it must be coupled with education people about the current system and the benefits of change.

To achieve this, Commonwealth and state and territory governments should develop and implement a national civics education program to enhance the engagement of the Australian public in democratic processes and to improve knowledge and understanding of the Australian Constitution. The public will not vote for a change they don’t understand. The many referendum failures prove this.

With inspirational leadership and education we can work together to reform our Constitution and develop the confidence to select an Australian to be our Head of State - someone we all love, respect and know.

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