The convention circus


By Julian Sempill

"Our approach is to involve all of the Australian people at the beginning and in the middle and at the end of the process. Our approach includes all Australians ... [T]here cannot be too much democracy.

"The question of whether or not Australia becomes a Republic will have no bearing on our standard of living." —

John Howard, "The Federal Coalition's Position on Constitutional Change".

In February, John Howard did an unusual thing: he kept one of his election promises. In December 1997, a constitutional convention will be held to consider possible changes to the Australian system of government.

In the coming months, this event will generate a flurry of activity as would-be "statesmen" compete to leave their mark on Australia's future.

Amid the excited speculation and shameless self-aggrandisement, it will be important to keep a grip on reality. It will be hard to do because the launching of the constitutional convention seems to promise progressive Australians something they crave: an exercise in true democracy. Let us be wary.

Since the Coalition assumed office it has accelerated the liberalisation of the Australian economy, further reduced the size of the public sector and continued to roll back the welfare state. Australia's more egalitarian institutions and programs are undergoing profound changes, changes which unquestionably benefit a few at the expense of the vast majority.

The government knows this. It carefully manages public debate in order to prevent unwanted outbreaks of democracy. Howard's right-wing populism has been the centrepiece of this strategy, ensuring that anger born of social upheaval is directed away from business and towards the new official enemies: self-appointed cultural elites, black-arm-band historians, Aborigines, Asians, dole-bludgers, and so on. The idea is to distract the citizenry from the destruction of their hard-won, concrete entitlements.

In this context, a promise of democracy via a "people's convention" must be viewed with scepticism. It is likely to be used as yet another means to deflect attention from the government's assault.

Consider what we can expect. The government and assorted convention enthusiasts will hail Australia's independence, freedom, tolerance and egalitarianism. From them, this is hypocritical bilge: they hate the masses' freedoms, they are not tolerant and they love inequality.

The emphasis on independence for Australia will come at a time when extensive liberalisation of the economy has diminished the sovereignty of the Australian polity.

The emphasis on freedom will come at a time when a range of strategies, from the "law and order" push to the new Workplace Relations Act, seek to further discipline and control the populace. The emphasis on tolerance will come at a time when the government is openly promoting racism. And the emphasis on egalitarianism will come at a time when social chasms are expanding at an increasingly rapid rate. Talk about propaganda!

Debate at the convention will revolve around formal constitutional provisions and entitlements. At a time when living and working conditions are under unrelenting attack, the government is inviting us to discuss, amongst other things, whether an Australian or a Briton should be head of state.

Many interesting proposals may emerge from this discussion. However, it is unlikely that meaningful ideas such as the right to a job, or to a guaranteed decent standard of living will gain much currency.

The government will be delighted if progressives devote their energies to the convention circus.