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Meanwhile in Ireland, citizens take the lead

By David Morris - posted Thursday, 18 July 2013

Are there lessons for Australia here? Well firstly, the lazy argument that we should only consider constitutional change in the good economic times seems to be knocked on the head by the Irish example. Indeed, while Europe is suffering deep recession, Australia has had 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth but has not grappled with any constitutional change.

It is not as if we don't need to update our own constitution, which is even older than the Irish one. Ours was written at a time when we considered ourselves part of the British Empire, defined by our Britishness, loyalty to a distant monarch and of course excluding indigenous and other Australians who did not fit the 1890s concept of who belonged to the citizenry. So our own constitution is full of clauses that make no sense and do need to be updated to reflect modern, independent and inclusive Australia.

In the 1990s we attempted a Constitutional Convention of our own, involving a mix of elected and appointed delegates, who overwhelmingly supported updating our constitution to become a republic. But the Convention came up with a parliamentary-appointment model that did not win majority support at the subsequent referendum (helped by a Prime Minister actively campaigning against it).


Now, in the 21st century, perhaps it is time we looked to ideas such as the Irish Constitutional Convention, for how to involve citizens and politicians in the debate in the right balance. Would a randomly selected group of Australians, given access to the best advice and experts to answer their questions, be able to come up with proposals to update our own constitution to better meet our future needs? It will be interesting to see the final results from the Irish experiment. Maybe we will learn from their mistakes, as well as any successes.

Or perhaps, as suggested by Malcolm Turnbull, we could take the discussion and the deliberation out to the whole population – or at least those interested in taking part – through online discussion forums and plebiscites? Such a process might be more likely to generate the changes that would win majority support at referendum than the old top down approach of the politicians telling us what they want (or don't want).

And what about the Irish President?

Finally, there is one very relevant example from Ireland that has demonstrably worked. When the Irish drew up their constitution, they kept the Westminster system but replaced the British monarch with a President. Elected by the people, but with constitutionally limited powers, the President plays a role as chief spokesperson for Ireland's values and those things that bring its people together. So, although elected, the office of the President is strictly non-political and each recent incumbent has demonstrated the value for Ireland having its own head of state. Mary Robinson led national discussions that helped to grapple with massive social change in Ireland inclusively. Her successor as President, Mary McAleese, hosted former warring parties from Northern Ireland (part of the UK) to the Presidential residence, helping to heal wounds that extended back centuries. She ultimately hosted the British Queen in a historic visit to Ireland.

Ireland's current President carries on the tradition, by helping the Irish people to understand and discuss the economic crisis but in a non-political way. And of course Irish Presidents promote their nation abroad for trade and to build its reputation in the world, all things that an Australian head of state could do. If we had one of our own.

Interestingly, the Irish Constitutional Convention rejected a proposal to reduce the term of a president from seven to five years and to link presidential elections to other elections. It was believed the presidential election has a special quality that requires it to remain separate from elections on issues of the day.


It is perhaps not surprising we hear so little in our (London-focused) media about Ireland. But we should remember as many as one third of our early European settlers were Irish. The Irish have had a not insignificant impact on modern Australia, from the democratic struggles at Eureka to many aspects of our sense of humour and egalitarian ethic.

The Irish don't always get it right, as their recent economic troubles demonstrate, but they are worth a look for how we might approach updating our own constitution to reflect our identity, values and aspirations in the 21st century.

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About the Author

David Morris is Chief Representative of the Pacific Islands Forum and Trade Commissioner in China. He is a former Australian diplomat, senior political adviser, trade and investment official and leader of Australia's bipartisan movement for constitutional reform, the Australian Republican Movement. Twitter @dm_aus

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