If constitutions had emotions, ours could be forgiven for feeling just a little frustrated. What exactly is it expected to do to get a decent press? Across the world, constitutions go down like South American currencies, producing mayhem and revolution, yet no one lifts an eyebrow.
The Australian Constitution, on the other hand, has produced a century of outstanding stable democracy and it is one of the beige wonders of the governmental world. In terms of outcomes, it has outlasted Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Depression, the Cold War and world communism to produce one of the oldest continuous constitutional democracies. Yet it has scarcely a friend.
For all its drab Victorian draperies, the Australian Constitution is the only true people's constitution of the AngloSaxon world. What other constitution was drafted by delegates elected for the purpose, adopted by popular vote and remains amendable only by referendum? Certainly not the constitutional documents of Britain, the US, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand.
Yet at almost any given point in its history, the demolition of the Constitution has been the chosen work of a significant portion of Australia's political elites. Historically, it has been the Australian Left that has reviled the Constitution. Most recently, the Left has found deeply trying the Constitution's dogged refusal to invest unelected judges with absolute power over human rights and it has hurled its anathemas accordingly.
But, long before this, Labor and its allies loathed the Constitution on a quite different score. They longed to dismantle its clanking federalism and replace it with an efficient centralising apparatus that would usher in all forms of marvels, from wage control to price fixing. From Billy Hughes to Gough Whitlam, Labor did battle with Australian constitutional federalism. Casualties were heavy on both sides but, if Labor gave the states as good as they got, it never quite managed to get the states.
Throughout these battles and making due allowance for opportunism and Canberran hubris the Australian political Right stood with the Constitution and its inherent federalism. It did so not only out of a desire to frustrate Labor's agenda for social and economic control but also from a deep if vague understanding of the link between federalism on the one hand, and notions such as liberalism, conservatism and even democracy on the other.
Liberals such as Robert Menzies, harking back to the great constitutional founders such as Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton, comprehended that federalism was not just a regrettable historical reality of Australian government. Quite beyond that, it was an organising principle of government designed to protect just those qualities of freedom, balance, community and difference dear to liberals and conservatives.
To take two of the most obvious illustrations, federalism first promotes freedom by balancing the powers of two spheres of government, one against the other, so ensuring that in Australia there is, by definition, no totality of power. Moreover, the existence of these two spheres guarantees competing public dialogues of power, ensuring that few policy balls go through to the keeper unremarked in Australia.
Consequently, from education and health to industrial relations and the environment, there is no sphere of government in Australia that is all-powerful and none whose proposals cannot be subjected to an organised critique from a fellow government.
Second, federalism ensures (or aims to ensure) that the policy issues closest to regional communities are determined substantially by those communities by committing those issues to local state governments, not the remote bureaucracy of Canberra. In so doing, it not only magnifies local democracy but also promotes decisions practically adapted to local conditions and difference.
Balanced power, contained government, local control of local affairs and respect of regional difference: there hardly could be a governmental creed more palatable to conservative tastes. Yet today all this goes to underline just how truly remarkable it is that the Howard Government is spitting out Australian federalism like so much constitutional gristle.
In its casual abandonment of its federalist conservative heritage, the administration of John Howard appears to have embarked on the greatest centralisation of power in Australia since World War II. Then, at least, inroads on Australia's federal character could be justified as a response to the demands of total war.