The Republic and the Preamble - those are the big constitutional issues for 1999. Undoubtedly they are important symbolic issues, but what will be the effect of these constitutional changes for Australians? Very little.
One issue that could make a very big difference is the introduction of a Bill of Rights.
Presently the Australian Constitution provides few express guarantees of individual rights. They are limited to:
- s.51(xxxi) which provides that the acquisition of property must be on just terms
- s.80 which provides that any trial on indictment must be heard by a jury
- s.92 which provides for free trade among the States
- s.116 which provides for freedom of religion
- s.117 which provides for the non-discrimination of people due to the residency of a particular State.
True, there are many implicit guarantees that have been found by the High Court but this presents its own complications.
We need a Bill of Rights not because we lack basic civil and political rights but because our present system is inadequate to protect those rights.
Australia – A Democracy
Those against a constitutionally enshrined Bill of Rights point to Australia’s history as a well renowned democracy. This is true, but what about liberty? There is a fundamental and important difference between democracy and liberty.
Democracy operates on the basis that a democratically elected majority has the power to govern as they see fit. Liberty on the other hand operates on the basis that even the power of a democratic majority must be limited to ensure individual rights are protected.
We have seen decisions by democratically elected governments of all political persuasions denying fundamental rights.
Take for example the democratically elected Bjelke-Petersen Government legislating to stop people from marching in the streets. Or the democratically elected Keating Government legislating to prohibit the broadcasting of political advertisements on TV or radio during election campaigns?
In both instances these governments completely disregarded the concept of freedom of speech.
Do we want to live in a society where our fundamental rights as human beings can be discarded or changed by a simple Act of Parliament?
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