South Australian Constitutional Convention - personal report.
image taken from the IDA website. I am the bald, bearded figure in background - JM
I am the bald, bearded figure in background - JM
Image taken from the IDA website.

Personal Account of the South Australian Constitutional Convention.

"...democracy is the 'worst' form of Government except all those others that have been tried..." - Winston Churchill

Peter Lewis, Speaker of the South Australian House of Assembly (SA's Lower House of Parliament) from 2002-2005 decided on the night of the 2002, otherwise hung, election, that Labor would form government. This surprised everyone, particularly most of his rural electorate's constituents, for Lewis was a resigned Liberal member reelected as an independent. He'd formulated an agenda document which he made both parties sign before he'd declare his choice. Part of this agenda was a review of the South Australian Constitution in a constitutional convention. This freak political circumstance gave South Australia a rare opportunity, to debate the form our government should take.

Lewis said that he wanted to enhance our democracy, and placed Citizen Initiated Referenda on the convention agenda, where if sufficient citizens sign a petition this initiates a referendum on the issue. A democracy, rule by the people, means the people make the rules so vote directly on laws; in an oligarchy, rule by a few, a few vote directly on laws. We say Australia is a democracy; but in my view parliamentary government is an elected oligarchy. True democracy being unmanageable (see the film - "The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer") and oligarchy innately corruptible, our current system borrows from each; an elected oligarchy with democratic features, people vote on candidates; not laws; but there are occasional referenda and the Australian Constitution was established by plebiscite.

Other topics on the Convention agenda were

  1. Measures to improve parliament and government (Ombudsman, courts, codes of conduct, parliamentary sitting days, FOI etc)
  2. Size Structure and Role of the Upper House (term length, whether it should be abolished, rights to block supply etc).
  3. Size Structure and Role of the Lower House (multi-member electorates, an independent speaker etc)
  4. Representation and the South Australian Electoral System (optional preferential voting, reserved seats for certain minorities, voluntary voting etc.)

I became a convention delegate in what was called a "representative sample chosen at random"; in practice it wasn't random, but the product of a series of filters. 1201 South Australian numbers were telephoned by a polling company hired by the conventions organizers, IDA Issues Deliberation Australia (1st filter excluded those without telephones or with silent numbers) and each person answering was subjected to a questionnaire (2nd filter excluded those not answering survey questions) and upon completion was asked whether they wished to attend a constitutional convention (3rd filter excluded those who didn't complete the forwarded forms and return them in time) and the 809 left somehow became 332 (4th filter, internal filtering by the polling agency or IDA). This was more representative than that of the Federal Convention; but the process underrepresented some groups: the homeless and incarcerated, the very rich (silent numbers), the short tempered (2nd filter), illiterates (3rd filter), the depressed and unselfconfident (not risking exposure in debate) and aborigines. There was only one distinctly aboriginal delegate (from about 2% of the SA population so random selection would have yielded 6) and she pointedly left the parliamentary chamber during debate of reserved seats for minorities.

At dinner on Friday August 8th 2003, delegates were allotted groups, given badges, biros, some literature and a calico shoulder-bag with "I deliberated" written on it and next morning showed up to spend a weekend in the olde worlde luxury of SA's Parliament House to debate issues. Groups of 15 were spread around, my group occupied the billiards room. The winner's boards on the walls listed annual billiards and snooker winners up to the 70's but only occasional winners since. The last listed winner, Dean Brown, was deposed as premier by backroom plotting. Does this signify politicians have become bad sports, or was he allowed to win because he was leader? We got to know our group members quite well and debate heated up as the weekend progressed, the group's loud-mouths (self included) were progressively checked by others' contributions, our IDA appointed facilitator just introduced the agenda without (thankfully) resorting to any artifice in regulating discussion, all got a say and interruptions flowed and only occasionally did anyone stand on ceremony, so we covered a lot of ground. We talked about codes of conduct, accountability, defended compulsory voting against attack by a couple of delegates, and much else that tends to blur in the memory. Each group discussion was followed by a plenary session in the parliamentary chamber where each group's appointed speaker could ask pre-prepared questions of an expert panel. My only successful contribution to the convention was in framing and asking the question which received the longest answer time from the experts; it was "What is implied in calling the upper house a "house of review", with dependent clauses: "did it mean no ministers, no right to initiate or block legislation, etc?" Later imitative attempts by other delegates to arbitrarily compound their questions together into one, met with silence or dismissal, deservedly because they were logically nonsensical; perhaps being a Mensan does mean something after all.

In a plenary session, some delegates suggested an unelected person should be appointed by, well, somebody, to be Speaker for impartial moderation in the House of Assembly. I was amused (blackly) at the naivete, thinking about what happened to the last people to try governing parliament from appointed positions, imagining these innocent delegates impaled upon the halberds of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians' New Model Army. The poor lambs! But I was mused that the experts, a constitutional lawyer, an historian and retired politicians didn't cite any of the historical crises, nor the contradictions of legal logic (parliament is the state's ultimate court), nor the despotic possibilities of "appointing someone to run parliament" ("presiding" over parliament is the origin of the position of President). Barry Jones scratched his head and asked Ian Sinclair if he'd ever heard of a non-member being speaker, both made "um" and "ah" noises until Peter Lewis rose and cited the sole example, the Fiji parliament had "invited" the ex-commanding officer of the Palestinian peacekeeping force to be speaker, and he was incumbent at the time. No expert recognized that the idea was long discarded in parliamentary evolution, they seemed unaware that it challenged a basic tenet of parliamentary government; one expert even endorsed it as an innovation in which SA could lead the world! I thought one should have stated "parliament governs itself; only the constitution and constitutional courts, or a referendum can tell it what it can and can't do or how it can do it" and felt the default spoke very poorly for Australian public intellectuals. In the failure of those who should have had the overview, it was left to an experienced parliamentary lawyer/researcher empirically to intuit what the problems would be and point to the correct answer: the speaker needing to enjoy the confidence of a majority of the house, have knowledge of the standing orders, the fact that parliamentarians "seem to feel that their being elected gives them greater authority than any appointed officer". No-one responded to that with "And I should bloody well think so!" which is what I wanted to say, but I also wished I could have voiced more vehement opposition to these people, believing, as they do, in some infallible font of virtue they can find and entrust, and so demeaning, undermining and vilifying anything else; in the end they are nothing but fools and fodder for despotic theocrats or any other confident, high sounding, hypocrite ignoramus.

I doubt anything substantial will come of the convention, despite speaking appearances by the Premier and Attorney General and their "shadows"; political support was really only from Speaker Lewis. The only assembly vote happened when Lewis in his farewell speech asked how often such conventions should be held and received an overwhelming majority of hands supporting ten year intervals. All other votes were on pre-prepared questions in a survey at the end of the weekend, and went to IDA for compilation. Any issue raised outside the agenda didn't receive meaningful consideration, they were noted and taken for possible inclusion in the report IDA will prepare for parliament.

In their summary report (http://www.ida.org.au/constitutional_summary.htm) support for optional preferential voting was high (currently South Australians must number every box to make a valid vote) so politicians may allow this small change. Citizen Initiated Referenda received substantial support, apparently 70%; but the opposition was resolute. In my group, which split 50-50, opposition was mostly from members of identifiable demographic minorities, whose worry about it could not be discounted or mollified. Pauline Hanson and her supporters may have scared off this democratic extension, particularly as it faces bipartisan opposition from the parliamentary oligarchs. The party oligarchs opposition, cloaked in concern for minorities, is blatantly the reflex denigration of alternatives by those whose position is one of power and advantage; an alpha-ape challenge reaction; but their objections may be valid, they worry that when stupid or discriminatory laws are passed overseas a bill of rights checks them, our not having a bill of rights thus gives reason to oppose CIR. My own support was modified slightly, I'd still prefer a right to initiate legislation; but would now settle with more equanimity for a right to disallow legislation passed by the oligarchs, a "voter's veto".

The greatest thing I take from the convention (common to all delegates I spoke with outside) is a greater respect for my fellow citizens and genuine confidence in democracy, even in truly democratic processes like CIR. My earlier smart-alec comments notwithstanding; I now know that "The People" possess intelligence and common sense in far greater measure than mass media would lead one to expect. Almost universally the delegates displayed abstract thought, serious attention, perception of a common good prevailing over their own personal interests, reason in discussion and gave weight to argument on its merit and, in all, made a pretty respectable showing for humanity at large; far removed from the impression of remorseless unenlightened self interest, ignoramus, lunatic ideas and irremediable bigotry that one receives from an average sample of media presentations. At the convention only 1 of 23 groups foundered on self righteous extremism, one delegate insisting on reinstating capital punishment. I now know the media mis-portray "ordinary citizens" and not to take much notice of talk-back radio; most people must have better things to do most of the time, the remorseless microminded bigot must be either the media owners' actual minds or their patronizing version of the "common man's" mind. Is it a deliberate conspiracy to mis-portray? I recently heard an American commentator say that the American media harness, nurture and protect the great American ignorance like a valuable natural resource they can exploit. The commercial media have a motive, the more mistrusting and isolated the populace the more stuff they're likely to buy, and most media were derogatory and dismissive toward the convention, especially the Murdoch press. This contrasts to the lavish attention afforded the more oligarchic federal convention, so one cannot rid oneself of the "paranoid" sense that the big media companies really are active controllers of the society and want to repress everything else, the convention after all wasn't competing with them in their "market" of news, it was competing with political airing of issues.

The convention bolstered my confidence in democracy; but it aggravated my most serious concerns about governance. Major issues: infrastructure investment, systemic technological redundancy, and above all environmental degradation, move on much longer cycles than the 4 year parliamentary term. Long-cycle problems need long-cycle solutions for they usually mean immediate economic sacrifice for positive effect that may not realize for decades or more, e.g. ecosystem recovery. Each government fatuously promises to solve them, usually abolishing the "failed" efforts of its predecessor. This short-term-ism seems the fatal weakness of our governance system, long-cycle failure is costing it legitimacy (bewailed as "cynicism" by the chattering classes) and credence is flowing to less equitable processes like populist dictators (Berlusconi), super-governmental agencies and profit-making corporations. Without structural support one can't reasonably expect politicians to act only from personal powers; the effort burns them out or turns them dictatorial and corrupt. I'd hoped to start discussion on structurally enabling government long-cycle analysis and stability of policy (perhaps another long term elected house with monitoring and projection duties and powers, direct democracy is another option, I was looking for suggestions) but these hopes expired rapidly. "Democracies" election cycles have rationalized the future to an "externality"; and a majority of convention delegates voted to further diminish long-cycle capacity by reducing the upper house terms to the four years of the lower house. My "use it or lose it" concerns about enabling long-cycle powers in elected offices found no regard with other delegates. Yes we don't waste resources on imaginary long term problems; but, when biospheric breakdown strikes, that small economy will prove inadequate compensation.

I left with mixed feelings. In long-cycle problems I'm very unhappy; because now I am certain that our current governance systems are incapable of counteracting the progressive biospheric collapse. But I also left feeling that "the people's" capacity to devise institutions that will address it is greater than expected; but the caveat is that they will only engage when the failure is obvious and the problems immediate, not with the present's slightly uncertain logical progressions. That is the silver lining; but the cloud is that preparation for environmental "winter" will only begin late autumn with the summer harvest already squandered. Yet, as one expert noted, "democracy" is a messy system of checks and balances, I'm thankful for the small mercy that no support emerged for limiting the number of terms an individual may serve, the "if-you're-on-a-good-thing-throw-it-out" advocates spoke their opinions, and had them dismissed. South Australia has put mindless aping of everything U.S. at least on hold.

Author - Justin Moore chosen in random sample to be one of 332 "typical" voters as "delegate" at constitutional convention held 2003 in South Australia. Written 2003 for Mensa Australia magazine Tablaus, revised for web 2005.