AQ: Australian Quarterly

On Cobwebs and Fine Silk: Nationhood for the 21st Century

It is to the people, rather than judges, that we should look in the future as we adjust the centenary Constitution to the rather different nation and circumstances it must serve in the century to come.
Justice Michael Kirby (1997)1

For a moment, imagine this: The supreme law of a nation lies covered in cobwebs, its words of wisdom interlaced with absurdities, irrelevances, anachronisms and fantasy. Clever counsellors in fine silk, debate before judges, who in turn decide whether the words mean what they say, or should be interpreted in a way more fitting to their moment in time. Yet it is not the business of any of these learned ladies and gentlemen to advocate for reform. They are bound to work with what they have been given.

The responsibility for brushing away the cobwebs rests with Members of Parliament acting with the concurrence of voters, except that the MPs are discouraged from reform by past failures.

This is the situation facing the Australian Constitution. We are living in an era of rapid social and technological change, meanwhile the people’s trust in the processes of our democracy are in steep decline. In these circumstances it is foolhardy to leave our all-important Constitution frozen in time and inflexible to the immense challenges facing our society.

Yet a glimmer of hope twinkles faintly. An ancient creature of Labor’s socialist left and a youthful, hard-nosed conservative Senator from Queensland have united to lead an inquiry into the future of Australian democracy, nationhood, and national identity.2

An ancient creature of Labor’s socialist left and a youthful, hard-nosed conservative Senator from Queensland have united to lead an inquiry into the future of Australian democracy.

The inquiry into , established last year by the , has broad terms of.

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