In this first episode of the Australia Together Podcast on Substack Bronwyn Kelly reads Part 1 of the Introduction to her new book , The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy.
You’ll be able to listen to a complete reading of The People’s Constitution in weekly instalments.
For the first episode I have included the written text of Part 1 of the Introduction to The People’s Constitution in the email below. If you wish to keep reading, the full book has already been published and is available in paperback here and on Kindle here. Or click on the picture below. Or visit the Australian Community Futures Planning website to purchase The People’s Constitution at https://www.austcfp.com.au/publications
The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy - by Bronwyn Kelly
Dedication: For those that each of us love.
The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently. - David Graeber
When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. - Uluru Statement from the Heart
The birds they sang at the break of day, Start again I heard them say. - Leonard Cohen, Anthem
Introduction: Part 1 - Inviting Australians to take power over their destiny
[References are accessible in the full text.]
Sydney - July 2022
This book is an invitation to all Australians to take up positions of rightful power within their democracy. It calls on them to choose to exercise much greater influence in their own governance and control over their own future than they have been able to exercise to date. And it offers them a way to exercise that greater level of control, both as individuals and collectively as a nation, by establishing a place for themselves in the central, defining statement of the nation – the Australian Constitution.
Fundamentally this is a book about power, how it is arranged and distributed in the early 2020s in our form of democracy under our Constitution. And it is about how a new Australian Constitution may be written to change that arrangement so that power is shared in a more fully democratic and inclusive sovereignty, one in which we the people have agency and, through that agency, more control over not just our destiny but our prospects for survival.
As an invitation it has been inspired by another far more remarkable one issued to all Australians in 2017 by its First Nations peoples – the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This Statement stands as perhaps the most gracious invitation that has ever been offered by an invaded nation to an occupying nation. After no less than 230 years of decimation – to the point of attempted genocide – the impact of which is yet to be fully internalised in the Australian national soul, it is astonishing that First Nations, having not only survived but come together (and having done so without extinguishing their own diversity), can still muster the generosity to invite the invaders to
walk with them in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
The magnanimity of the invitation that is the Uluru Statement from the Heart bespeaks a magnificent Indigenous culture that has sprung from the Australian continent. And as time has passed in the 21st century, more and more Australians have come to recognise this marvel of survival and are seeking to know and understand the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation. They are seeking to find the source of such resilience and grace and the culture which has enabled that combination. The fact that they cannot find that civilisation or its peoples in their own Constitution is being recognised as a gaping hole in the soul of the nation – a blankness in the heart that blights the possibility of genuine social cohesion and perhaps even survival itself.
Non-Indigenous Australians are learning more and more from Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders about survival, as well they might when knowledge of how to survive in a brutal climate may soon turn out to be the only thing between them and extinction. There is a growing awareness that opportunities to exploit the land – on the rapacious, unsustainable industrial scale that Europeans have come to depend on – may in future not be available or productive enough for survival if climate change is not stopped. But alongside that fear there is a growing acknowledgement that Indigenous knowledge of sustainable land management may offer a potential lifeline. At least, such knowledge may cushion us somewhat against the effects of climate change if it is internalised in our land use and marine management before the planet heats by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial revolution temperatures.
For Indigenous Australians though, it may be that there can be no real confidence that their cultural practices in relation to land and conservation would be sufficiently acknowledged if their culture and they themselves are not acknowledged in the central founding document of the nation. This surmise on my part may be merely the presumption of a white woman of Celtic and European background whose ancestors may well have played a part in Aboriginal dispossession and who, regardless of any confirmation of invidious participation in such dispossession, continues to benefit from the whole sorry history. But logic would dictate that if First Nations are calling not just for recognition in the Constitution but recognition in the form of a Voice designed to give them control over their own destiny, then they have concluded through their bitter experience that a substantive rather than merely symbolic form of recognition is absolutely essential to their survival. And by extension, non-Indigenous Australians should logically infer that a substantive form of Indigenous recognition in the Constitution is a condition precedent not just to national redemption for the crimes of the past but to our broader destiny as a unified nation – one with a viable future.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is built on a fundamental assumption that until First Nations have a substantive Voice in the statement that constitutes the nation, they will not have power over their own destiny and their children will not flourish. The kernel of faith in the Uluru Statement, proclaiming that
when we have power over our destiny our children will flourish,
resounds with the sharpest of logic. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? How could any individual or nation really flourish without power, particularly the power of self-determination?
Few communities on earth could claim to know more than Australia’s Aborigines about what it is really like to live without even a vestige of that sort of power – what it is like to live as the dispossessed, the unentitled, the racially segregated, derided and disadvantaged, the culturally suppressed, the voiceless. But anyone may discern from the evidence that is in plain sight that the social breakdown and individual trauma caused by such total powerlessness is deep and intergenerational in its effects. Powerlessness does not enable, it destroys. And absolute powerlessness destroys absolutely.
Against this background it is clear that the Indigenous Voice is what any human group under threat will seek to design in their polity when “the torment of [their] powerlessness” reaches a crisis point. It is what any sane and reasonable but powerless minority community will inevitably design when, living in an ostensibly democratic country, its members protest that the benefits of that democracy have not been equitably extended to them and that this inequality itself has reached such proportions that their powerless community and everything it rests on are on the brink of a crisis, the “dimensions” of which are existential and “tell plainly of the structural nature of [their] problem”.
Structured as reasonably as the call for an Indigenous Voice is, there is nothing that could justify a refusal to enshrine such a Voice in our Constitution. It is the minimum of the justice that is required. But the whole Australian nation would also be doing itself a huge favour by enshrining the Indigenous Voice. It would be giving itself the chance to start again, this time establishing a nation without the faults of its original founding. The call for an Indigenous Voice was a long time coming, but when it came – in such a reasonable and, at the same time, profound form – it caused a watershed, a unique moment of potential transformation for the entire nation. The scope of this watershed might not yet be fully apparent but it offers much more than a reprieve or absolution for those who benefitted unjustly from colonisation. More than a symbolic recognition and the possibility of amends, it offers non-Indigenes a model for enshrining a voice of their own, a voice that can give them greater control over their destiny and enable their children to flourish, a power of self-determination that can be shared in such a way as to enable us to establish the nation we all want, rather than the one that has been foisted on us all by its encoding in the current Constitution.
That latter nation – the one created in 1901 at Federation – was remarkable and munificent in its own way. But it was also racist, exclusive, and extremely jealous of sharing power with those it had charged with responsibility for selecting representatives in the national parliament. The creation of Australia as a representative democracy was a great day and a dreadful day all at once, not just for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders but for all Australians. The chosen identity of a white Australia has sealed all our fates from that day to this, if only because no racist elements of the Constitution have since been expunged and no further powers have been conferred on Australians to help them escape that fate of exclusion from determining their own future. Nothing has changed in the Constitution to help them overcome their own voicelessness. In this sense the Indigenous call for a constitutional Voice serves to awaken all other Australians to the founding disempowerments of our nation – disempowerments which came down with exponential force on First Nations peoples, but which also beset all those seemingly empowered by representative politics.
The fate imposed on Australians in 1901 is not inescapable, especially now that First Nations have given us a model for how it might be escaped. Having made the nation once at Federation, there is nothing stopping Australians from remaking it, bearing in mind that one of the best features of the Constitution was that it reserved power to remake it entirely to “the people”, albeit only after the parliament might let them conduct referendums for the purpose. But even that limitation can change. It can change very much for the better if we establish a new type of democratic constitution – one in which the people are acknowledged as the source of sovereignty.
To establish a basis for that particular change this book will first examine the best and worst of the current Australian Constitution. This will be done by observing it not from the point of view of an elected parliamentarian or High Court judge (in other words not from the point of view of someone who is already empowered by the Constitution) but from the perspective of an elector – of someone who takes for granted the best of the system, in that for the present at least she is able to vote, but who knows that when she votes she is doing nothing more than giving away power and giving it away entirely without conditions. Through this prism the Constitution will be reviewed from the perspective of an awareness of the limits of mere representative democracy – a system which tends strongly to preserve power only for those who already have it and who make laws which reinforce their power, and only their power.
In place of that sort of democracy, a new Constitution will be proposed which can enable transition to a fully participatory democracy, creating a fairer and much wider spread of power arranged through an orderly process – a constituted process to impart for the first time a significant and rightful share of power to the people of Australia. This will give a share of power to those who to date have been acknowledged in the Constitution as nothing more than the group whose vote is required to elect their governors and whose relevance and control is lost entirely as soon as they have discharged that duty.
In short, Australia’s current power arrangements will be reviewed here from the perspective of the powerless but also in contemplation of the degree and type of power the Australian people will need, as a minimum, to secure not just whatever future they may deeply desire but their very survival as a civilisation. Taking into account our vulnerability to imminent loss or even annihilation in the face of climate change, particularly as it is combined now with other existential threats (pandemics, natural resource depletion, biodiversity extinctions, unsustainable consumption patterns, global economic inequality and structural collapse, and possible nuclear war), this analysis will posit that while it is vital to look to First Nations for wisdom about survival – since no race has done it better than them – it is equally vital to learn from them about how powerlessness itself can pose an existential threat and that without a voice in our own governance our prospects for survival – as individuals, as cultures, as a nation – may well amount to zero. Non-Indigenes will be pushed to the brink, just as Indigenes have been.
This may seem shocking but there it is. It is not incomprehensible and it is not far-fetched. Such a fate is at least as likely as not, and therefore, ignoring or denying it would amount to insanity – a bent more towards suicide than survival. However, the good news is that the means of making that fate less likely are entirely in our hands. Not only do we have the technology and the wealth, we also have the capacity to reorganise our governance and the way we distribute power to avert this fate. We have the capacity to cooperate with other nations and to use our democracy to its fullest scope so that it delivers an entirely different destiny, not just mere survival in a diminished form but a viable and fulfilling future for individuals and the nation as a whole.
Of course the degree of difficulty in reorganising our governance so that we can establish viability as a species into the future is likely to be greater than the degree of difficulty associated with using technical and financial solutions. The will to power in humans is so ingrained that it will not be easily shared by those who have it. But unless power is spread more widely as a force for inclusion, there is every likelihood that our current consumption patterns – those which suit the already powerful – will simply outstrip the capacity of the planet to sustain us. In particular the world is likely to emit far more in greenhouse gases than we should emit if we wish to hold planetary temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius. We may stave off global heating for a little while via technology but to nowhere near the degree necessary to prevent temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius – increases which will irreversibly lock in either our annihilation or at least destroy what Noam Chomsky has called
organised human life on earth. [Emphasis added.]
In Chomsky’s view – and he is not alone – if the planet heats by more than 2 degrees Celsius our prospects will be, at worst, total extinction and, at best, total chaos. Either way, and even if he is only half right, it won’t do to ignore the problem and it won’t solve the problem if we simply rely on the will of the rich and powerful, their technological and financial approaches, and their exclusionist control. Inclusive power arrangements – and by this I mean fully inclusive – will have far greater capacity than the current exclusive power systems to enable Australians to bring all necessary solutions to bear on the problem.
Inclusive power arrangements are not possible in our representative democracy under Australia’s current Constitution. It will need to be rearranged to favour new systems which give all Australians a voice and the Indigenous Voice provides inspiration for this. As we learn about survival in a harsh land from First Nations, we can also learn about the fuller array of solutions from them – solutions derived by people who were driven to the brink of extinction but who have come back from that brink asserting that self-determination – power over one’s own destiny – is essential to survival.
Powerlessness negates our existence in all its essentials – physical, emotional, and social. Powerlessness kills. Powerlessness consigns any of us left standing to shorter and emptier lives in more miserable circumstances than we should otherwise expect in an enlightened, technologically advanced, wealthy society. Australia’s Indigenes are proof of this. Shared power on the other hand can be entirely enabling. It is essential if we are to make our own lives fulfilling but, as First Nations have now shown, this can only obtain if power is arranged so that each voice counts for more than it does in our current democracy. This book aims to show how we can re-arrange power to that end.