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Arnold, Bruce Baer; Smith, Damon --- "Review: Bede Harris, Constitutional Reform as a Remedy for Political Disenchantment in Australia (Springer, 2020)" [2022] CanLawRw 8; (2022) 19(1) Canberra Law Review 145

Review: Bede Harris, Constitutional Reform as a Remedy for Political Disenchantment in Australia

Bruce Baer Arnold and Damon Smith*

Bede Harris’ Constitutional Reform as a Remedy for Political Disenchantment in Australia (Springer, 2020), a monograph by one of the nation’s most incisive and thoughtful constitutional law scholars, builds on exemplary work such as his 2002 A New Constitution For Australia.[1]

It is particularly timely given statements by politicians about peers as we head into the 2022 national election (departing MPs damning the Prime Minister as a manipulative bully who lacks a moral compass),[2] propagation by legislators of fake health news about COVID quackery such as worm medicine,[3] criticisms by courts of executive accountability,[4] two arson incidents at Old Parliament House by sovereign citizens and adherents of anti-vax conspiracism, sectional resentment,[5] ongoing disregard by the Government of calls for establishment of a national integrity commission,[6] and the superficiality of ‘Open Government’ initiatives at the national, state/territory and local government levels, reflected in international corruption barometers and in the frequent deployment by state and Commonwealth departments of Freedom of Information legislation as a weapon to deter transparency, rather than a supplementary tool in support of a default position of release of government information.

It is also timely given independent authoritative studies such as the Australian National University (ANU) 2019 Australian Election Study, which reported satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest level since the 1970s constitutional crisis, with trust in government having reached its lowest level on record.[7]

The ANU data indicates that less than 26% of Australians believe people in government can be trusted, with 56% believing government is run for ‘a few big interests’ and only 12% believing the government is run for ‘all the people’. That disquiet is increasing, with for example a 27% decline since 2007 in stated satisfaction with how Australia’s democracy is working. Overall trust in government has declined by nearly 20% since 2007; three quarters believe that people in government are looking after themselves. That belief may be misplaced but given reports of administrative incompetence or corruption, influence buying, ministerial obfuscation and egregious misogyny or ministerial frolics with rent boys in the Parliament House prayer room it is unsurprising.[8]

Harris’ book combines deep analysis regarding questions about legitimacy, insights regarding the conceptual basis and operation of legal structures, and an exceptional engagement with a succession of incidents that erode public trust regarding both public administration and ‘party politics as usual’. As a nuanced exploration of Australian disillusionment with the conduct of politics the book argues much is ultimately traceable to defects in the constitution, with improvement of government requiring constitutional reform.

Constitutional Reform argues that the dominant approach to constitutional debate is flawed because anti-theoretical, ungrounded in coherent values and stymied by the traditional preoccupation with practical objections to reform ahead (and instead) of considering the principled case for change. Harris offers a persuasive suggestion that instead of accepting the national Constitution ‘as is’, we can use human dignity as the fundamental value upon which a constitution should be based and thence begin a civic discussion of Australia’s Constitution ought to be.

The book is a commendably brave effort, worthy of respect irrespective of a reader’s adherence or non-adherence to academic orthodoxies. It makes the case for change in key areas. They include –

• reform of the electoral system,

• enhanced parliamentary scrutiny of the executive,

• inclusion in the constitution of a full Bill of Rights,

• abolition of the federal system,

• realisation of the rights of Indigenous people,

• codification of constitutional conventions, whether in conjunction with or separate from establishment of an Australian republic as an extension of the belated patriation evident in for example the Australia Acts,[9]

• reform of the rules of standing in constitutional matters

• the need to improve civics education.

The book includes a draft new constitution, drawing on research over the past two decades.

One conclusion for readers is that citizens, underpinned and perhaps inspired by the civics education highlighted by Dr Harris, have responsibilities. As this issue of Canberra Law Review headed to press Dr Catherine Williams (Director of Research at the Centre for Public Integrity) analysed the 2022 national Budget funding announcements for key accountability institutions, placing them within the context of real funding across the past 10 years.[10]

She noted that the 2022-2023 budget includes

• insufficient funding of $67 million over 4 years for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (as yet not established),

• a 17.67% cut in real terms to the funding for the ABC compared to 2012 levels,

• a 9.12% cut in real terms to funding the Australian National Audit Office, and

• year on year cuts to the Ombudsman, Australian Law Reform Commission, Australian Human Rights Commission and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The 2022 national election is a reminder that citizens who are engaged do have scope to influence policy choices and – consistent with Harris’ insights regarding civics education – should exercise their responsibilities through voting..


* Damon Smith is studying Law at the University of Canberra and assisted in editing of this issue of Canberra Law Review.

1 Bede Harris, A New Constitution For Australia (Cavendish, 2002).

[2] See for example Josh Butler and Sarah Martin, ‘Scott Morrison labelled an ‘autocrat and bully who has no moral compass’ by Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ The Guardian 29 March 2022, <>.

[3] RMIT Fact Check, ‘Why you should be wary of the information presented in Craig Kelly's mass text messages’ ABC 16 Sep 2021 <>; and Paul Karp, ‘Liberal senator Gerard Rennick’s vaccine claims condemned by health officials in Covid inquiry’ The Guardian 7 December 2021) <>.

[4] For example Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs v PDWL [2020] FCA 394 and Brett Cattle Company Pty Ltd v Minister for Agriculture [2020] FCA 732.

[5] Gabrielle Chan, Rusted Off: Why Country Australia Is Fed Up (Penguin, 2008).

[6] See also Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams, Keeping Them Honest: The case for a genuine national integrity commission and other vital democratic reforms (Scribe, 2022).


[8] Cause for disquiet is not restricted to the national sphere, reflected for example in resignation of three South Australian ministers and the state's Legislative Council President over expenses, reporting by LNP MPs regarding their leader Deb Freckleton and condemnation of the then NSW Premier for an undisclosed relationship with an MP who has been characterised as a ‘bagman’.

[9] Anne Twomey, The Australia Acts 1986: Australia's Statutes of Independence (Federation Press, 2010).


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