Friday, May 29, 2009

Educating for a republic

Whether Australia moves to a republic or not, any effort to encourage a significant improvement in knowledge of the Australian Constitution by Australians is warranted. A new and impartial Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness would be a great start.

The 2004 Senate Inquiry into an Australian Republic examined the issue of Australia's constitutional awareness and education, and found that there was "a general lack of understanding in the Australian community of the Australian Constitution and system of government".

These concerns have been further reinforced by the Australian Electoral Commission sponsored Youth Electoral Study that sought to establish why so many young people were disengaged from the political system. The researchers found only 82% of young Australians 17-25 years of age were enrolled to vote at the time of the 2004 federal election, compared to 95% of older Australians. They also found that only half of the young people they interviewed would vote if it was not compulsory, and among the reasons given by the respondents for not voting was lack of knowledge. Only half felt that they knew enough about the political issues, the voting system and the political parties to vote. These results are a little surprising given the improved civics education introduced into Australian schools over the last decade through the Discovering Democracy program. In the 1990s the Constitutional Centenary Foundation (CCF) did a fine job preparing and disseminating materials to schools and community groups regarding the operation of Australia's constitutional system. The CCF provided impartial materials prior to the 1999 republican referendum and coordinated Constitutional Convention programs through schools and local councils. Unfortunately, funding for the CCF ran out with Australia's Centenary of Federation in 2001.

The Constitutional Education Fund Australia (CEF-A) was set up in 2003 as a bipartisan organisation to educate the public on the role of the Australian Constitution. According to its website, CEF-A "has been established to help all Australians gain a better understanding of the Australian Constitution and the Constitution of the States of Australia". The Governor-General is the Patron-in-Chief of CEF-A, which financially supports an annual Governor-General's prize for undergraduate students.

In June 2003 the Australian Government granted rare gift recipient tax deductibility status to CEF-A. From the beginning CEF-A shared its Executive Director, Kerry Jones, with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), and was run from the ACM's Sydney office. The ACM regularly appealed to its members to contribute to CEF-A. Despite the inclusion of several republican academics on its advisory board, the Australian Republican Movement and its members were never approached to be involved in CEF-A programs or activities.

On 13 February 2006, Lindsay Tanner, the MP for Melbourne, stated in Federal Parliament that leading monarchist Kerry Jones was contracted through her company to run the affairs of both organisations, and claimed this was a clear indication of a conflict. He continued to paint a picture of collusion between CEF-A and ACM. "Only one conclusion can be drawn from these facts: the ACM is engaged ina brazen tax scam", Tanner told Federal Parliament. "CEF-A is simply an ACM front organisation which exists solely as a filter through which donations can become tax deductible. It operates from the same location as ACM, it is run by the same people and it has the same auditors. It is little more than a shell. This is nothing less than a fraud on Australian taxpayers". He said hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax had been evaded. Since it was granted tax deductibility, tax-free deductions of about $350,000 a year had gone into CEF-A's coffers. Yet over the same period, donations to ACM more than halved. In 2002-03, ACM received non-deductible donations of just over $450,000, but the next year donations fell to $200,000.

The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) responded "this sounds very serious and we can only hope that the ACM has not been filtering money into its own coffers under the pretence of 'constitutional education', while we at the ARM have been continuing the struggle to raise much needed funds through raffles and sausage sizzles, supported by the grass roots of our membership. We look forward to full disclosure on this matter".

Kerry Jones stated CEF-A was a "non-partisan promoter of civics education and denied any conflict of interest involving her own support for Australian remaining a constitutional monarchy". Ms Jones said that neither was there any conflict of interest regarding CEF-A and ACM employing her separate management consultancy. She did not dispute the financial incomings and outgoings, but said the high administration costs for CEF-A were beacuse it had to meet start-up costs. The ATO audit in June 2006 found there had been no breach of the Tax Act.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee noted in its report, The Road to a Republic, that all sides of the republican debate had stressed the importance of constitutional education and awareness and concluded that it was "the key to effective participation in any proposed constitutional reform, including reforms leading towards an Australian republic". Among its extensive recommendations, the Senate Committee proposed that a fully resourced parliamentary committee be established to facilitate and oversee ongoing education and awareness programs to imporve Australian awareness and understanding of the Constitution and our system of government. The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Education and Awareness would also be responsible for the preparation and dissemination to voters of independent information, rather than partisan arguments for the Yes and No cases, in the lead-up to any future republican referendum. Republicans have more at stake than most when it comes to constitutional education and awareness: most analyses suggest that the poor level of constitutional knowledge was a major factor in the 1999 republican referendum's failure. It certainly contributed to the effectiveness of the monarchist's cynical slogan, "If you don't know, vote No". However, in the area of constitutional education, it is imperative to establish and maintain bipartisan programs, both perceived and real - the Australian people will not accept anything else!

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