Updated: Mar 22, 2019
While the tabloids eagerly await a celebrity birth in England, there is an interesting experiment in democracy taking place next door, in Ireland, where citizens are taking the lead in updating the nation’s constitution. I recently met with a range of participants and observers of the Irish Constitutional Convention and there might just be some interesting lessons for us in keeping our democracy up to date here in Australia.
Once a month a group of sixty-six randomly selected citizens meet up for a weekend with thirty-three politicians and discuss how to update the Irish constitution. So far, the group’s recommendations have largely been adopted, such as reducing the voting age, and big issues are yet to come, such as equal marriage. In Ireland, there is a widespread belief that its 1937 Constitution is out of date and no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Why would a randomly selected group of citizens be developing constitutional reforms at a time of economic crisis? Surely these things happen in the economic good times, right? Wrong, reform happens when the old ways are out of date – and that can become even more apparent in the economic bad times.
In Ireland, suffering the global financial crisis worse than most, it is believed to be just the right time to update its constitution, the founding document of the republic that no longer meets contemporary needs.
A group of academics, journalists and others passionate about Ireland’s future in a time of despair and lack of confidence formed a group called We the People to start the constitutional reform discussion a couple of years ago.
They went to Atlantic Philanthropies and pitched a proposal to fund a deliberative democracy experiment to involve the Irish people in imagining a new way forward. The US-based philanthropic organisation lent their financial support and the experiment was embraced by the Irish Government.
Although originally conceived to involve 100 randomly selected citizens, the Constitutional Convention has been formed with 66 citizens and 33 politicians. At least, as one argument goes, the politicians will have a stake in its recommendations and help to take the results back to Government and the Parliament. All of the political party representatives with whom I spoke on a recent visit were excited about the experiment and fully supported it.
And it is not just one or two clauses that have been identified as needing updating, but a total of eight issues have been referred to the Constitutional Convention, with the option for the group to come up with a ninth issue which is a topic of much debate. Each month, the group is provided with access to any experts they wish and they also hear from key advocacy groups on all sides of each issue.
Earlier this month, the Irish Government responded to the first set of recommendations from the Convention, agreeing to a referendum lowering the voting age to 16 but rejecting a proposal to broaden the nomination process for a president. Currently a presidential candidate must be nominated by a mix of local councils and/or MPs but is then directly elected by the people, a system the Government believes is democratic enough.
The more cynical might point out that there is nothing like a referendum on constitutional change to take the spotlight away from the country’s economic troubles. There may be more than a little truth to that analysis of why the Irish Government is pushing the abolition of the Irish Senate (a largely unrepresentative body, only partially more representative than the House of Lords in the country next door to Ireland).
Indeed, the Senate abolition will be put to the vote earlier and quite separately from the findings from the Constitutional Convention, at a referendum timed to coincide with the next unpopular austerity budget. The Senate abolition, an election promise, is being described as a cost saving measure. Perhaps the Irish will choose to punish politicians by going along with the proposal, rather than seeking genuine democratic reform.
And just why didn’t the Government include Senate reform in the brief for the Constitutional Convention? Critics say that, while a slate of issues have been referred to the Convention, none go to the heart of the power problem in the Irish Constitution. Unlike the Australian system (with our democratic Senate representing the States), Irish Governments face no real check or balance and it seems the politicians are keen to keep it that way. Of course, the UK has also abandoned plans to democratize the House of Lords.
Are there lessons for Australia here? Well firstly, the lazy argument that we should only consider constitutional change in the good economic times seems to be knocked on the head by the Irish example. Indeed, while Europe is suffering deep recession, Australia has had 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth but has not grappled with any constitutional change.
It is not as if we don’t need to update our own constitution, which is even older than the Irish one. Ours was written at a time when we considered ourselves part of the British Empire, defined by our Britishness, loyalty to a distant monarch and of course excluding indigenous and other Australians who did not fit the 1890s concept of who belonged to the citizenry. So our own constitution is full of clauses that make no sense and do need to be updated to reflect modern, independent and inclusive Australia.
In the 1990s we attempted a Constitutional Convention of our own, involving a mix of elected and appointed delegates, who overwhelmingly supported updating our constitution to become a republic. But the Convention came up with a parliamentary-appointment model that did not win majority support at the subsequent referendum (helped by a Prime Minister actively campaigning against it).
Now, in the 21st century, perhaps it is time we looked to ideas such as the Irish Constitutional Convention, for how to involve citizens and politicians in the debate in the right balance. Would a randomly selected group of Australians, given access to the best advice and experts to answer their questions, be able to come up with proposals to update our own constitution to better meet our future needs? It will be interesting to see the final results from the Irish experiment. Maybe we will learn from their mistakes, as well as any successes.
Or perhaps, as suggested by Malcolm Turnbull, we could take the discussion and the deliberation out to the whole population – or at least those interested in taking part – through online discussion forums and plebiscites? Such a process might be more likely to generate the changes that would win majority support at referendum than the old top down approach of the politicians telling us what they want (or don’t want).
And what about the Irish President?
Finally, there is one very relevant example from Ireland that has demonstrably worked. When the Irish drew up their constitution, they kept the Westminster system but replaced the British monarch with a President. Elected by the people, but with constitutionally limited powers, the President plays a role as chief spokesperson for Ireland’s values and those things that bring its people together. So, although elected, the office of the President is strictly non-political and each recent incumbent has demonstrated the value for Ireland having its own head of state. Mary Robinson led national discussions that helped to grapple with massive social change in Ireland inclusively. Her successor as President, Mary McAleese, hosted former warring parties from Northern Ireland (part of the UK) to the Presidential residence, helping to heal wounds that extended back centuries. She ultimately hosted the British Queen in a historic visit to Ireland.
Ireland’s current President carries on the tradition, by helping the Irish people to understand and discuss the economic crisis but in a non-political way. And of course Irish Presidents promote their nation abroad for trade and to build its reputation in the world, all things that an Australian head of state could do. If we had one of our own.
Interestingly, the Irish Constitutional Convention rejected a proposal to reduce the term of a president from seven to five years and to link presidential elections to other elections. It was believed the presidential election has a special quality that requires it to remain separate from elections on issues of the day.
It is perhaps not surprising we hear so little in our (London-focused) media about Ireland. But we should remember as many as one third of our early European settlers were Irish. The Irish have had a not insignificant impact on modern Australia, from the democratic struggles at Eureka to many aspects of our sense of humour and egalitarian ethic.
The Irish don’t always get it right, as their recent economic troubles demonstrate, but they are worth a look for how we might approach updating our own constitution to reflect our identity, values and aspirations in the 21st century.