The constitution belongs to all of us, but it comes with civic responsibility

You can scarcely get out of bed these days without someone trying to persuade you to vote this way or that at the upcoming referendum. This piece won’t do that. But it will try to persuade you that you owe it to yourself, your nation, and future generations to really take the time to consider the proposed constitutional change and make a considered choice.

In all the heat of the yes versus no debate, this very fundamental point can find itself lost. Indeed, as the politics around the vote gets hotter, it may be tempting for many to come to believe a referendum vote is comparable to a regular election vote. It is not.

For many, the concept of a referendum is unfamiliar. If you’re younger than 42, your referendum vote on October 14 will be your first. In every decade in the last century, there has been at least one constitutional question the voting public determined, but not a single one this century.

That makes this upcoming vote unique. The largest number of electors in our history will have never experienced the process. In that period we have welcomed millions of new citizens.

It is vital for all these new referendum participants to recognise how different their vote in October is.

The Constitution of Australia does not belong to the parliament. It belongs to the Australian people. Created by a vote of the Australian people, it can only be changed by a vote of the Australian people. The Constitution created the parliament, not the other way around.

This is the way Australia’s founding fathers (and, yes, they were all men) drafted our Constitution – so that the voters alone would adopt it and the voters alone would decide any changes to it in the future.

The system was designed so that the Constitution could be altered when necessary, but only with some deliberate in-built difficulty. Hence the “double majority” required – a popular vote majority along with a majority of states.

Alfred Deakin eloquently outlined this in 1891 during the Convention debates:

“ … No one desires that amendments of this Constitution should need to be frequent, or should be frequent, and no one desires that the amendment of this Constitution should be too easy. It should be possible at any time when the mature judgment of the people has expressed itself for an amendment of the Constitution to be obtained …”

In 1902, Deakin further elaborated on how the Constitution ought to be both stable and, when necessary, adaptable. During debate in the House of Representatives he said:

“[The Constitution] was designed to remain in force for more years than any of us can foretell, and to apply under circumstances probably differing most widely from the expectations now cherished by any of us … But the nation lives, grows, and expands. Its circumstances change, its needs alter, and its problems present themselves with new faces.”

Today every one of us is an equal shareholder in our Constitution. We should treat this responsibly with appropriate weight.

In our democracy there is rightly extensive discussion around democratic rights and freedoms; but less so democratic responsibilities. But it is now our responsibility to personally consider the merits of the proposed change and to be as informed as possible before making our own decision.

Right now it’s estimated around one third of voters remain undecided or open to change on the Voice. This is, in many ways, understandable. The teaching of civics education is too brief and fleeting in many instances, such that it’s doubtful many voters learnt about referendums in any great depth at school, if at all.

Furthermore, there is so much going within people’s lives, especially given the current challenges with cost of living. And even for the politically engaged there are myriad important issues to consider.

But nevertheless a chance to alter the nation’s constitution sits apart. It demands our attention.

If you haven’t focused on the issue, now is the moment. If you don’t understand the question, please invest the time for your nation and future generations to learn about it and make your own decision.

That is the civic reciprocity of democracy; freedom and rights matched with active and considered civic engagement and contribution.

In our first federal election in March 1901, 988,000 voters elected 75 members of the House of Representatives and 36 Senators to our first federal parliament. They knew they were part of a grand democratic endeavour. So are we. We are their successors in this moment in time.

The Hon Tony Smith is a former speaker of the House of Representatives. He received the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership in 2021. The McKinnon Prize is a collaboration between the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne.