What seems to be the immediately obvious answer to this question is “yes”; as most readers are likely aware, just 8 of the 44 (around 18%) referenda initiated to amend the constitution have succeeded in the history of the Australian federation. It also seems to be the answer favoured by James Allan, a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who is concerned that the Rudd Government has stacked the composition of the “Australian Governance” group at its 2020 Summit with potential constitutional vandals. Listing “bill of rights scepticism” as one of his primary research areas of interest, and asserting his delight at having moved to a country without a bill of rights (he was born in Canada), Allan notes has a few predictions about what the group is likely to come up with based on its composition:
There’ll be calls for a bill of rights. There’ll be calls for Australia to become a republic. And such authoritative calls could prove mighty useful down the road, especially if that was what you wanted before you started this little charade. Of course, when we play this game, we would have to concede, were we honest, that the group we had assembled was nowhere near being representative of the views of Australians as a whole.
Whenever Australians have been asked, they have recognised that the constitutional status quo is, as I noted above, comparatively excellent. But with any luck we can finesse that uncomfortable truth.
But do Australians really generally think that the constitutional status quo is excellent? Not to the extent that one would think based on the statistic I mentioned earlier, as it turns out. The infamous “double majority” provision that requires that a referendum be supported by a majority of the states (four of six) and a majority of voters in a majority of states acts as an arguably undemocratic obstacle preventing constitutional change. In actual fact, over the history of referenda, the average national “yes” vote is 50.28%, with the median “yes” vote sitting within reach of majority share at 48.84%. Five failed referenda, in particular, would have been passed on majority national vote if the double majority provision was not enforced. In another nine failed referenda, the supporting vote was over 49%, and three or more states voted in majority support.
With respect to a future Australian republic and a possible national bill of rights, there is also some reasonable evidence suggesting that a majority of Australians (or at least more than those in outright opposition) support constitutional change in each case. A deliberative poll was conducted as part of the process when the ACT enacted its bill of rights, with 47.3% of people polled in favour of the proposal prior to deliberation, and 58.6% after. Similarly, Newspoll [PDF] results over the last ten years point consistently to the fact that more Australians support the idea of Australia becoming a republic than oppose it.
In short, despite the nation’s sad history of failure to succeed in constitutional reform efforts, I don’t think it is fair to say that Australians prefer the constitutional status-quo to constitutional change. The bar for success has been set high; perhaps so high as to be occasionally impractical and in bottom-line terms, undemocratic. One thing is certain; it certainly does not hold that because something was a fantastic national document one-hundred years ago is a fantastic national document now. As a nation we should constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve the legislative infrastructure of the country. All things in human society gradually evolve – it is just a shame that this particular part of our society has been so protectively guarded from improving over the course of the last century.