Senator Kim Carr is chairing an inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy. Submissions close on Monday 30 September 2019.

It’s a wide-ranging inquiry looking at –

  • sustaining democracy: decline of trust, changing political conventions, deliberative vs participatory democracy, and correlations with declining civics education, wages and living standards;
  • nationhood and the nation state: First Nations sovereignty, migrant culture and future national models;
  • social cohesion and cultural identity: declining social and economic equality, industrialised employment and civic engagement;
  • governing in a democracy: long-term failures in vision, public responsibility and export policy;
  • public debate: the declining integrity and quality of the public discussion led by politicians, including political attacks on experts and the changing news environment.

Given the politically driven attacks on their democratic foundations that we’re seeing in the United States and Kingdom at the moment, and the political instability that our own federation of states is experiencing, this is a timely inquiry.

However, given it’s asking all of the most pressing questions of our times and multiple times over, this is an inquiry that’s unlikely to yield focused responses for action.

Despite that, it’s vital that as many of us as possible contribute. Especially those in the arts, media, design, architecture and planning.

Artists ask the questions that politicians are too often too afraid to approach. Arts institutions are at the frontline of cultural and democratic engagement, offering frameworks for understanding the most complex challenges we face by bringing us together in new ways. Galleries, libraries and museums are rethinking their models: Indigenising, democratising and diversifying, ever more aware that every public institution sets the terms and the values by which it expects people to engage with it, and that that is its own colonisation. Meanwhile, the deteriorating arts policy and funding environment has instituted a siege mentality which has caused many organisations to retreat into a focus on their own sustainability rather than rethink their models to foster the arts ecology, pay artists fairly and consider long-term goals.

At the same time, governments are increasingly focused on the sustainability of their own party’s grasp on power – even at the expense of any policy platform whatsoever, as the most recent federal election showed. The more they do this, the more our trust in them declines.

How can we make sure that Australia’s governance is respectful, mature and responsible? How can we improve our capacity to deal  with national and global challenges? Tinkering around the edges of the constitution is often discussed, but not in the context of a comprehensive national vision. Instead, constitutional change has recently been proposed to accommodate bigotries, reject dual citizens in parliament, or ignore a First Nations voice.

We need to be looking at nationhood in a much bigger way.

A complete rethink of the Australian constitution is the scale we should be considering. Given we can no longer trust politicians to adhere to the unwritten conventions that bolster our democracy, we need to rewrite the rules to ensure we’ve got –

  • recognition of First Nations sovereignty and a voice to parliament
  • a written-down set of powers that may and may not be exercised by the prime minister, who is entirely absent from the current constitution
  • a bill of rights, like Victoria’s, or otherwise, a section explicit championing and protection of the right to advocate publicly for matters in the public interest
  • a prohibition on any laws that damage the environment
  • fixed, four-year terms, so that the government of the day can’t manipulate current issues for political advantage
  • and, of course, an Australian head of state.

Beyond the constitution, we need to consider the role of public interest journalism, public and commercial media, and crucially, arts and culture. Each of these have undergone recent parliamentary inquiries, so let’s bring all of that together. What would a constitution look like that looked comprehensively at each element of our civic culture? That really took that impact seriously? What future national models would best support and inspire Australia?

There’s so much good work to be done to make sure we’re prepared for a future whose cultural, environmental and political challenges intensify by the day.

We need to make sure that the frameworks that govern our decision-making are constructive, ethical, and not as readily open to exploitation.


HEADER IMAGE: NAVA’s In these critical times at MPavilion earlier this year. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.