In the SMH, law academic George Williams rejects the idea that there should be a referendum on a charter of rights. He says that
Referendums are held to change the constitution, and have never been to approve an ordinary act of Parliament.
I’m not convinced by this point. The Australian constitutional system is much more than just the formal document called the Constitution. It includes all the laws, conventions and judicial decisions that establish and set out the relationships between the key institutions of government.
In this broader sense of a constitutional system, a charter of rights is an important change in the relationship between the executive and the judiciary, and represents a major shift in how the rest of us consider issues covered by the charter. The substantive rights and wrongs of various issues will become secondary to the legal arguments for and against, which are often much harder for ordinary citizens to understand. The judicial decisions made are likely to lead to conclusions which majorities do not support.
In this context, a referendum is not a silly idea. It’s not like having a vote on an ETS, as Williams suggests, or any of the other issues parliament considers each year. It’s about the rules of the political game, about who gets to decide what. It is a constitutional question, even if not an amendment to the Constitution.