Journal article

Jack Balkin's constitutionalism and the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians

16 Sep 2014
Description

This article assesses the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians' Report and proposals from the perspective of constitutional theory.

Introduction

In January 2012, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians (‘Expert Panel’) delivered its report to the then Prime Minister making a number of recommendations to amend the Australian Constitution to ‘recognise’ Indigenous Australians. Rather than engage in a legal critique of the substance of the Expert Panel’s various proposals, this article approaches the Expert Panel’s Report and proposals as a whole from the perspective of constitutional theory. It argues that the Expert Panel’s Report and proposals strongly reflect the constitutional theory of the American constitutional theorist Jack Balkin.

In his book Living Originalism, Balkin conceives of the United States Constitution functioning not only as ‘basic law’, distributing powers and setting up institutions of government, but also as ‘higher law’, embodying values and aspirations for the nation, and as ‘our law’, helping to constitute the people of the nation as a people. The first claim made in this article is that the Expert Panel conceives of the functions of the Australian Constitution in much the same way as Balkin conceives of the functions of the United States Constitution. The article makes a second claim. For Balkin, a constitution successfully functioning as basic law gives it procedural legitimacy whilst its success in functioning as higher law and our law gives it moral and sociological legitimacy respectively. Whilst the Australian Constitution does not really function as higher law or our law in Balkin’s sense, the Expert Panel’s adoption of that kind of thinking can be seen as a critique of the legitimacy of the Australian Constitution. The Expert Panel implicitly suggests that the Australian Constitution can be made more legitimate. The article also makes a third claim building upon the first two. It is argued that the Expert Panel is engaged in a project of constitutional redemption, a concept that features heavily in Living Originalism and which is the principal subject of its companion work Constitutional Redemption: Political Faith in an Unjust World.

This article begins by setting out the background to the Expert Panel’s Report and notes its various proposals for amendments to the Australian Constitution. The article then turns to the first main claim. It explains Balkin’s tripartite view of constitutional functions and explores how the Expert Panel’s report and recommendations appear to be based on a view of the Australian Constitution as higher law and as our law. The article then turns to the second main claim, explaining how it is difficult to accept that the Australian Constitution functions as higher law and our law in Balkin’s sense and showing how the Expert Panel’s adoption of that thinking offers a critique of the legitimacy of the Australian Constitution. The article then turns to the third main claim and explores how the Expert Panel appears to be engaged in a project of constitutional redemption. The article concludes with a reference to The Castle and ‘the vibe’ and suggests that it is possible that the Australian people may one day look to the Australian Constitution as higher law and our law.

Publication Details
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Published year only: 
2014
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