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  • It is 40 years since Australians last voted to change their Constitution and almost 18 years since the 1999 republic vote. Many are pessimistic about the prospects of future attempts at constitutional reform.
  • Rather than focus on past failures, we should work to develop a more open, reflective community debate that generates sound reform proposals as well as broad acceptance and legitimacy.

Menzies once remarked that winning a referendum is ‘one of the labours of Hercules’. These words have a particular resonance today. It is 40 years since Australians last voted to change their Constitution, the longest such period since Federation. Constitutional reform continues to be near the centre of national political debate, but we have reached a point where holding a referendum – let alone one that carries – has become a daunting task.

The referendum record has understandably led some to doubt the prospects of constitutional reform in Australia. There is a sense that any proposal, whatever its merits, will inevitably be defeated.

While a sense of fatalism and even despair is understandable, there is a danger in focusing too much on past referendum failures. Chastened by past defeats, we risk becoming preoccupied with ‘winning’ the next referendum, when we can more productively put our energies into carrying on a better, more open national conversation about our constitutional future. We should use this 40th anniversary – somewhat counter-intuitively – to talk about referendum process, not referendum outcomes.

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