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A Constitution for People and Country

Over recent centuries in the history of the West government has been about people and people’s rights. This led to some progress – at least formally, if not in practice - in relation to the rights of individuals. Such civic protections have been enshrined in systems of law and legislature i.e in formal constitutions which limit the power of leaders/rulers over the people. Formal constitutions often follow a tradition of establishing representative parliaments, an independent judiciary and an executive (in Australia, the Government’s cabinet) or some variation thereof and linked to the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta tradition is about protecting people from summary execution, or summary jailing or confiscation of property.These protections were sometimes far from perfect. Property rights were certainly not well protected for many English villagers who were removed from their land during the period of enclosures and industrialisation. Others such as Habeas Corpus – protection against arbitrary detention – have been somewhat weakened with recent anti-terrorist laws. The main point here is that for a past few hundred years (at least) the focus of constitutions for western governments has been on protecting the rights of people (and property rights).

But with the damaging effects of industrial corporate capitalism now very clear the need for protections for land, for Country, is being increasing recognised. Active long-term environmentalists, such as Jenny Warfe, seem now to be realising this. This is particularly important for Australia, as the driest continent with poor soils and a record of serious degeneration since European settlement. As noted by Charles Massy in his PhD research, many farmers are undergoing a fundamental transformation in their perception of Australia as a natural system and of their farming practices. Increasingly Australian farmers are coming to see properties as less of a farm and more of a part of the large and complex continent of Australia, as part of a “’nourishing terrain’ which gives and receives life; is a timeless entity; and which must be carefully managed for perpetuity”. These same farmers are coming to appreciate and acknowledge the “deep and rigorously-tested natural science” of Australia’s Indigenous cultures and in doing so appreciate the need for reconciliation with these same people for past injustices.

The truth is we need to start taking care of this precious continent. We need to start regenerative practices that reverse the environmental damage done over the past 200 years. This type of deep ecological understanding to which Australian farmers are now awakening is not unique to Australia’s Indigenous people. Indigenous groups around the world share a similar understanding; an understanding that has evaded western thinking European colonists for too long. Ecuador is one nation that has entrenched its native people’s deep connection to the land in a new constitution which passed referendum in 2008.

Perhaps it is time to radically rethink our relation to our land. To redesign our constitution so as to properly recognise Indigenous peoples and to protect not just people (and their property rights) but the very land itself. In this regard, perhaps we also need to reconsider our state boundaries and organise these not just around human communities, but along natural systems, much as Aboriginal nations were organised. A logical organising principle for the world’s driest continent is around water, and river systems in particular. Significant progress has already been made in this regard, with the FOWTOR state proposal. So let us begin the preparatory work to create a new Australia – one that addresses the injustices and ignorance of the past, a new constitution and a new arrangement, a constitution that recognises Australia for the delicate and complex land it is. A constitution that will support the Australian people and the Australian landscape in perpetuity. Perhaps a constitution less about government as we have understood it in the past and more about transient stewardship of the land as something to be shared with future generations. And hopefully in a better, not worse state, than we inherited it.

See also: http://www.earthlaws.org.au

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A related issue (drawing on an earlier article on the Constitution) is a Change.org proposal by Michael Johnstone to change our constitutional processes for treaty signing:

Click here for the Conduct a Review into the Australian Treaty Process petition

This change is needed because current the Government (Cabinet) can sign away our sovereign rights in treaties without going to the people and without the full treaty being debated by parliament. Signing something like the TPP and other free trade agreements, like the Korea-Australia FTA, will reduce our options in how we respond to imminent crises by tying us to Investor State disputes and other encumbrances.

David Horton edited the Indigenous map of Australia . Here is his thoughts on our current divisions of land based on his blog:

So, it’s time twenty first century Australia began to adapt to the country. Two hundred and twenty years is surely enough to understand that straight lines drawn on a map in the British Colonial office have little relevance now. So rub them out, rather in the way that a pavement artist would scuff out the lines and boxes of a children’s hopscotch game before settling down to draw a masterpiece in chalk. We don’t need 18 regions – many of the historical factors don’t apply, language isn’t an issue, modern transport and communication remove some of the constraints. So, what do we need? Well, first the big one. Just as for the Aborigines, the Murray-Darling basin is an obvious unit. We could call it … Riverland. And then the others follow naturally – Desertland, Tropicland, Coastland, Mountainland, Westland, Forestland. Seven in all, same as now (assuming there would still need to be an ACT in which to hold the annual corroboree), each representing distinct geography and ecology.

So, what would these new states do (apart from playing cricket)? Well, they would be responsible for setting appropriate population levels, and sustainable resource use (including sun and wind and tide for renewable energy) practices. And there would be responsibilites in looking after the fauna and flora of each region (the governor of each state would have a list to make sure that each generation handed on the same biodiversity to the next). And there would be duties specific to each region. Riverland would be responsible for ensuring that a raindrop falling in Queensland could eventually reach the Coorong, that wetlands were maintained, big irrigators sent to dryland agriculture school. Tropicland would need to keep an eye on northern agriculture and damming rivers, and the spread of cane toads. Coastland gets to keep developers off sand dunes and out of mangroves, and establish fishing exclusion zones; Mountainland has to keep water catchments in good shape, and keep cattle out of the high country; Desertland has to stop dust blowing and nurture bilbies; Westland is responsible for maintaining its aquifers and its honey possums; and Forestland is responsible for, well, not having pulp mills would be a start. You get the idea.