ACT Constitutional Convention - a 360 degree view of the Franklin River debate
This month the chambers of Old Parliament House again rang with the sounds of passionate debate—on the right of the Federal Government to intervene in State matters. The voices belonged to students taking part in the 2012 ACT Constitutional Convention. The debate concerned the Federal Government’s 1983 intervention on the Franklin River in Tasmania and the passing of the World Heritage Properties Conservation Bill 1983.
The ACT Constitutional Convention is organised by the ACT Legislative Assembly, the Department of Education and Training, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the National Archives of Australia, the Australian Electoral Commission, Elections ACT and the Australian National University College of Law.
The aim of the exercise is to promote understanding of the Australian Constitution and system of Government among senior Secondary Students. Each year in term three, Year 11 students from schools around Canberra spend two days at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the National Archives of Australia and the ACT Legislative Assembly, to gain an understanding of Government through an issue closely linked to the Constitution. Each year, a number of those students are selected to progress to the National Constitutional Convention.
The Franklin River Debate centres on the right of the Federal Government to intervene in matters belonging to the States. The Constitution sets out in section 51 which matters belong to the Federal Government. The control of rivers is not among them. So the question discussed is ‘did the Federal Government have any rights under the Constitution to intervene in Tasmania’s decision to dam the Franklin River’? The delegates at the Convention explored this question during their experience at Old Parliament House.
To begin their examination the delegates were immersed in our Decision3sixty° interactive theatre experience. Here the events leading to the Franklin River Debate are interspersed with opportunities for voting and discussion of some of the key ideas. After a quick summary of the discussions, the delegates were escorted to the heart of the building to begin the task of recreating the passage of the 1983 Properties Conservation Bill through both chambers of the Parliament.
At the Museum of Australian Democracy we like to give students a chance to experience Parliament - to sit in the seats of former Members and Senators and to experience the echoes of passionate debate. On this occasion the delegates experienced something more than echoes - they engaged in a robust and raucous Parliamentary Debate, recreating the experience in glorious technicolour. As the participants said afterwards it was ‘So much fun’, ‘Amazingly immersive - a great way of consolidating the issues’ and ‘Very hands-on—I got to see how it really is in Parliament’.
Hosting the Constitutional Convention involves a lot of preparation then this is followed by a feverish few hours of activity but here at the Museum of Australian Democracy we love it—every effort is repaid handsomely when we observe the wholehearted enthusiasm and engagement of the students.