Monday, September 15, 2008

The wheels of the bus

Helen Irving asks where the power for the High Court to make judgements on whether or not things are constitutional comes from. Then, of course, she has to ask the next question - where does the power to make the constitution come from. There are all sorts of sensible historical and legal answers, of course. The British Parliament, precedent, convention and so on.

But another sort of answer is convention and acceptance. The power exists because none of us object to it enough to complain, lobby or revolt. And that, as far as I can tell, sums up why our democracy works. We obey laws that are convenient for us or laws that match our everyday behaviour. We obey laws that give us benefits or don't require anything of us (which is nearly all of them nearly all the time). We theoretically obey some laws because there are unpleasant consequences if we don't, but I don't think it really works like that. I think most of us obey the law because it's slightly more convenient for us to do so than it isn't.

Think of jaywalking, for example. Only the most law-abiding or timid citizen has never jaywalked. Especially in Canberra where the traffic is frequently light or entirely absent. We disobey those particular traffic laws because it's more convenient for us to break the law. And Melbournians, as we all know, are notorious fare evaders. Some people seem to look at the law and decide that the benefits of tax evasion, fraud, bank robbery or whatever are worth more than the mild benefits of obeying the law. So the law has no power over their ideas, and no power to make them respect the decision makers of the land. Those people (and possibly several other millions) don't care a jot if the High Court has power to decide questions of constitutional law, or whether the constitution accurately describes the structures of power within Australian institutions.

I'm not trying to argue that individuals are not subjected to state power. That would be stupid. It's just, you know, lawyers seem to think that legislative power, constitutional power, parliamentary power mean a lot more to day-to-day life than it appears to most people. I dunno. The bus timetable has more power over me some of the time, because it's imposed on me and I have absolutely no choice in the matter. I can do nothing but comply or walk home.

And this is why these long but not especially insightful thoughts on power exist at all. If I hadn't been on a 55 minute bus journey to travel a distance that would be 14 minutes in the car I would never have had the time to even think of these issues. Public transport and power - now there's something to think about.

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