Tag Archives: history
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
Since coming into effect in 1901, Australia’s Constitution has shaped – and been shaped by – our political history.
The Constitution is the highest law in Australia. It shapes the laws the federal parliament may pass, how it administers those laws, the way our courts work, and how the federal government interacts with the state and territory governments.
In the late 1800s, there were six British colonies on the Australian continent. These stand-alone colonies had their own parliaments and governments, their own colonial constitutions, and even their own militaries.
In the 1880s and 1890s, representatives of the colonies began the discussions that would lead to federation. They wanted to join together to create a national government while maintaining political power for each colony’s own government.
These discussions, which culminated in the Constitution we have today, were driven by many factors. Among these were the need to make trade easier within Australia, a desire to control immigration, and to improve defence arrangements for the continent.
But, crucially, Australian Federation did not involve a revolution against Britain. Instead, at Federation, Australia would maintain close links to the parliament in London, the British courts and the British monarchy.
Aside from some discriminatory provisions, the Constitution would not include acknowledgement or recognition of Indigenous Australians. Our system of government became a mixture of British-inspired elements, American-inspired elements and uniquely Australian elements.
Voters were asked to approve the draft Constitution at referendums held in all the colonies. All the colonies eventually voted in favour – though some only narrowly, and with most women and Indigenous Australians excluded from voting.
After being passed into law by parliament in London, the Constitution came into effect on January 1, 1901.
What was its impact?
All this history has shaped our Constitution, and continues to shape our political history. Our Constitution establishes:
a system of representative government: we vote for those who govern us, and hold them accountable;
But it’s also important to remember that much goes unmentioned in our Constitution. Many key elements of our system of government don’t appear in the text of the Constitution. The prime minister, for instance, doesn’t rate a mention.
To help make up for the omissions, our political and legal history has been guided by rules known as constitutional conventions. These conventions are shaped by British history and by Australian history, and have occasionally proven very controversial.
… the rights of individuals are sufficiently secured by ensuring, as far as possible, to each a share, and an equal share, in political power.
Nonetheless, the text of our Constitution shapes what our governments can do, and the way in which they can do it. The Constitution affects how governments spend money, the position of Indigenous Australians, and policy in areas ranging from industrial relations and marriage to the environment and asylum seekers.
What are its contemporary implications?
The Constitution is hard to change. The federal parliament first must approve any proposed amendment. The amendment must then pass a referendum by a “double majority”: approved by a majority of voters as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states.
In 116 years, 44 attempts have been made to change the Constitution. Only eight have succeeded.
The failed attempts have included efforts to switch parliamentary terms from three years to four years, multiple efforts to protect basic civil rights, and the unsuccessful republic referendum to replace the monarch with an Australian. The last time the Constitution was successfully amended was in 1977.
Some may see this inflexibility as a strength: the Constitution is stable and enduring. But it also makes the Constitution very hard to update in response to changing times and changing values.
As a result, the Constitution is a document that reflects the priorities of the late 19th century more than the early 21st century.
Unsurprisingly, after 116 years of federation, there are many contemporary debates about the Constitution. Some are about how we should interpret the Constitution we have. Others are about finding ways to update our system of government without having to amend the Constitution.
But there are also debates about changing the Constitution, such as whether Indigenous Australians should be recognised in symbolic or substantive ways, whether the role of local government should be enshrined, or whether to replace the monarchy with an Australian head of state.
Or should we undertake a much more serious overhaul?
These questions reflect our history, and the answers to them will shape our future. But they also raise broader questions for all Australians: what do we expect from our politics? And what do we expect from our Constitution?
By now, you’ve probably heard about Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve disaster. After some technical malfunctions, Carey – who was supposed to lip-sync over a vocal track for “Emotions” and “We Belong Together” – ended up neither singing nor dancing much, and mostly talked about tech issues over the musical accompaniment track.
The reaction to the gaffe – which evoked Ashlee Simpson’s Saturday Night Live jig and Britney Spears’ bumbling 2007 VMA performance – was swift and harsh. Social media unleashed an avalanche of snark, while comedians like Stephen Colbert pounced.
But is the “scandal” of lip-syncing really so scandalous? Whether it’s a necessary evil or an efficacious substitute for performing live is a matter of perspective.
See no evil, hear no evil
The history of lip-syncing begins in the 1940s with “soundies,” short music videos produced for film jukeboxes. Baby boomers likely associate the practice with the television shows “American Bandstand” and “Soultrain,” where musical guests mimed their latest hits, often absent a live band.
But faking became controversial only when it was revealed in 1967 that the made-for-TV-band The Monkees didn’t always play their own instruments, relying heavily on studio musicians, especially on their early recordings. Critics derided the band, calling them the “Pre-Fab Four.” But they seemed more concerned than fans, many of whom cared little about whether or not The Monkees played their own instruments. The group rode out the storm, increasingly handling the playing (and also songwriting) duties.
Interestingly, while a number of popular bands like The Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Association would perform live in concert, behind the scenes – when recording their albums – they’d use a pool of Los Angeles studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew (who, in fact, also played on the early Monkees albums).
Meanwhile, in film musicals, it was a common (and uncontroversial) practice to use trained singers like Marni Nixon to cover the vocals for actors, whether it was Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” or Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.”
Better safe than sorry
In the 1980s, MTV emerged. With it, the proliferation of a new form – the music video – heightened the importance of spectacle during live and televised performances.
The demands of choreography and acting – coupled with the acoustic and weather-related challenges of large outdoor venues – made live singing both more difficult and less of a priority. Covert lip-syncing in concert and on television became more common.
Many artists, especially those who perform in large, outdoor venues with complex, choreographed dance numbers, will lip-sync or sing along with prerecorded vocal tracks. These include Beyoncé, Madonna and Britney Spears.
For an aging virtuosa like Mariah Carey – known for her stunning upper register and vocal gymnastics – the risks of failed technology may outweigh the risk of veering off note. This is, of course, a different matter entirely from using digital devices to mask limited ability, a move more familiarly associated with auto-tune, a popular pitch-correcting device employed by artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Tim McGraw.
But the most infamous musical masquerade – and the incident most likely responsible for the intense scrutiny of lip-syncing – was the short-lived career of European R&B duo Milli Vanilli. After Milli Vanilli won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Artist, singer Charles Shaw, who actually performed on the group’s debut album, revealed that, on top of lip-syncing their way through all their live performances, they hadn’t sung any of the tracks recorded on their album. The Recording Academy rescinded its Grammy and, despite efforts to remake themselves as real vocalists, the duo faded into obscurity.
Yet the public and media can be inconsistent in their denunciations of musical fakery. While it was well-known that actresses Hepburn, Kerr and Wood lip-synced over Marni Nixon’s vocals, they appear not to have suffered any damage to their subsequent careers. (Kerr was even nominated for an Oscar for her role in “The King and I.”)
In contrast, Beyoncé came under fire for lip-syncing the National Anthem at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration. This was, of course, a high-stakes event fraught with challenges for a live vocalist: winter weather, outdoor acoustics and an enormous audience (to say nothing of a notoriously difficult song with an exceptionally wide range). According to Rickey Minor, who has produced a number of Super Bowl halftime shows, the pitfalls of these situations make performing live not worth it. And despite some controversy immediately following her performance, Beyoncé’s career and reputation certainly didn’t suffer any lasting effects.
With the exception of Milli Vanilli, nearly every major act that has endured a lip-sync scandal has eventually recovered. Given Mariah Carey’s heretofore brilliant career, her reputation remains on firm ground.