Fixing what ain’t broke

By Rewi Lyall

For a while I’d been trying to convince myself that I could write about this in a general sense and move on to specific arguments later. But then Tony Abbott reminded me of the time that the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ really started to get my goat.

You see, this is a nonsense axiom.

The notion that humans should only fix what is broken stands in the face of some of the most wonderful of inventive leaps our species has made. I’ll illustrate with what seem to me to be a couple of stand out examples.

What was it about the way homo sapiens lived that was ‘broken’ and which led to the invention of the wheel? Sure, it’s easy in hindsight to say that the wheel clearly made life better, but that’s not the point in this argument. Making life easier, or better, isn’t the criteria, it’s fixing something that’s broken.

Was candle-power a ‘broken’ way of providing light? In order to really come to terms with this we have to try and conceive of how people felt about those prior ways of life in which only a handful of people conceived of the possibility of change. Did our great-grandparents think that the horse and carriage was a ‘broken’ mode of transport?

What about how humanity conducted its affairs was ‘broken’ that was later ‘fixed’ by space flight?

We’re often told that some of the great inventive leaps have resulted from defence industries, which leads to the question – particularly since World War Two – what was ‘broken’ about the way we kill each other? What’s broken about that now? Isn’t it the case that defence industries are still working at better ways to kill people?

Tony Abbott forms part of this argument because he used the axiom to devastating effect in the constitutional debates of the 1990s. It was one of those clichéd phrases which form part of his apparently superhuman power to ‘cut through’.

The problem (or at least one of a few problems) faced by the republicans at that time was that they denied themselves the obvious and critical repost: the Australian Constitution is broken. They could have made the argument, implicit from the above examples, that we as a species don’t and have never only fixed things that were broken. We’ve sought to improve our lives for the sake of the improvement. We’ve made inventive and creative leaps because we can, not just because we must.

But republicans didn’t even get that argument going particularly well, and in any case it’s a little hard to see how the minimalist approach could be perceived as ‘improving’ our lives in any meaningful way.

Even worse, by pursuing a minimalist agenda which merely changed the names on the letterhead and redirected the mail, the Australian Republican Movement gave us no reason to change. Constitutions are, after all, pretty important things. Symbolism doesn’t really get us there in terms of a need for change.

The glaring, slap you in the face and steal your lunch money problems which come with a nineteenth century constitutional model that was out of date 50 years ago are real and have daily repercussions.

Like the complete absence of the language of rights.

Or the… messed up division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and State governments.

Health reform, anyone?

Political radicalism in Australia is so hamstrung by some weird combination of a belief in incremental change and an inability to forcefully argue the need for radical change that we’re left in a limbo land where it’s apparently OK to concede that a constitutional bill of rights is unlikely to be successful at a referendum and to, from there, rationalize that we don’t really want constitutional rights anyway.

As if the suspension of legislative rights flowing from the Racial Discrimination Act didn’t actually happen. Wasn’t it a good thing that the Commonwealth stepped in to ‘fix’ that?

But I guess the existence of those rights, and the ability of people to rely on them to ensure that they were not subject to discrimination, must have been at the heart of what was ‘broken’ about the broken lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Good thing our parliamentarians are able to tell us what’s broken about our houses, even if they refuse to do anything to fix their own.

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