'Taking The Fifth' In Australia

If thoughtful Australians are largely skeptical of the American constitutional system with its separation of powers and potential for gridlock, they often admire the way the US educates its citizens on that system.

One hears again and again that what a lot of Australians think they know about their own Constitution is information about the US Constitution that they have picked up largely from American television programs.

"A common misperception is that when you're arrested, you have the right to make a phone call," says Stepan Kerkyasharian, chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales. Not so here, he adds.

"Kids talk about 'taking the Fifth Amendment,' " a Canberra official says, referring to the protection against self-incrimination in the US Bill of Rights.

John Freeland, executive director of the Evatt Foundation, a left-leaning think tank in Sydney, says "the US has been more diligent [than Australia] in infusing new immigrants with pride in the civic culture."

Sen. Kate Lundy says, "I was not taught a single thing about the Australian Constitution during my school time."

She refers to this as an "appalling flaw."

An Australian Electoral Commission official suggests that one mitigating factor in all this is that the Australian Constitution has more to do with the "machinery of government" than with guarantees of individual rights.

Mr. Freeland is blunter: "There are no ringing, resonant clauses in the Australian Constitution. It's really ... boring."

Malcolm Turnbull, head of the Australian Republican Movement, tells of encountering a monarchist friend who lit into him over his activities in the republican movement.

Mr. Turnbull says he tried to calm the man down with what he thought would be accepted as a constructive suggestion: The two of them could sponsor a school essay contest.

Turnbull would award a prize for the best essay explaining why Australia should be a republic, and the friend could give a prize for the best defense of the monarchy.

This suggestion did not have the desired calming effect, Turnbull relates.

Red-faced with anger, the monarchist spat out the words, "Schoolchildren should not be thinking of these things!"

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