People Power: Is Violent Revolution Constitutional?

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The ‘Arab Spring’ was a wave of revolutionary demonstrations and civil wars that began in Tunisia in December 2010, spreading quickly across the Arab world. Images and videos of the uprisings went viral, instantly spreading to all corners of the globe.

Violent revolution has been a feature of civilization for thousands of years – indeed, people were revolting well before the advent of print media, let alone social media platforms.

Australia has, for the most part, enjoyed relatively stable political structure over the past century. Although our recent history has been dotted with political turmoil – such as the dismissal of the Whitlam government, or more recently the Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd saga – we are yet to experience a violent overthrow of the government.

Many believe that as long as living standards remain high, the public is unlikely to resort to violent revolution. However, if human history is anything to go by, poor living standards are not the only trigger for uprisings – indeed, political and social oppression, and wealth disparity regardless of living standards, has also led to revolt and coup de tat.

In our hyper-globalised world, where institutions can crumble and financial markets collapse overnight, it is not impossible to envisage a situation where the public reaches its breaking point – especially where financial turmoil is accompanied by excessive governmental control.

With that in mind, an interesting question arises: is it ever legal to engage in violent revolution in Australia?

Constitutional provisions

A number of constitutions expressly contain right to overthrow government. For example, Article 120 of the Greek Constitution states:

“Observance of the constitution is entrusted to the patriotism of the Greeks who shall have the right and the duty to resist by all possible means against anyone who attempts the violent abolition of the Constitution.”

It is particularly interesting that the Greek Constitution goes so far as to couche resistance against those who attempt violent abolition of the Constitution as not only a right but in fact a duty.

In similar terms, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany recognises the right of the people to resist unconstitutional actions, if all other measures fail:

“All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available.”

In contrast, the Australian Constitution is a decidedly bland document, principally concerned with the division of power between the states and commonwealth rather than with the rights of citizens. Indeed, only 5 rights are expressly contained within our constitution:

  • The right to vote (Section 41),
  • Protection against acquisition of property on unjust terms (Section 51 (xxxi)),
  • The right to a trial by jury for criminal cases in the higher courts (Section 80),
  • Freedom of religion (Section 116), and
  • Prohibition of discrimination on the basis of State of residency (Section 117).

In addition to these, the High Court has found an implied freedom of political communication, which is essential for the operation of our system of representative government as created by sections 7, 24, 64 and 128.

Unsurprisingly then, the Constitution does not stipulate under what conditions, if any, citizens are entitled to violently overthrow the government. Indeed, a group that seeks to revolt – even if resisting an illegitimate or abusive leader – would likely be labelled a ‘terrorist organisation’ and prosecuted accordingly, without the ability to rely on a constitutional defence.

Bill of Rights

Some argue that fundamental human rights should be clearly recognised and enforceable by law.

Whilst the right to revolution may, at this time, be an interesting hypothetical, many argue that basic inalienable rights should be codified on a national level through the implementation of a Bill of Rights incorporated into the Australian Constitution – much like the Amendments to the US Constitution represent that country’s bill of rights.

Whilst some law still exist which aim to safeguard against governmental abuse, many are concerned about the gradual encroachment of the state on the protections and liberties of citizens, arguing that a Bill of Rights would help protect against our current slide towards a police state.

In the meantime, those harbouring a desire to overthrow the Turnbull or Baird governments might need to work within the existing framework – although sovereign citizens may have a different idea…

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