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Jocelynne Annette Scutt


Since the United States adopted a written constitution as a consequence of the War of Independence, it is fair to say that most Western democracies with written constitutions have taken some guidance from that founding document. Inevitably, a key provision for any written constitution is ‘how can it be amended’. Even where there is an unwritten constitution (as for the United Kingdom, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Israel), the ‘rules’ established by convention or custom or some other means cannot be immutable: the passage of time or changing ideas require some means of altering or updating the rules. Changing a constitution is a matter of law, yet one inescapably imbued with politics. This article explores the way constitutional change has come, and how the rules have worked, in Australia (the 1951 referendum to ban the Australian Communist Party – unsuccessful, and the 1967 referendum to recognise rights of Indigenous Australians – successful) and the United States (the Equal Rights Amendment – situation ongoing), with a foray into the referendum process in United Kingdom (the 2017 ‘Brexit’ vote). It explores, too, the ‘change’ to a constitution where there is no change to the words of the document, but a change in interpretation – this in the context of Canada in 1929. There, consistent with judgments in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Canadian Supreme Court interpreted ‘person’ as appearing in the North America Act as not including women, denying women any entitlement to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. As related here, women were finally acknowledged as ‘persons’ when the Privy Council pronounced this to be so, an unanticipated outcome from a judicial body considered by both Canada and Australia to be so hidebound as not to be ‘right’ as the final court of appeal for Britain’s former colonies.

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