Australia's last brick of nationhood

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Australia has gradually been gaining sovereignty during the 20th century and has only one more step to take to become fully, undeniably and unambiguously independent. David Donovan explains.

(This article was published on the ABC's The Drum Unleashed on December 7, 2010)

AUSTRALIA is like a big and beautiful house with a brick missing. Or, put another way, is like a runner that has almost completed a race, but has decided to sit down on the track metres from the finishing tape. Australia's missing brick is that it we have almost, but not quite, achieved full nationhood. The tape we are striving to break is the last colonial thread – our remaining Constitutional links – to the mother country.

Many people incorrectly assume that Australia became a fully independent and sovereign nation on January 1st 1901 with Federation. Actually, Australia was created as a “self governing colony” under section 8 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, an Act of British Parliament that contains the entire Constitution of Australia under its 9th section. After Federation, in fact, the constitutional position of the Commonwealth of Australia was just the same as it had been for the individual colonies prior to Federation. At least to begin, the Commonwealth of Australia was an amalgamation and a trade pact rather than a declaration of sovereignty.

The Constitution did provide the Commonwealth with the powers associated with a sovereign state, but the United Kingdom still retained the power to make laws for Australia and to overturn laws made by the Australian Parliament. It used them too and was, to begin, very active in engaging in foreign affairs on behalf of Australia. For many years, for instance, Australia was represented by the United Kingdom as part of the British Empire at international conferences. The Constitution also provided that the British monarch be represented in Australia by a Governor-General who was originally appointed on the advice of the British, not the Australian, Government. The early Governor Generals were agents for the British Government and were usually members of the British aristocracy.

Australia joins the League of Nations at Versailles, Billy Hughes centre behind desk

The Commonwealth of Australia became more independent in the aftermath of the Great War, a war in which Australia suffered 60,000 casualties fighting for the British Imperial forces. In 1919, under Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Australia demanded and was reluctantly offered a place at the table at the Paris Peace Conference. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles was, indeed, the first time Australia had ever signed an international treaty. In negotiations, Hughes demanded and gained Australian representation in the League of Nations and significant reparations from Germany.

Australia gained further nationhood in 1927 with the British Parliament legislating into effect the Balfour Declaration, which had been made at a British Imperial Conference in 1926. Britain and dominion leaders agreed that all dominions should have their own realms with a shared Crown. Interestingly, it did not provide for a separate title Queen of Australia and, indeed, up until 1953, she had the same title in Australia as she did in Britain, which was "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

The Statute of Westminster was passed by British Parliament in 1931, which prevented the British Parliament to make laws for its dominions except where it was required by that dominion’s own laws. Australia used this avenue to pass laws several times over the course of the 20th Century, mainly to acquire external territories.

Though it had achieved some legislative equality to Britain, Australia still submitted to British command of its armed forces in 1940 at the beginning of World War II . After the devestating British loss of Singapore,

Prime Minister John Curtin began to look to the United States for assistance while Japan stormed towards Australia through South-East Asia.

 Prime Minister John Curtin

In a Christmas 1941 radio address to the nation, Curtin signalled a shift in Australia's thinking about Britain:

"Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces....But we know that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on."

Even after this, Australia was still technically under the wartime command of Britain, and Curtin and British PM Winston Churchill became embroiled in a series of disputes as the Australian refused to be cowed by the dogged British leader.

Matters finally came to head in mid-February 1942, when Curtin asked for Australia's experienced 6th and 7th Divisions to return from Africa to defend Australia in the South Pacific. Churchill instead demanded they be sent to Burma to defend British interests there. Finally, after a furious flurry of cables in the dead of night, Curtin managed to get the Australian troops to steam back to Perth. Australia's military now finally answered to Australian, rather than British, leadership.

In December 1952, Commonwealth leaders discussed changing to the format of the Queen's title. Canada wanted it to be less British: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of [Realm] and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Australia, under the devotedly monarchist Prime Minister Robert Menzies, insisted that the United Kingdom also be included in the title. Australia legislated this into Australia law through the Royal Styles and Titles Act 1953 and the Queen became known here as the Queen of the United Kingdom and Australia. Not until Gough Whitlam's Labor Government came to power in 1972 were moves made to remove all references to the United Kingdom in the Queen’s title. Finally, in 1973, Elizabeth Windsor became styled in this country as Queen of Australia.

Queen Elizabeth II and Robert Menzies

In 1986, Australia asked the British Parliament to pass the Australia Act, which effectively terminated the ability of the British Parliament to make laws for Australia or its States even at their request. It also advanced Australian sovereignty by breaking the right of appeal from our courts to the British Privy Council, which was until then Australia’s last judicial link to Britain.

Since then, no more advances have been made, though some argue that the ones listed are enough to signify that Australia is in fact a fully independent nation.

Unfortunately, Australia can only be regarded a having de facto, rather than de jure, independent status while the Queen still holds a central role under our Constitution. Yes, since a 1973 Act of Parliament, we have begun to call the monarch Queen of Australia, but it is pure sophistry to insist that she is a not a British monarch and, as such, a potent symbol of our British colonial past.

After all, the Queen lives in Britain and seldom comes to Australia. She regards herself as British and actively and exclusively promotes British interests — never Australian. The monarchy is not Australian in any substantial sense, it is strongly and vocally British in character.

Some say that Australia could change the Australian line of succession to make the Crown truly Australian, however authorities suggest that because it is a “shared throne” it would need to be done “with the consent of all the other realms”. This is, therefore, not a realistic option.

Furthermore, despite the Australia Act, the Queen retains several powers under the Australia Constitution. For instance, under s59 of the Constitution, she has the power to disallow any Australian law within a year of its enactment, though by convention she refuses to use this power. Perhaps to remind us she retains such powers she does, however, sometimes perform some Constitutional function – such as giving the Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament – for ceremonial purposes during a Royal visits. In addition, the Queen also appoints her representative in Australia, the Governor General. Also by convention, she does so only on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister.

But conventions are only just generally understood guidelines for conduct. Because the powers they curtail have been so far left unexercised, the Queen’s powers have never been legally tested and so are impossible to properly define.

Prince Charles, the activist heir

For example, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a future monarch, perhaps one who sees himself as something of an activist in world affairs, may one day decide to test his Australian powers. Mind you, if he did, it is almost certain Australians would issue him a stern rebuff and become a republic at the earliest available opportunity. On the other hand, a different future monarch may decide to test these powers merely to induce Australians to take that final step.

Either way, do we want to reach full, formal, legal sovereignty in such an inglorious fashion — dragged over the line reluctantly, kicking and screaming all the way? Of course not.

We have gone a long way to creating our nation; we are almost there. But the task of creating a fully, undeniably and unambiguously independent Australia is not quite complete. Let’s take the last few steps and break the tape tying us to mother Britain. Let’s mortar in the last brick of our nationhood.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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