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Symbols matter

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by Prof George Williams


 

 

Symbols matter. They define who we are and can be a powerful way of redressing injustice and building social cohesion around shared goals and values, writes Professor George Williams.



PRIME MINISTER John Howard always understood this and during his leadership Anzac Day and Australia Day gained new significance.

After many years disputing the value of symbolic reform in indigenous affairs, he told the Sydney Institute in October 2007: "I announce that, if re-elected, I will put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally recognize indigenous Australians in our Constitution − their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation."

He declared that his "goal is to see a new statement of reconciliation incorporated into the preamble of the Australian Constitution".

Howard was right, it is long past time that Aboriginal people were recognized in the Constitution.

The other major symbolic agenda is the Australian republic.

The Constitution is at odds with the reality of Australia's political and legal independence and its contemporary values.

It is more than incongruous that Australia's head of state is the monarch of a foreign nation born to a position, according to a 1701 British statute, that ranks men over women and rules Catholics ineligible.

Sexism and religious discrimination are unacceptable tests for office in modern Australia and should not determine who is eligible to be the country's head of state.

Section 2 of the Constitution suggests Australia is not an independent nation and establishes the governor-general as the Queen's representative: "A governor-general appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him."

The now obsolete section 59 even grants the Queen power to "disallow any law" passed by federal Parliament.

The Constitution is only reprinted in Australia as part of the UK Parliament's Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, the implication being that it is the source of the power and authority of Australian laws.

Despite the failure of the 1999 republic referendum, Australia is in fact politically and legally independent.

The legal shift was finally resolved by the Australia Acts of 1986, which removed any right of appeal to the Privy Council.

The symbolic conflict between the text of the Constitution and actual Australian independence remains unresolved, and both undermines a sense of identity and distorts perceptions within and outside the country.

Symbolism is an important value in our system, and the Australian Constitution ought to be amended to reflect this and establish a republic with an Australian head of state appointed without reference to London.

(Professor George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of Law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert & Tobin Centre of Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales. He is also an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow. Edwina MacDonald assisted with research for this article, which was originally published, in a slightly different form in Republican Roundup in 2008.)  
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