Australia Day 1999 Address
An address by Mr Stan Klan - Patron of the ACM Toowoomba Branch
Supporters of an Australian republic see things so clearly. There is, they say, only one question that really matters : "Don’t you want an Australian as Head of State?"
Their question is not only a gross oversimplification, it is also mischief of the very naughiest kind. They choose to propagate the half-truth that the Queen of England is Australia’s Head of State.
The whole truth (as always) is not so simple. The phrase "Head of State" does not appear in that widely-quoted but rarely read document, the Constitution of Australia.
What the constitution suggests, rather, is that while the Queen is our symbolic Head of State, it is the Governor-General who is the Constitutional Head of State of Australia.
I returned recently to the textbook of every undergraduate Politics student of my University days, the 1970’s, P H Lane’s An Introduction to the Australian Constitution. I searched the index for the entry "Head of State", and what did I read? Head of State - see Governor General.
"The Australian" newspaper, never reticent about its full support for an Australian republic, has repeatedly referred to Governors General as Australia’s Heads of State.
Within the last 4 years, both Bill Hayden and Sir William Deane have been called "Our Head of State" by the Australian Newspaper (see, for example, 24th June 1995, 26th June 1995, 6th September 1996). In his address to the parliament outlining his proposals for an Australian republic, former Prime Minister Mr Paul Keating refers to the Governor-General as Australia’s Head of State (see Hansard, 7th June 1995, pp 1434 - 41).
Why, then did the Founding Fathers not spell out unequivocally in the Constitution what is now clearly evident, that the Governor-General is the Head of State, of Australia ... or did they? Sections 2 and 61 are the key passages.
When we compare Australia’s constitution with Canada’s, one of several studied very carefully by the framers of our own Constitution, we find that our Founding Fathers gave our Governor-General a position of authority vis-a-vis the British monarch, unequalled in any other British colony or dominion. The executive power of the Commonwealth is exercised by the Governor-General. Section 61 of the Constitution is quite clear.
The events surrounding the Governor-General’s dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 clearly illustrate this.
The Governor-General of the day, Sir John Kerr, did not seek permission from the Queen to withdraw the ’s commission; he did not even advise her in advance. To do so, he said, would have been "to involve her in a constitutional crisis in relation to which she had no legal powers."
Understandably peeved about the dismissal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives wrote to the Queen asking her to overrule the Governor-General’s action, and to re-instate the Whitlam government. Buckingham Palace replied (and I must quote at length):
"the Australian Constution firmly places the prerogative power of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General.....the only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General.....it would not be proper for (the Queen) to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act."
Can it be any clearer than that? Why the confusion? Are the republicans trying to stir up anti-British feeling by continuing to insist that we have a foreign Head of State.
Let us be kind enough to suggest that they are simply misled and not deliberately dishonest.
Their misunderstanding may result from the long British tradition of gradual evolution of institutions with not much written down.
Our Westminster system, for example, probably dates in embryo from 1215, almost 800 years. Britain has not known bloody social and political upheavals to rival Germany’s France’s or Russia’s because of its tradition of gradual reform and evolution. Its one revolution, the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the setting up of the 11 year Republic of Oliver Cromwell, resulted eventually in our present Constitutional Monarchy dating from 1688.
Similarly, we find this gradual evolution in the history of our Constitution. What is written down often follows what is, in fact, the situation.
Four key dates in this evolution - 1926 to 1930, 1953, 1984, 1988 require our attention. Between the Imperial Conferences of 1926 and 1930 the British Empire died and the British Commonwealth of Nations was born.
It was agreed at the Imperial Conference of 1926 that "the Governor-General of (Australia) is the representative of the Crown holding, in all essential respects, the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs (in Australia) as is held by the King in Great Britain, and that he is not the representative or agent of His Majesty’s Government."
From 1926, then, it was quite clear that the Governor-General exercised the power of the Head of State.
The Statute of Westminster, arising from these Imperial Conferences, declared all Commonwealth dominions "autonomous communities, ....equal in status,....in no way subordinate to one another,.....united in common allegiance to the Crown."
In 1953, in preparation for the first visit to Australia by a reigning monarch, the parliament passed (unanimously) the Australia Act, giving the Queen back some powers for her to exercise while she was on these shores. The Act also gave her Australian citizenship, just as all immigrants are made Australian citizens by act of parliament.
The third key year 1 mentioned was 1984, nine years after the Dismissal and in the second year of a new Labor government. On the advice of Prime Minister Mr Bob Hawke, the Queen revoked Queen Victoria’s Letters Patent and Instructions to the Governor-General, formalising the situation which had existed in fact certainly since 1931, and almost certainly since 1901.
1988 is the fourth key date. In that year Mr Hawke’s Constitutional Commission gave its final report, asserting that "although the Governor-General is the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General is in no sense a delegate of the Queen. The independence of the office is highlighted by changes made in recent years to the Royal instruments relating to it."
The role of Governor-General has evolved from an Englishman appointed by the British parliament, to an Australian Head of State chosen by the Australian people’s elected representative, without any need to change the Constitution. This not only speaks volumes for this wonderful document, but proves unequivocally that Australia has been an independent, sovereign nation from the outset.
Why, then, is the myth of the foreign Head of State the principal plank in the Republicans’ campaign?
Knowing that a republic offers nothing new but is likely to detract from the democratic freedoms and security we presently enjoy, they play the racist anti-British card.
Why is there no republican movement to speak of in Canada or New Zealand? They got the Englishmen and the Scots; we got the Irish. I love Ireland and the Irish dearly and they have 800 years of very good reasons to hate the English, but I urge them to recall that the worst massacres were inflicted on Ireland not by an English monarch but by an English republican, the Lord Protector - President, Oliver Cromwell.
He rode into the Vale of Tipperary declaring "my God, Ireland is a land worth fighting for" and promptly put 20,000 Irishmen to the Sword. Why? They were Irish and Catholic. England quickly came to its senses and replaced the republican dictator with a monarch.
Let us not allow any racist feelings to fog clear thinking in our constitutional debate.
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