April 3

Understanding our constitutional system: new revelations

We need to understand our system of government, before we try to reform it.  This was the message Dr Anne Twomey gave on the ABC Radio National programme “Perspective”  on 20 March 2007 on her groundbreaking book, “The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors.”  That book fills a considerable gap in our understanding of our constitutional system.  Dr Twomey followed the ABC progamme by addressing a very well attended ACM lunch at Parliament House in Sydney on 28 March 2007.  She kept the audience fully engaged during her speech, and in the lively question and answer session which could have gone on well into the afternoon. (The text of Dr. Toomey’s speech is on the ACM site – click on “Resources” then “Speeches”.  Victorian supporters will  no doubt be interested to read that Dr Twomey will be speaking at an ACM lunch in Melbourne on Monday 28 August, 2007)  Dr. Twomey confirmed the longstanding tension between state and federal governments, even of the same party, and the constitutional consequences flowing from this.  The state governments clearly did not trust Canberra to act in their interests in relations with the Crown.  In fact they trusted the British ministers more than they did their federal colleagues. And many would say, with reason.  This animosity spilled over into issues of protocol.  As early as 1902, the Premiers unanimously boycotted the Coronation because the invitations came through the Governor- General.  What the book reveals is that until 1986, the British ministers took the view that when they advised The Queen on state matters, they were not a mere letter box for the states and must give their advice independently.  While the constitutional changes in the Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster required that the King act on the advice of his responsible Commonwealth Ministers with respect to Commonwealth matters under an Australian Crown,  no similar arrangement was made in relation to the states.  In Canada and South Africa, The King was advised on provincial matters by the central government.  But in relation to Australian State constitutional matters, The King was still to be advised by of his responsible British Ministers.  This was not some British attempt to retain authority over the States – it was our wish, and so the British applied the law then in force.  You get the very clear impression that they would have rather not have this responsibility.  In later years the incorrect assumption was made here that the British ministers acted as a mere letter box for the states; Dr. Twomey shows this was untrue. Questioned on two matters which are raised from time to time, Dr. Twomey  poured cold water on fears that the Australia Acts could be used to impose a republic without a referendum, or that the ratification by the UK of a EU constitution as proposed would have any legal impact on the Australian Crown.


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