We only became independent of Britain on this day in 1986
ANNE TWOMEY THE AUSTRALIAN MARCH 03, 2011 12:00AM
TWENTY-FIVE years ago today, Australia became independent.
You might think this statement absurd. Surely Australia has been independent for a lot longer than that? Let me provide a lawyer’s answer (#) : yes and no. Yes, Australia as a nation became independent at some unknown date after 1931. By 1931 it had the power to exercise independence but chose not to do so for some time. Arguably, having the capacity to exercise independence is enough to be classified as independent, although the parents of 20-something children who show no inclination to leave home may beg to differ.
The Australian states, however, did not gain their independence from Britain at that time. Bizarrely, they remained colonial dependencies of the British crown, despite being constituent parts of an independent nation. This meant state governors were appointed by the Queen on the advice of British ministers and that it was the Queen of the United Kingdom (not the Queen of Australia) who gave royal assent to state bills. When an Australian governor-general once complained to the British government about this anomaly, the response of British diplomats was that it was better to “let sleeping anomalies lie”.
In Australia it was assumed that the requirement for state matters to go to the Queen through British ministers was just one of those quirky British formalities. But the reality was that British ministers took their role of advising the Queen seriously and were not simply conduits for state advice. In the 1950s, when a Tasmanian premier thought the office of governor might be a nice retirement (#) job and proposed to nominate himself for the position, he was swiftly informed by the British government that this was not an option. In 1975 when Joh Bjelke-Petersen tried to get the Queen to extend the term of a controversial Queensland governor, British ministers refused to pass the advice on to the Queen. The sleeping anomalies had awoken and even conservative premiers realised they needed to break their links with Britain.
Neville Wran was so alarmed at British involvement in state affairs that he proposed to break off links with Britain unilaterally. In 1979 he proposed the enactment of laws terminating Privy Council appeals from state courts and requiring the Queen to act on state advice in appointing state governors. The British foreign secretary, at the insistence of Buckingham Palace, sent a dispatch to the governor telling him the bills would have to be reserved for the Queen’s assent and that he would advise her to refuse assent. The Privy Council bill had already been passed by both houses of NSW parliament with bipartisan support. It was quietly buried in the governor’s desk drawer rather than being reserved and refused assent. The other bill did not proceed. Most Australians would have been shocked to know that the British government was telling NSW what laws it could or could not pass in 1979. But the Australian people were not told. It was all too embarrassing.
While the public was not aware of the true position, the politicians were. Political leaders saw the price paid for being colonial dependencies of the British crown and it was too high. After years of
negotiations (#) the constitutional links between Australia and Britain were finally broken , not by a referendum but by legislation passed by the state, commonwealth and British parliaments. On March 3, 1986, these acts, the Australia Acts, came into force. They state that the British government is no longer responsible for the government of any state and that the Westminster parliament can no longer legislate for Australia. Most important, they transferred into Australian hands full control of all Australia’s constitutional documents. So March 3, 1986, is the day Australia achieved complete independence from Britain. Happy Australian Independence Day.
Anne Twomey is an associate professor at the University of Sydney law school and author of The Australia Acts 1986: Australia’s Statutes of Independence.
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