Australia Day

Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia


Today, January 26th, is Australia Day, one of the two really major holidays that Australia celebrates. 221 years ago today, the "First Fleet" of British ships carrying convicts and soldiers arrived in Sydney Harbor to begin the British penal colony there. They arrived from halfway around the globe without having lost a single ship, an astonishing accomplishment.

When I first arrived in Australia a year ago, I assumed the holiday also represented Australian independence, but in point of fact to date Australia remains a commonwealth of Great Britain. While the head of government is the elected Prime Minister (currently Kevin Rudd (above)), Australia’s head of state is actually the Queen, represented in Australia by an appointed Governor-General. By law, the Governor-General can intervene in government, reject bills passed by Parliament or in certain cases appoint the Prime Minister. In point of fact, the appointment of a Governor-General is done by the government and approved by the Queen, and the Governor-General almost never intervenes in the affairs of the government.

The major and most controversial exception: In 1975 Governor-General Sir John Kerr (below) dismissed the government of Gough (pronunciation: think "cough") Whitlam and installed Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Opposition, as Prime Minister, after Opposition forces in the upper house of government, the Senate, prevented the Gough government from having access to the revenues from taxation, thus keeping the government from functioning.

An American analogy: the Clinton-House Republican showdown in early 1995: Clinton won’t sign Republican spending bills; Republicans retaliate by refusing to authorize temporary spending bills for the government, partially shutting it down. Ah yes, those halycon days of our youth.

Now add a higher authority who fires Clinton and installs Newt Gingrich as president. That’s about what happened in Australia.

Was it constitutional? For the most part, yes; the Governor General has the right in certain circumstances to intervene, and the impasse between the Whitlam government and the Opposition was very significant.

But it created quite a mess of its own. In the aftermath, an election was called, the Fraser government won and the Gough government repudiated. But Kerr was not forgiven, either; for many years after he left the job of Governor-General in 1977, he faced demonstrations, harrassment, even threats to his life. Some of his closest friends never spoke to him again. Suffice it to say, no Governor-General has intervened in this way again.

In 1999 the country voted whether or not to become a republic; the referendum failed. But it’s suspected that many who voted against the measure did so because they did not approve of the model of government being put forth, namely that the head of state would be appointed by Parliament, rather than directly elected by the people. And 45% in fact voted to become a republic. Anything but a clear-cut decision, though "monarchists" (as they call themselves) have presented it that way since.

At this point Americans pretty much take our form of government for granted (although the Electoral College is hardly anyone’s favorite bit since 2000). But in Australia, the question of whether it would be better to have a popularly elected president (and all the campaigning, etc., that goes with it) remains an open one; so, too, does the issue of a Bill of Rights. Australia doesn’t currently have one, and many, including Sydney archbishop Cardinal George Pell, oppose it, on the grounds that it’s unnecessary given the current protections of law, and that it would be used to enshrine certain ideological/left-leaning values (such as protections for gay men and women). Australian Jesuit lawyer, Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, is currently heading up a federal committee to consider the question.

Even the relative powers and responsibilities of the states and the federal government is a topic reconsidered with some regularity. Even more than ourselves, Australia is a very young nation.

Jim McDermott, SJ

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9 years 10 months ago
Just a quick clarification. Australia, like New Zealand and Canada (where I live), is not a commonwealth of Great Britain. It is part of the Commonwealth, but so is the United Kingdom. The government of the UK has no legal authority of any kind in Australia or Canada or any of the 16 commonwealth realms other than the UK itself. Each of these realms has Elizabeth II as Queen, but this is not the British throne. She is Queen of Australia, Queen of Canada, Queen of the United Kingdom, etc... The sovereign authority remains solely within the bounds of the individual commonwealth. At least theoretically, the succession could be changed such that the next monarch was not shared with these other countries. This all goes back to the Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster. The governor general is appointed by the Queen as you say, but really the Queen does not exercise any discretion in this matter. She is obliged by law and convention to appoint the person nominated by the Prime Minister. She is also obliged to remove a GG if the PM asks. The incident that you mention regarding GG Kerr removing the PM was actually a preventative measure to avoid the PM removing the GG.


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