Australian government from the beginning of settlement to the present time has passed through all the phases from tyranny to freedom. The five early governors — Phillip, Hunter, King, Bligh, and Macquarie (1788-1820) — were little short of absolute rulers. The Secretary of State, from his office in London, could check them if he did not approve of their actions, but he was, in time-distance, nearly six months away, his despatches were written at leisurely intervals, and his comments rarely had much restraining influence.
From 1823-8 there was Crown-colony government, through the Governor and a nominated Council. This system was modified from 1828-42 by the admission of a few elected members. From 1842-56 there was representative, but not responsible, government. In 1856 the era of responsible government began.
The new system, however, was itself subject to a process of development. Its full meaning was not grasped at the beginning, either by governments in the Australian colonies or by Colonial Secretaries in England. Thus, in 1878, when the Premier of Victoria, Graham Berry, involved the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly in a bitter quarrel, he went on a mission to London with the object of persuading the Colonial Office to intervene. The Secretary of State properly refused. Victoria had her constitution, which could be amended by regular means, but it was not the duty of the Colonial Office to do anything to alter that constitution. That was an example of a colonial Premier failing to understand what was implied by responsible government.
On the other hand, the Secretary of State occasionally assumed an unreasonable attitude. In 1888 the Governorship of Queensland being vacant, the Premier of that State, McIlwraith, learnt that a certain gentleman was likely to be chosen, who, he believed, would not be persona grata to large numbers of the people. The Premier asked to be consulted before the appointment was made. The Secretary of State maintained that the Premier of a colony had no claim to be consulted. A Governor was the representative of the Crown, and a colony must accept the person whom the Secretary of State advised the Crown to appoint. But as soon as this issue was raised it was seen that an unpopular Governor would not be a fit representative of the Crown; so that the Secretary of State had to retreat, and nominate another person. This, and a similar case which arose a little later in South Australia, established the practice of inquiring before a Governor was appointed whether a gentleman whose name was submitted in confidence would be acceptable to the colony concerned — a reasonable and courteous procedure which worked perfectly.
A more serious instance of failure to consult an Australian Government regarding a matter of importance occurred in 1907. In that year the British Government came to an agreement with France regarding the New Hebrides, and failed to inform the Government of the Commonwealth that such action was even contemplated. In this instance the explanation given was that a change of government had occurred in Great Britain, and the new Secretary of State had overlooked the obligation of informing Australia of what was proposed until the agreement with France had been signed.
These misunderstandings arose not so much as to what responsible government was, as about all that it implied. But there was good will on both sides which prevented any serious differences from arising. Tempers were somewhat ruffled for a short while, but no enduring sense of grievance resulted.
Forms of government, however well designed they may be, can never remain permanently rigid. Even despotisms are subject to modifications, often with consequences unfortunate for the despots. Circumstances and conditions of life change; the minds of men in successive generations change; and the best government is not that which attempts to be in all its parts fixed beyond amendment, but that which can be adapted to the requirements of those who have to live under it. Changes should, indeed, be made with studied prudence. Reckless change is madness. But ‘panic dread of change’ does not signify sanity. And no congregation of law-makers is wise enough to frame a scheme of government which shall stand like the Pyramids of Egypt, defiant of time. The ideal is a government which shall fit the people like a glove, not restrain them like a straight-jacket.
That British people in the homeland and in the Dominions have effected a series of changes in their mode of government, adapting it ever more closely to altered conditions and ideas, testifies to their political intelligence. Respect has been shown for their history and traditions by making these changes along lines of natural development. The changes have been not revolutionary but evolutionary. Each reform has grown out of preceding reforms; each has been brought about when educated public opinion had become ripe for another step forward.
The first great change in the government of the Dominions flowed from Lord Durham’s important report on Canada in 1840. Thereby responsible government was attained. But Durham did not propose to leave the disposal of unoccupied land — of which there were immense areas in Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand — to the Governments of those countries. He would have left the control of crown lands to the Colonial Office. He thought that the defence of the colonies was entirely a matter for the Imperial Government. He did not contemplate the probability that the colonies under responsible government would adopt economic policies which did not harmonize with the trading interests of Great Britain. He did not foresee that Dominion Governments might desire to make treaties with foreign Powers. Yet in these and several other important directions responsible government did permit of the Dominions pursuing policies which were within their self-governing powers, and did not lessen their fidelity to the British Imperial system.
These developments were bewildering to foreign writers, who could not understand how an Empire could continue to be an Empire unless all its parts were controlled by a central authority. But they did not puzzle people who had watched or studied the developments step by step, and who knew how deeply the principle of self-government is implanted in the minds of British people. For them, the process, and the reasons for it, were plain.
The time came, however, when it was considered desirable to define in legal form the position of the Dominions and their relations with Great Britain. A step in that direction was taken by the Imperial Conference in 1926 when it passed a resolution declaring that ‘every self-governing member of the Empire is now the master of its destiny.’ But that was somewhat vague. ‘Destiny’ is beyond ‘mastery’ by assertion. Many empires and nations which no longer exist supposed themselves to be masters of their destiny, but were not saved from extinction nevertheless. The Imperial Conference also adopted a declaration, drafted by Mr. A. J. (afterwards Lord) Balfour, defining the Dominions as ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another, in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ But the Imperial Conference, though composed of very influential men, had no legislative authority. It could formulate principles, but could not bring them out of the region of opinion into that of law. What was wanted was a statement in black and white, in the form of a statute, of the relations between Great Britain and the Dominions. That purpose was attained by the passing of the Statute of Westminster, 1931.
That Act sets forth that ‘the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ It guarantees the legislative independence of the Dominions by providing that no law passed by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void on the ground that it is repugnant to the laws of England. No Act of the Imperial Parliament shall extend to a Dominion unless a Dominion requests to be brought under it. These two provisions, then, leave the Dominions beyond control by any legislation of the Imperial Parliament, and enable them to legislate free from restraint by the Imperial Government.
This short Act of Parliament brought to a conclusion a process of historical development within the British Empire. The Dominions, by its means, form the group of States which are named in the Act itself ‘the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ That descriptive group-name does not separate them from the British Empire, but indicates that they occupy a distinctive position within it. They are all Free States, and their people enjoy the privileges of British citizenship.
This defined ‘Dominion Status’ implies obligations on both sides. That the Imperial Parliament will not interpose in a matter affecting the relations of the Commonwealth and the States was shown in 1934-5, when the unfortunate movement in Western Australia for the secession of that State resulted in a petition being prepared for presentation to the Lords and Commons. The petitioners desired the Imperial Parliament to pass an Act providing that after a proclaimed date Western Australia should cease to be a State of the Commonwealth of Australia. The House of Lords and the House of Commons appointed a joint committee to advise whether the petition should be received. This committee in its report (May 22, 1935) pointed out that in addition to the fact that the Constitution of the Commonwealth, which Western Australia had accepted in common with the other States, provided that all the States of Australia had ‘agreed to unite in one indissoluble constitution under the Crown,’ the Statute of Westminster affirmed the rule that the Parliament of the United Kingdom would not pass any law affecting a Dominion except at the request of that Dominion. The Western Australian petition asked for legislative action ‘which it would be constitutionally incompetent for the Parliament of the United Kingdom to take, except upon the definite request of the Commonwealth of Australia conveying the clearly expressed wish of the Australian people as a whole.’ Therefore the petition was ‘not proper to be received,’ and both Houses of the Imperial Parliament declined to receive it.
‘Dominion Status’ also implies that the advantages derived by the Dominions from their association with the British Commonwealth of Nations — the defensive power which they thereby acquire, the prestige which they share from membership of a world-wide political system — shall carry the obligation of fidelity to the British Empire in the event of war. Australia cannot be neutral if the British Empire is at war. She can exercise her own discretion as to whether she will dispatch troops oversea; there is no positive obligation upon her to do so. But neutrality is only possible to foreign nations which are not concerned with a war; and Australia cannot be in the position of a foreign nation when British security is threatened. Nor would her people desire that she should accept all the benefits of British citizenship and disavow the responsibilities.
The British Commonwealth is a great confederacy of nations, independent within their own sphere, each member enjoying freedom to shape its own destiny, as far as destiny can be shaped by policy. But the whole is not only mightier than its parts, but grander. A French author has expressed the view that the British Commonwealth ‘furnishes the most praiseworthy example of political creation which the world has known since the dissolution of the Roman Empire.’ And the British Commonwealth is something more than a ‘political creation.’ It has a moral cement which the Roman Empire lacked even in its best period. It is founded on goodwill and animated by the spirit of co-operation. It has grown into its present shape because its people desired that it should develop in such a direction; and its achievement is beneficial to them and to the world at large.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 369-374