An inconvenient question
The question of “who rules Australia?” is always answered with pet ideas and different theories. We can see symbols of power all around us, but the exercise of real power and influence is rarely a public event. Defining and identifying who really rules Australia is like trying to pinpoint where consciousness exists within our brain. It is complex and illusive. We may have some idea about different entities who potentially exercise power, but can’t put any single entity under any precise scrutiny.
Besides the formal means of power through authority, ownership and control over regulation, etc., much power is the result of inducement, compromise, promises, flattery, coercion, threats, favors, and even goodwill. Making the situation more complex is that different groups exercise power and influence over different aspects of society.
Finally is rule in Australia in the hands of an “oligarchy” that dictates, or is it more likely that the group(s) that rule Australia are more like a football umpire who can influence the flow of the game, with the power to influence formulation of new rules end of season for the next season?
Surprisingly formal academic papers about “who rules Australia” are almost non-existent. A multitude of internet articles, review articles, opinion, and even lectures and documentaries exist online about who rules the world.
However in Australia it doesn’t seem a question that academics have bothered to write too much about, except for the prominent Australian public intellectual and writer Donald Horne in the mid 1980s, who asked the question in an obscure essay “Who Rules Australia?”
Horne meticulously examined rule from the perspective of our history, significance of the crown, formation of our political system, parliament, political parties, federalism, the role of the media, unions, and banking; proposing that Australians live under a myth about who actually rules them.
Although the situation today is very different from the time Horne reflected on these issues, much of his description concerning “who rules Australia” is still valid today. What may be even more starkly relevant is Horne’s conclusion, which Australians at the time and even now have taken little notice of.
My intention is to take up from Donald Horne’s commentary, update it, and postulate this inconvenient question again in Australia today. Many people know the parts of the puzzle, but by putting them altogether the author hopes it may lead to a more thorough understanding about the intricacies of who really rules Australia.
This paper will do so in the format of looking at each section of potential influence upon Australian society, starting with an encapsulated summary of Australia’s sovereign history.
From the Crown to the Commonwealth -Will Australia ever have an independence day?
The formal European claim for sovereignty was made in the name of King George III[i], where upon, a colony New South Wales was established. All legitimate power was exercised under the name of the Crown. Further colonies were proclaimed and established across the continent, ruled by Governors under the authority of the Crown but with advice of the Secretary of State for Colonies.
In effect however due to distance and time for messages to reach London and return, Governors were in effectively autocratic control, within the constraints of British law. Eventually Legislative Councils were set up in the colonies to advise governors, who made proclamations.
Initially these councils were comprised of appointees of the respective governors, but were later expanded to include elected members until voting franchises were dramatically widened in the 1850s (in New South Wales). Later, completely elected lower houses were established in Australia’s colonies which took over most responsibilities of government from the governors.
A British parliamentary act, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria brought the six colonies together under a Federation in 1901. However all state and federal governors remained appointees of the British Monarch upon the advice of the British Cabinet[ii], where Australia was recognized as a Dominion of the British Empire[iii].
In addition the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865 was still in force where any Australian or state laws deemed repugnant to Britain would be deemed invalid[iv]. All bills passed by parliaments must be given Royal Assent by the representative governors to become law.
This division of power between London and Australia at the turn of the century set the tone of history where those in influence have not necessarily acted in the best interests of Australia, a theme that returns a number of times in Australian history as we will see.
One such example in the early 20th Century was upon the British Liberal-Imperialist Ronald Munro-Ferguson’s appointment as Governor General in 1914. Munro-Ferguson sort a return to the traditional London-Colony relationship, where Australian politicians were beginning to have their own regional security concerns.
Britain prior to the First World War began pulling its ships back to Britain leaving Australia vulnerable. Nevertheless when war broke out on the European Continent, the Australian Government loyally sent troops who were unnecessarily put in harm’s way by British Generals, Gallipoli being a good example.
Munro-Ferguson saw himself first as a British agent to promote the War effort rather than just a representative of the Crown. He personally assisted Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes at the time in his attempt to introduce conscription. When the referendum failed and Hughes was expelled from the Labor party, Munro-Ferguson saw this as a disaster for the British war effort and allowed Hughes to stay on as a minority supported prime minister and form a new party on a “win the war” platform[v].
Some of Britain’s Dominions sort a change in their status after the sacrifices made during the first World War[vi] and a series of Imperial conferences were held in London where the Balfour Declaration of 1926 was agreed to. The declaration agreed that the United kingdom and the Dominions were to be considered autonomous communities within the British Empire with equal status.
They would not in any way be subordinate to one another in domestic or external affairs, however they would be united in their continued allegiance to the Crown. It was only after the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927 was passed by the British Parliament that the Australian cabinet could directly advise the Sovereign on the choice of Governor General, thus ensuring his independence in office from British interests[vii].
However political events in Queensland in 1975 showed that the British Government still exercised influence over state matters in Australia. Sir Colin Hannah, the Governor of Queensland at the time was critical of the Whitlam Federal Government. The British Government had considered dismissing him from office, but due to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Sir John Kerr this seemed simply not practical to do[viii]. The then Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen sought another term of Governor for Sir Colin.
However the British Government advised the Queen that his should not be granted another term. This situation made all state Premiers in Australia realize that they were not advising the Queen through the British Government as they believed, and that it was the British Government that was actually advising the Queen.
The constitutional crisis helped build up determination by the New South Wales Premier Neville Wran to take unilateral action by legislating to stop the ability of parties to appeal to the Privy Council. Wran also wanted the Queen to be required to act on the advice of State Ministers in appointing a State Governor[ix], but the British Foreign Secretary at the time at the behest of the Palace indicated that he would advise the Queen to withhold Royal Assent to such Bills.
The Palace resisted the notion that states could advise the Queen directly due to the concern that this could place the Queen in the invidious position of receiving conflicting advice from state and Commonwealth ministers[x]. Many different concepts were proposed, but rejected by either the States, Commonwealth, British Government, or the Palace. The matter had also grown into a “states rights” issue, where states did not want to concede more power to the Commonwealth.
It was only when the New South Wales Solicitor General Mary Gaudron was in London for a Privy Council appeal that the issue was resolved with the British Foreign Office. Gaudron convinced the British to open up direct channels of communication to the States[xi]. These arguments finally received the recognition that Australia was an independent country. Such a precedent was established in Nigeria some years earlier, until Nigeria was proclaimed a republic, and the proposal was put up to the Palace.
Finally, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British Foreign Secretary at the time agreed to the right of Australian State Premiers to advise the Queen directly as “a consequence of Australia having been established as a federation with a fragmentation of sovereign powers”[xii].
Buckingham Palace however continued to object to the proposal where the Queen’s private secretary took up negotiation directly with the Commonwealth Government in Australia in the capacity as private secretary of the Queen of Australia. Senator Gareth Evans, Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time told the British High Commissioner in Australia that patience was wearing thin and suggested for the first time that the Queen might be formally advised to act despite her own personal objections.
Finally the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet of Australia Sir Geoffrey Yeend travelled to London and suggested that in the light of the idea of a republic, the Queen might want to entrench her position in the Australian States[xiii].
The Queen finally agreed to the Australia Acts with a “convention” to protect the Queen’s position where she would be free to read what speech she wanted at any state function[xiv]. The Australia Acts finally ended the responsibility of British Ministers to advise the Queen over Australian State matters[xv]. This established the concept that the Queen being a separate Crown with respect to each State.
As a consequence the sovereign is regarded as the legal personality of the Australian state. State land is called Crown land, but actually held by the state. The Crown is thus symbolic, still seen on the emblems of some state law courts, police forces, and Australian Military insignia. The Queen’s portrait is still on all Australian coins, the five dollar note, and the symbol of the Crown can still be seen on the One hundred Dollar note.
Although there has been a gradual moving away from the traditional links to the Monarchy, Horne postulated that although the Crown is the symbol of legitimacy of function, symbolically the centre of power is offshore, which has contributed to Australia’s sense of “dependence”[xvi].
However the Crown does signify that there is a power above and beyond elected government. The concept of the Crown creates a spirit of government that has a sense of permanence, where elected Government is only transient. This is where the “mysticism” of a state within a state is created, where anecdotes of this can be seen in government life within Australia today[xvii].
Where the Monarchy in Australia goes from here, is a matter of conjecture. There have been numerous attempts to kindle debate on an Australian republic, with even a referendum in 1999[xviii]. However, one of the problems that exist is not so much about Australia becoming a republic, but what form should an Australian republic take.
Any progress in Australia heading down the republican road is halted on this point. However opinion polling over the last few years show weak support by Australians for a republic[xix]. There is conjecture that the republican debate may emerge strongly once again when the death of the current Monarch[xx][xxi].
The next Issue is what are the real powers of the Australian Governor General?
The confusion that who rules australia is used to drag on war crimes .. www.gravitics.net
The Governor General of Australia – Still with undefined powers and more than just the Queen’s representative
As we have seen, the Governor general of Australia is the representative of the Monarch of Australia, thus the symbolism of the Crown resides in the office. The functions and roles of the Governor General are specified in the Australian Constitution and include the appointment of the Prime Minister, ministers, ambassadors, judges, giving Royal Assent to bills passed by the Parliament, dissolving Parliament, and issuing writs for elections.
The Governor General is also the President of the Federal Executive Council, where the above appointments excepting Prime Ministers and Ministers are made, and Commander in Chief of Australia’s defense forces. The Governor General, according to conventions usually acts solely on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister, and usually selects the person who has the confidence of the House of Representatives as the Prime Minister.
According to the Constitution the Governor general is appointed by the Queen acting on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister. The Governor General’s usual role is a ceremonial one, both domestically and overseas.
However the Governor General has reserve powers that are explicitly stated in the Constitution but subject to convention. These reserve powers include the power to dissolve Parliament, to withhold assent to Bills, and to appoint or dismiss Ministers. Under convention the Governor General would take the advice of the Prime Minister, but the Governor General has the power to act independently[i].
The extent of the Governor General’s reserve powers are not absolutely known. Only constitutional situations that arise and corresponding actions taken can define the extent of these powers.
In addition, A former Private Secretary to the Governor General Sir John Kerr, Sir David Smith stated in 1988 that “the Governor General is in no sense a delegate of the Queen. The independence of the office is highlighted by changes which have been made in recent years to Royal instruments relating to it…….under section 2 of the Constitution the Governor general is the Queen’s representative and exercises certain royal prerogative powers and functions; under section 61 of the Constitution the Governor General is the holder of quite a separate and independent office created, not by the Crown, but by the Constitution, and empowered to exercise, in his own right as governor general and not as a representative or delegate of the Queen, all the powers and functions of Australia’s head of state”[ii].
This appears to be confirmed by a reply from the Queen’s private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris, dated 17th November 1975 in reply to a letter written to the Queen by the then Speaker of the House of Representatives on the matter of the Prime Minister’s dismissal by Sir John Kerr, Governor General of Australia on 11th November 1975;
“As we understand here, the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the crown in the hands of the Governor general as the representative of the Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor General, and the Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor general must take in accordance with the Constitution. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia, is watching events in Canberra with close interest and attention, but it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor General by the Constitution Act”[iii].
The Governor General Sir John Kerr used his reserve powers to resolve the Constitutional crisis of 1975. This has caused much controversy because it was also a political crisis, and there has been much conjecture since about Sir john Kerr’s influences and motivations.
Without re-opening the debate which has been going on since the dismissal, although there is conjecture about foreign intervention[iv], evidence based on accounts by those participating in those events tend to suggest that Kerr toke the action he did out of a sense of destiny[v]. He was a lawyer by training, a judge by career, and had a deep sense of the law.
There is no other convincing evidence to conclude otherwise, although all Labor Governments since that dismissal have worked hard on developing a very strong relationship with the US, and all Labor Prime Ministers have enjoyed their personal relationships with US Presidents. In addition no Government has ever attempted to borrow funds outside traditional means of raising funds for a government.
Prof. Murray Hunter is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.
[i] See History and present government, The Official Website of the British Monarchy, http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchAndCommonwealth/Australia/Historyandpresentgovernment.aspx
[ii]. Hudson, W., J., & Sharp, M., P., (1998), Australian Independence: Colony to Reluctant Kingdom, Carleton, Melbourne University Press.
[iii] Andrews, E., M., (1993), The ANZAC Illusion: Anglo-Australian relations during World War I, Cambridge, The Cambridge University Press, P. 21.
[iv] Craig, J., (1993), Australian Politics: A source book, 2nd Edition, Marrickville, NSW, Harcourt Brace, P. 43
[v] The Times, 31 March 1934; The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1934; The Argus, Melbourne, 31 March 1934
[vi] Blackshield, T., & Williams, G., (1998), Australian Constitutional Law and Theory, 2nd Edition, Annandale, NSW, Federation Press, P. 143.
[vii] However the Curtin Labor Government appointed Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester as Governor General during the Second World War in the hope that the appointment may influence the British Government to send men and equipment to assist in the pacific War.
[viii] Twomey, A., (2006), The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors, Sydney, Federation Press, Chapters 5 & 13.
[ix] Twomey, A., (2006), “The Chameleon Crown”, Chapter 14.
[x] Twomey, A., (2007). The Queen of Australia, 19th Conference of the Samuel Griffith Society, Melbourne, http://www.samuelgriffith.org.au/papers/html/volume19/v19chap9.html
[xi] Twomey, A., (2007). “The Queen of Australia”, P. 83.
[xii] Twomey, A., (2007). “The Queen of Australia”, P. 85.
[xiii] Twomey, A., (2007). “The Queen of Australia”, P. 85.
[xiv] Twomey, A., (2006), “The Chameleon Crown”, Chapter 20.
[xv] Australia Acts 1986, s.10.
[xvi] Horne, D., (1985), Who Rules Australia?, Daedalus, Vol. 114, No. 1, P. 175.
[xvii] One can see that the public service in Australia sees itself as autonomous where many ministers have difficulties in dealing with their own departments. Perhaps one example is illustrative where in Adelaide in 1978 during a royal Commission into the dismissal of the Police Commissioner who had been accused of misleading the Premier, justified his actions by claiming he had a deeper loyalty to the Crown which is beyond the elected Government. Through this Monarchic language, a belief that the police and other security agencies may exist that they are the ones who are the true interpreters of what are the best interests of the state. See: Hall, B., (1978), The Secret State, Sydney, Cassell, P. 123.
[xviii] According to the press, the Queen was amazed that we voted “No” in 1999, Prince Philip said we were “bloody mad” when told the result and Prince Charles has said that Australia should become a republic. See: Keating, M., (2012), Why Australia is waiting for the Queen to die?, The Punch, 4th October, http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/why-is-australia-waiting-for-the-queen-to-die/#comments
[xix] Steketee, M., (2012), Republic? Young want to keep it in the (royal) family, The age..om.au, 20th October, http://www.theage.com.au/national/republic-young-want-to-keep-it-in-the-royal-family-20121019-27wxe.html
[xx] Warhurst, J., (2012), Waiting for Queen’s death soft option for republic, The Punch, 8th June, http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/waiting-for-queens-death-soft-option-for-republic/
[xxi] This view is supported by ex Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who believes that the affection and respect the Australian people feel for Queen Elizabeth, “Prince Charles does not have”. See: ‘Once the Queen is dead, long live the Republic’, Tony Stephens, SMH, Oct. 31, 2008.
[xxii] This power is usually used in situations where an election results where no party has a majority and the Governor general may select a Prime Minister, if the Prime Minister losses support of the majority of members in Parliament, then the Governor general may appoint a new Prime Minister, or refuse to dissolve the parliament should he or she be advised to do so by the Prime Minister (however not the power to dissolve the Parliament without advice). This is not an exhausted list and new situations that arise will define the extent of the Governor general’s reserve powers.
[xxiii] Smith, D., (2007), A Mate for a head of State, Address to The Sydney Institute, Dixon room, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 24th January, http://www.norepublic.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1217&Itemid=25
[xxiv] Kerr, J., (1978), Matters for Judgment, Sydney, Macmillan, pp. 374-375.
[xxvi] It was alleged that Sir John Kerr was acting on behalf of the United States Government in dismissing Whitlam from office (See: Blum, W., (2004),Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Actions Since World War II, London, Zed Books). It was claimed that the CIA wanted to remove Whitlam from office because he threatened to close US military bases at Pine Gap and NW cape (report from Ray Martin 60 Minutes, A Spy’s Story in 1982 see: http://williambowles.info/spysrus/cia_australia.html).it was also reported by Whitlam that the US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher made a special trip to Sydney on behalf of President Jimmy Carter to express US willingness to work with which ever government Australians elected and that the US would never again interfere with Australia’s democratic processes (See Whitlam, G., (1997), Abiding Interests, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, pp. 49-50).
[xxvii] Kelly, P., (1983), The Dismissal, Melbourne, Angus & Robertson.