So the question arises — does one achieve independence at the point when one has the capacity to exercise full independent powers, or when one actually does exercise them? It is a bit like the situation of the twenty-something who continues to live at home with his or her parents — independent in theory but still reliant on Mum's cooking and washing.
Arguably, Australia was independent at the national level from December 1931, when it gained the capacity to be independent, rather than when it actually exercised that independence. If so, then 11 December this year will mark the 80th anniversary of Australia's independence.
The second reason why it is difficult to ascertain when Australia became independent is that the changes in law and convention that affected Australia at the Commonwealth level did not flow on to the Australian States. Somewhat bizarrely, even after Australia became an independent sovereign nation, the Australian States remained 'colonial dependencies of the British Crown'. So we had an independent nation comprised of constituent polities that were the dependencies of another country. It is not something that anyone in their right mind would ever propose, but it just evolved that way for various political reasons.
This meant that State Governors continued to be 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. Indeed, all the constitutional law books of the era regarded British Ministers as mere 'channels of communication' and stated that it would be unthinkable for the British to interfere in State affairs. 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 that 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 that they needed to break their links with the UK.
Neville Wran was so alarmed at British involvement in State affairs that he proposed to break off links with the UK unilaterally. In 1979 the NSW Government 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 despatch 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 UK Government was telling New South Wales what laws it could or could not pass in 1979. But the Australian people were not told. While on the one hand politicians were not prepared to 'embarrass' the Queen by asking her to do something that she did not want to do, they were even more concerned not to bring embarrassment on themselves by letting anyone know that the Queen objected to their legislation.
These events spurred State leaders on to negotiate the termination of residual constitutional links with the United Kingdom. After years of negotiations this was finally achieved — not by a referendum, but by legislation passed by the State, Commonwealth and British Parliaments. On 3 March 1986 the Australia Acts 1986 came into force. They terminated the British Government's responsibility for the government of any State, and the Westminster Parliament's capacity to legislate for Australia as part of Australian law. Most importantly, they transferred into Australian hands full control of all Australia's constitutional documents.
So another candidate for Australia's 'independence day' is 3 March 1986. That is the day when Australia achieved complete independence from the United Kingdom at the national and State level. On that basis, Australia should be celebrating 25 years of independence. Happy Australian Independence Day (whichever day you choose).
ANNE TWOMEY is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Law School and the author of The Australia Acts 1986 – Australia's Statutes of Independence (Federation Press, 2010).
An article on a similar topic to this Opinion was published in The Australian on 3 March 2011.
© 2011 Anne Twomey