10 October 2003

Bad King John and the Australian Constitution

In one respect Australia could benefit by a large injection of the charter tradition. Perhaps because of our convict origins, when we started with governors possessing absolute powers, we do not have a great understanding of the virtues of limiting governments and putting safeguards between the state and the citizen. We tend to think that, provided that governments are democratically elected, they should be able to do anything. In short, we do not have a strong tradition of constitutionalism properly so called. Our version of the so-called Westminster system encourages our leaders to think that, once they have foxed 40% of the electorate at an election, they have the country by the throat. Our prime ministers and premiers are averse to being told that anything is beyond their lawful powers, and are angered by restraints applied by upper houses or judges. They frequently behave in ways which make King John and Charles I seem moderate by comparison. When they have majorities in both houses of parliament they become more like those monarchs' eastern contemporaries. We have not had a Magna Carta, or a Petition of Right, or a Bill of Rights as part of our own history, and we have not sufficiently valued what we have inherited from those great events. We should, particularly at this time, tap into that inheritance.


No comments: