So much Government: Thoughts of an unexpected constitutional monarchist.

The second institution I visited whilst in Canberra was the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. For the Brits reading this, please don’t confuse this with our usual meaning of the word Commonwealth. – Perhaps a little explanation and context is in order (with apologies to my new and existing Australian friends for the bits I get wrong). So firstly a brief revisitation of the history of Australia for my fellow Brits.

Captain James Cook RN

Captain James Cook RN

The first record of Europeans sailing into Australian waters is dated around 1606, and includes their observations of the land known as Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land). This was by Dutchman, Willem Janszoon. A former buccaneer, William Dampier, was the first Englishman to land on the Australian mainland ( 5th January 1688 in his ship the Cygnet).He was the first European to report Australia’s peculiar ‘large hopping animals’. Capt James Cook didn’t chart the Australian East Coast until 1770 in HM Barque Endeavour.

So between 1606 and 1770 numerous contacts were made and around that time (not least because of the British East India Company) a number of interactions with Europeans took place. Contrary to popular belief in parts of Europe, not all those landing on Australian soil were convicts. In fact, Britain and France conducted most ‘transportations’. The first British was ‘cast into exile’ according to Court records in 1788. The last transportation took place from England in 1868.

As a result of these to-ings and fro-ings, six States emerged being (alphabetically) New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania (formerly Van Diemen’s Land), Victoria and Western Australia. Details of their evolution can be found here.

Then there are the territories. These are lesser jurisdictions and are not ‘full states’. In many senses they are governed directly from the Federal Commonwealth. The mainland territories are: Australian Capital Territory (Canberra and surrounds) and Northern Territory. In addition, the staunchly independent Australia (and rightly too) holds a number of overseas territories being: Ashmore and Cartier Territory, Australian Antarctic Territories, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Coral Sea Islands, Christmas Island, Heard and McDonald Islands, Indian Ocean Territories, Jervis Bay Territory and Norfolk Island.

I wont go into the differences between States and Territories except arguably the most important difference being the number of representatives elected to the Senate (upper house).

Purely for the purposes of shared understanding and explanation to a UK audience, think of the modern Federated setup in this way. Consider the Government in Canberra to be the National Government of Australia. (A phrase which causes some difficulty in Australia) The six original states can be considered as sovereign states much like those in the US. However, they are also in some senses a kind of super charged Local Authority in terms a Brit would understand.

Flag of Australia

Flag of Australia

The first challenge to the brain of a UK visitor could be summed up in the question “How many countries exist on the mainland of Australia?” Surely the answer is One ? – Well of course in many senses it is, but students of Australian constitutional law (and those who have them as their significant others) will tell you that each of the six original states is a ‘sovereign state’ in it’s own right. Each with Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state.

Nobody I have asked (and I’ve asked a few) has been able to tell me the difference between a ‘sovereign state’ and a country.  However, they all pointed out that the recognition of the original six states is preserved by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. Interestingly, that Commonwealth Constitution was enacted by the UK Parliament. Powers to the Australian territories were in turn granted by the Commonwealth of Australia with the States being autonomous in their own right.

The States were brought together in Federation in 1901 (much later than I had thought) with that overarching entity being the Commonwealth of Australia. Some Australians have made a comparison between this relationship and that of the member states of the EU. In that model, Canberra becomes a type of Supranational body. With these nuggets of information and background firmly planted in my head, we made our way to tour the Australian Parliament.

Australian Parliament

Australian Parliament

The new Australian Parliament buildings are situated at one end of  Anzac Parade. The architects and designers were reportedly extremely keen to ensure that the Parliament was not sitting ‘above’ the people it represented but rather that the people were above it’s Parliament.

This thinking led to the excavation of a large hill in Canberra where the Parliament was then constructed and the hill rebuilt around and above the Parliament. Indeed, you can walk up the hill to the point immediately under the rather impressive and imposing flagpole. At that point you are indeed above the Parliamentary chambers.

It was a huge political statement to design a Parliament in this way, although arguably only partially successful. The hill is still significantly higher than most of Canberra and some height above the old Parliamentary buildings it replaced.

The Government is made up of two houses (broadly following the Westminster model). The lower house being the House of Representatives with the upper house being the Senate. Both are elected (although at different times and for different periods of office). Both are also considered to have parity within the governmental structures.

House of Representatives

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives has a familiar feel to members of other Commonwealth countries and certainly to anyone familiar with the Westminster Parliament.

The members of the house are elected by a form of preferred alternative vote and it isn’t unusual to have a significant number (in excess of 20) parties and/or candidates on a ballot paper for the lower house.

The green (a blue-green representing the nations gum tree leaves) mirrors the UK House of Commons. Less adversarial in shape, the basic  structures are very similar including the dispatch boxes, bar of the Commons and Mace representing the Crown (although not it’s power as in the UK).

In other regards, the lower house felt very familiar to me although ironically, placing the Parliament in its own government centric territory did make me wonder whether it feels any more relevant and representative of Australia? Some of the same difficulties around the ‘Westminster village’ seemed to be present by virtue of having created a government centric territory.

The Australian Senate

The Australian Senate

The upper house (Senate) had a similarly superficial similarity. The red house (similar to the house of lords) is actually more shades of pink to represent some of the flowering species in Australia.

The Westminster ‘thrones’ are substituted for maple chairs for the Governor General. The only other significant difference in layout is  the reallocation of the ‘Lords Spiritual’ benches (Bishops and archbishops in the UK house of lords) to political advisors.

However, the differences in this house are more profound. Firstly it is a wholly elected house. Secondly, it views itself as having parity with the House of Representatives within the broader Government. This is subtly but importantly different to the UK where the House of Lords considers itself a legitimate amending house but ultimately subordinate in terms of the will of the House of Commons.

As I toured the Parliament building I found myself experiencing an unexpected hardening of views relating to the UK political system. There just seems to be so much government fighting for the same territory in Australia. I should stress that I’m not making a value judgement or criticism of the system in Australia. Given the history described above it has evolved organically to suit the needs of the country. However, it made me more firm in the view that the current system in the UK actually works quite well for us too.

I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) justify creating a Westminster system from scratch for a new State. Equally, I suspect many Australians would iron out some of their Constitutional idiosyncrasies and would equally not start afresh from where they are today?

Canberra Parliamentary Building Flagpole

Canberra Parliamentary Building Flagpole

As someone brought up pre-devolution in the UK, I struggle with the number of Parliaments and Governments in play. Each State has its own Parliament and Supreme Court. Similarly Canberra has the Commonwealth (Australian) Parliament with reserved national policy powers. These include the right to issue currency, defence, immigration and similarly national issues. However, as three Australian lawyers have told me the legal community could argue for ever over those interpretations and the extent to which the State and Federal powers overlap. I have started to see similar debates over the UK West Lothian question and ‘independence’ for Scotland and Wales.

Whilst accepting that the House of Lords is an anachronistic hang-over from Supreme rule of the Monarchy, it is an effective second chamber despite being appointed. Two Australian lawyers have mistakenly commented that the UK has no upper house – so it isn’t just my preconceptions that have been challenged during my visit.

Despite it’s non elected status, (some might say because of it), there is no ‘battle for supremacy’ between the two Houses of Parliament. Nor does electoral drive play as prominent a part as I have seen in both the US and Australia.

I could continue to consider the differences here. As you can imagine it has led to some interesting but always polite and good natured political discussions with Vaughan. However, I think I have settled on the position that both systems serve their respective countries well given their history,  culture and national  psyche. However, they would probably not transfer well one to the other.

Perhaps there is more truth in the suggestion that we all end up with the governments we deserve.

#politics #parliament #federal #Australia #government #holiday


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