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Advance Notice for your diary:  2017 Conference

The Samuel Griffith Society’s 2017 Conference will be held in Perth from August 25-27 2017.

Australia Day Message 2016

By 1900, the colonies of Australia had achieved a large measure of independence and self-government.  They would have had enjoyed even more but for their dependence upon Britain for defence and capital.  Indeed, dependence upon the latter, and Britain’s determination to protect its colonial investments, were reason for retention of appeals to the Privy Council despite the establishment of a High Court of Australia.

The point is, however, that the residents of the colonies were accustomed to the management of their own affairs, and unwilling to renounce those that were not essential to the proper functioning of the new Commonwealth.  The founders would have been astonished by the notion that the Commonwealth would decide whether and which schools, either state or private, should be endowed with school halls, or whether a river in a remote part of Tasmania should or should not be utilised for the generation of hydro-electricity, or that the Commonwealth would decide the precise route of a main road between Brisbane and Ipswich, or whether a hospital which it would neither own nor operate, should be built in Western Sydney or in Melbourne.

In administrative law it is well understood that the Executive has the right to be wrong in its judgements within its spheres of activity and power.  This is not simply because the Executive is separate from the Parliament and the courts.  It is additionally so because under our constitutional system (state and federal) when the Executive errs, its party can be defeated at the next election.  It is not for a Commonwealth government to act as a senior prefect over the states monitoring their choices and expenditures.  One is entitled to ask – I doubt whether a clear answer will be given – how many Commonwealth officials in Australia are engaged in the task of processing, auditing and overseeing the works and expenditure of state activities entirely within the constitutional power of state governments.  Any project of any magnitude in prospect in Australia must obtain the approval of the environmental agencies of three elected governments, local authority, state and Commonwealth.  Why should the last be necessary, or for that matter superior somehow in wisdom and foresight to the former two?

Unpicking the threads is always more difficult than making the whole cloth.  But unless we begin the process of unpicking, income tax and GST will, as with the staff numbers in the multifarious Commonwealth departments, agencies and commissions, invariably and unbearably increase.

There will be much debate in the ensuing year about the need for increased revenues and reduced expenditure, with the emphasis on revenue.  The restoration of state authority and responsibility for state affairs may not be an entire solution, but it is an essential part of any viable one.

The Samuel Griffith Society wishes all Australians a joyful and thoughtful Australia Day and a prosperous and happy 2016.

I D F Callinan AC
26 January 2016

New Volumes of Proceedings added to Website

The Proceedings of the Society for 2012 (volume 24) and 2013 (volume 25) have now been added to the site as PDFs. More information and download options here.

How much do you know about our Constitution?

If you’re like most Australians your answer would probably be, “not much”!

We all know there is something called “The Constitution” and we know that the Constitution has been a good thing, yet we know very little about what’s in it, or how it works in practice.

The Constitution is in fact the keystone of our parliamentary and legal system. It protects our democracy and our liberties.

From time to time, assorted prominent people suggest that Australia’s Constitution is “badly in need of reform” and that we should now embark on a large scale process of “constitutional review”.

These comments have set alarm bells ringing in the minds of many Australians who regard such attempts to “reform” our Constitution with great reserve, if not suspicion.

Written constitutions exist in many countries and have been established for very good reasons – maintaining law and order and protecting citizens from abuses of power and authority – including, particularly, abuses by governments.

It is difficult for many Australians who, if native born, have never experienced serious domestic turbulence, or civil wars, or openly oppressive government regimes, to appreciate fully the benefits of such civil quietness. Nevertheless most of us would agree that we should always be alert against any attempt to undermine the liberties we currently enjoy.

With these thoughts in mind The Samuel Griffith Society was formed in 1992, and the fact that hundreds of Australians have since joined the Society indicates the general concern to uphold a Constitution which has served us so well for so long.

Sir Samuel Griffith was, from 1903 until 1919, the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. It is widely accepted that he was primarily responsible for writing the first constitutional draft of 1891.This document became the basis for our Constitution, under which the six Australian self-governing colonies came together to form a Federation. The proper roles of federal and State governments under the Constitution are of continuing and vital importance.

The Samuel Griffith Society’s prime role is to ensure that proposals to change the Australian Constitution will be subjected to the most intense scrutiny. Constitutional change may well be desirable from time to time, but it should only occur after exhaustive, community-wide debate, leading up to consideration by the Australian people under the referendum provisions of s.128 of the Constitution.

The Society now appeals to all Australians to join in upholding their Constitution – not only because it has served us well in the past, but also to ensure it continues to serve well future generations.