Sunday, February 04, 2007

Constitutional Change in Australia - the view from 1926: Constitutional principles

This is third post in the series looking at the constitutional views set out in David Drummond's 1926 booklet Constitutional Changes in Australia.

In the first post I introduced Drummond and the booklet, while the second began our discussion of his views.

To Drummond, Australian constitutional thought could be broken into three schools: the state righters (today we say states righters) who were in favour of the existing Federal structure as is; the unificationists who wanted to abolish the states and replace them with county or regional councils; and the new staters who occupied the middle ground in that they wanted the existing states broken up into a larger number of units but with real powers of self government so that local issues could be properly dealt with on a local basis.

As someone who had been campaigning for self government for New England, Drummond wrote from the perspective of the third school.

He rejected the state righters out of hand. He thought it absurd to suggest that the constitution should remain fixed in stone for all time. In any event, those who supported this position were already in an untenable position in that the High Court - and this is 1926 - had already established the principle that, subject to certain qualifications, a wide construction could be placed on Commonwealth powers through the interpretation of the Constitution in a literal sense, regardless of the consequent overlap with, and impact on, existing state activities.

Because the unificationist and new state positions had common elements, Drummond focused his analysis on the unificationist school, drawing out the similarities and differences between that and the new state position.

If, he suggested, the regional bodies had no real independent power then they would become simple creatures of the union government, unable to provide effective local administration truly reflecting local needs. If they were given real powers then, and so long as they were of a sufficient size, they in fact became new states.

Principles to Underlay Constitutional Change

Drummond then extended his analysis to try to further articulate the principles that should underly constitutional change.

Constitutional change must be determined, he suggested, by certain broad principles. The first of these could be summarised as "geographical considerations affect Government."

Because Australia's vast size and geographical variation made central control difficult, the country needed a system of government that could keep in effective touch with every part of the Commonwealth in the most direct manner; that is "it must provide real Local Government."

To ensure this, the local units must control everything not purely national in operation, while their constitutional rights must be safeguarded from undue interference by the central government. Further, within the ambit of their powers, they must be given the right to amend their own constitutions subject to reasonable safeguards against temporary majorities.

The areas of these local units should be determined at their own request, but must be of sufficient size to prevent too great an aggregation of legislative and administrative work being thrown onto the central government. "In other words it must be clear that if the reduction of areas is carried to extremes it will inevitably mean an increase in central government control and a corresponding diminution of Local Government." Finally, any constitutional change must also be determined with due regard to the Commonwealth's ability to fulfil its international obligations.

Proposed Restructuring of the Australian Constitution

Drummond then put forward his proposals for a restructuring of the Australian constitution.

He suggested, first, that Australia should adopt the Canadian principle under which the central government exercised power over all subjects not exclusively passed to the provinces. The effect of this would have been to shift the focus from the question of what things should be done nationally to the definition of those things that should properly be done at local level, a very different perspective.

He suggested, secondly, that areas such as northern and southern NSW or northern and central Queensland should be given immediate local government, while underdeveloped areas of the existing states should be turned into federal territories. Again, Drummond had Canada in mind: following the Canadian precedent, the new territories should be controlled by a commission of four, with conditional legislative powers "until such time times as their progress justified, first, the inclusion of an elected consultative Council, and later a grant of full local governing powers."

The effect of this proposal would have been a wholesale restructuring of the constitutional and political map of Australia. NSW, for example, would probably have been broken up into four provinces plus some Federal territory.

From today's perspective with our formally rigid constitutional frame, the proposals may seem naive in that we know that all existing constitutional units will fight to the death to protect their entrenched positions. Even in the 1920s when major change still seemed possible, the political barriers to this type of approach were clear, the chances of adoption slim.

Still Drummond and his immediate colleagues took the matter seriously.

Five thousand copies of the booklet were printed and widely circulated. Drummond sent copies to everybody he thought might be interested or influenced, while his friends and colleagues did likewise. Since there was no way that Drummond could afford printing costs - he had few assets, a young family and only his parliamentary salary - donations were sought with the wealthier Mick Bruxner underwriting the project in the meantime.

Drummond's own attitude towards the project was clearly revealed in September 1926 when Ern Sommerlad, the Glen Innes Examiner's Managing Director, told him that he wanted to break up the type used for the booklet. Drummond, still hoping that demand would justify a second edition, wrote Sommerlad a very still and formal letter indeed.

Sommerlad, knowing Drummond well, responded in a friendly but firm fashion: "Your terribly fearsome letter arrived today, representing much wasted effort on your part", he wrote. Explaining why they needed the type, he asked Drummond to let him know immediately what his plans were, concluding with a P.S.: "there's not going to be any booklet argument as far as this chicken's concerned."

Drummond's hopes that the booklet would have an immediate popular impact were unrealistic. However, it did have a significant continuing influence on New England and country political thought.

In my next post in this series I will look at some of the principles and issues that Drummond raised in the frame set by my own experience and knowledge.

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