Sir Ninian Stephen

Australian Federation
by the Right Hon Sir Ninian Stephen

The Right Hon Sir Ninian Stephen retired as Justice of the High Court of Australia in 1982 to take up appointment as Governor General of Australia, an office he held until 1989. Sir Ninian has chaired various Australian governmental and other bodies, including the Constitutional Centenary Foundation, the Antarctic Foundation, National Library of Australia and Australian Banking Industry Ombudsman Council.

Recently he has been a judge of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and has been appointed Chair of the Australian Citizenship Council. Sir Ninian is Patron of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation.

What does Federation mean?
It means the joining together of a number of distinct existing political entities, such as the six Australian colonies of the 19th century, into one larger political entity, such as the Commonwealth of Australia. This larger entity then assumes some powers with respect to all the people while leaving other powers with the original entities.

Why is Australia's Centenary of Federation important?
It was the result of Federation that a political entity to be known as the Commonwealth of Australia came into being. Before Federation, Australia was no more than a geographical description for the continent; with Federation we became a nation and Australians a people.

Have there been any big changes in Australia's Constitution since 1901?
There have been altogether eight alterations to the Constitution so far this century. Only two of them can, I think, be described as making a big change. The first of these was effected by one of the amendments proposed at the referendum of May 1967 and which was carried by overwhelming majorities in each State. It did two things: it amended the Constitution to empower the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for people of the Aboriginal race and it removed an original provision of the Constitution which had prevented Aboriginals from being counted in any reckoning of the people of the Commonwealth or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth.

The other amendment, which made what might be called a big change, was effected by the referendum of May 1977. For the first time, voters in the Northern Territory and in Canberra were given the right to vote in referendums, their votes being included in reckoning whether or not a majority of electors, Commonwealth-wide, approve of a proposed law.

What are some of the important changes to our system of Government and law since 1901?
There have been few changes to our system of government in this century. In 1921 Queensland's Legislative Council was abolished so that it became, and still is, the only unicameral State, although the legislatures of the two Territories, the Northern Territory and the ACT, are both unicameral and each Territory now elects two members to the Federal Senate.

Then there has been a great increase over the years in the number of Senators and of Members of the House of Representatives. In addition, there has been a great increase in the powers of the Federal Government at the expense of State Governments, largely due to the financial power of the former.

There have also been few major changes in the law this century. Perhaps some of these major changes are:

  • the creation of the Federal Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia;
  • the abolition of appeals from Australian courts to the judges of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London;
  • the effective abandonment of income taxing power by the States in favour of the Commonwealth; and
  • the abolition of capital punishment.

What are the major issues for the Australian people at this Centenary?
Issues become issues through their being raised and discussed; it is difficult accordingly to identify major issues in advance. I suppose that the issue of Australia becoming a republic will remain a major issue on into the next century, despite the defeat of the very recent referendum on the topic. Again, Aboriginal land rights appears likely to remain a major issue, as may the whole question of multiculturalism and the continuation of its present success. Defence will remain an important issue, as will employment and control of inflation. Looking beyond these domestic issues, our relations with our Asian neighbours to the north, including the Indian subcontinent, will clearly be of great importance in the future. Beyond this degree of speculation I cannot go!

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