Friday, January 18, 2013

Waugh on "a Minor Landmark" in Australian Independence

John Waugh, Melbourne Law School, has posted two articles on thee appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs as Australia’s Governor-General.  The first is Appointing the First Australian-Born Governor-General: Legal and Vice-Regal Opposition, which appeared in the Public Law Review 50 (2012): 50:
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Archival sources that have become available in recent years deepen our understanding of the controversy that surrounded the nomination in 1930 of Sir Isaac Isaacs as the first Australian-born Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. A chorus of elite Australian lawyers told King George V and the public that the appointment of Isaacs on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister would be invalid under the Australian Constitution. Their views, and those of other critics, were relayed by State Governors and the outgoing Governor-General, who added comments revealing their anti-Semitic hostility to Isaacs and their determination to oppose the appointment regardless of the views of the governments that advised them. For these lawyers, the imperial connection pervaded the Constitution, and only constitutional amendment could enable Australian ministers to become advisers of the King.

The other is An Australian in the Palace of the King-Emperor: James Scullin, George V and the Appointment of the First Australian-Born Governor-General, which appeared in the Federal Law Review 39 (2011): 235:
The nomination in 1930 of an Australian, Sir Isaac Isaacs, as Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia has become a minor landmark in the development of Australian independence. Opposed or supported at the time as a measure of the strength of Australia's links with Britain, the appointment has become, for lawyers and historians alike, a test-case for Australian autonomy and the countervailing cultural and legal force of the imperial connection.

The United Kingdom Dominions Office file covering the first phase of the negotiations was released in 1981; the subsequent file on the final phase of the negotiations was opened only in 2004, and it is now possible to consult the extensive records on the appointment deposited in the Royal Archives. These various records are the last, and most important, parts of the official British paper trail of the appointment. They trace the evolution of King George V's attitude and suggest how and why (contrary to his own wishes and against strong and persistent recommendations from some of his advisers) he accepted Isaacs as Governor-General.

While Isaacs would not have become Governor-General without the refusal of Australian Prime Minister James Scullin and his cabinet to back down, it was not Scullin who persuaded the King to give in, but instead private advisors who operated largely outside the framework of cabinet government. In this as in other ways, the growth of Australian independence was a complex negotiation that involved British concessions in ways that were opaque even to some of the agents of change themselves.