Ronald Reagan, one of the greatest American presidents, presciently warned about the situation in which both the United States, Australia, and much of the Anglosphere find themselves today.
“Freedom,” he said, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.
“It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Much of the great success of the English-speaking world, has been in its long attachment to constitutionalism.
This operated on an eternal truth succinctly identified by the great historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Former U.S. President James Maddison had previously stated a corollary, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
History is always relevant to understanding what is happening today. So we should remember that the British themselves revolted when James II attempted to impose an absolute monarchy similar to France’s under Louis XIV.
But since that 1688 Glorious Revolution, the British have never bothered with a single document called “the Constitution” especially one like the American which was always more difficult to change than any other piece of legislation.
Lord Bolingbroke, a controversial British politician who strongly influenced not only Voltaire but also John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, gave a superb definition of a constitution.
To put his words in modern English, this was that “by constitution, we mean that assembly of laws, customs and institutions by which the people have agreed to be governed.”
His description covers not only the document which is referred to in the United States and other English speaking countries as “the constitution.”
It covers other documents, such as state constitutions in federations and those documents which are foundational. It is, as Churchill said, “… the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded.”
This is not only relevant, but it is also crucial too in the UK, Australia, and throughout the Commonwealth.
In Australia, there are other foundation documents, the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the Statute of Westminster in 1936 as well as the Australia Act of 1986, which together gradually and graciously extinguished the remnants of colonial control.
A similar experience in Canada is referred to, curiously, as the “repatriation” of the Constitution.
Not only does Bolingbroke open our eyes to the multiplicity of constitutional sources, he makes the crucial point that in the English speaking world of the Anglosphere, the constitution also sets out the way the people have agreed to be governed.
This reflects the current view of the Australian High Court that the people are sovereign, notwithstanding the fact that the judges then studiously avoid applying that principle in practice.
When a constitution was drafted to join together the then six Australian colonies into one nation, the founders borrowed heavily from the American Constitution.
So in the Australian High Court, they copied the U.S. Supreme Court, ignoring the danger that this can result in the Constitution meaning whatever a judge says it means.
This is exactly the Australian problem. A change of the constitution must be approved by the people both nationally and federally (that is in a majority of states).
And over the years, the people have been asked to vote, more than once, on nine subjects. Some have been put to the vote on five occasions.
On every such occasion though the people have said no.
The sad fact is that in every single one of these relating to the granting of additional powers to Canberra, Australia’s capital, the High Court has refused to consider the views of the people clearly expressed in those referendums.
Instead, most of these powers have been handed over to Canberra through constitutional interpretation by the High Court.
Although the Australian Constitution appears more decentralised and more U.S.-based than the Canadian, the result is the Commonwealth of Australia is probably the most lopsided federation in the world, dominated by an all-powerful federal government.
With judicial connivance, more than 80 percent of tax dollars end up with Canberra which then controls the states by conditional grants.
Canberra now intrudes in matters never intended to be theirs under the Constitution. Given the limited abilities of essentially career politicians, this means that some federal powers are seriously mishandled.
As in some other countries today, this has been exacerbated by the dominance of career politicians in an essentially two-party system.
Trainee politicians go straight from universities to politicians’ offices, sometimes unbelievably designated as “advisers.”
There they learn the art of plotting and manipulation and, too often, the need to bear allegiance to a powerbroker rich from lobbying for government contracts, and one who controls preselections.
Elections thus become confected, especially in safe seats where candidates from the principal parties have not been chosen on merit but rather on their allegiance to some powerbroker.
In government, such politicians are more often than not opportunists rather than statesmen concerned with principle and the national interest. Hence there is a serious decline in the quality of government.
More recently the arrival of the Wuhan pandemic is cited as demonstrating the strength of the federation.
The first thing to understand is that much of the apparent success in handling the pandemic comes not from the politicians who, in any event, committed some serious errors of judgment.
It comes from the major factor that Australia, like New Zealand, is a remote island nation.
That is why in World War II, the Imperial Japanese were never able to mount the feared invasion, apart from dropping more bombs on Darwin than Pearl Harbour. Australia was then, as it is now, a remote island nation.
Superficially the states acted during the pandemic almost as separate countries imposing Beijing-style lockdowns, authoritarian rule, closing borders, and behaving with neither normal parliamentary control, nor auditing through viceregal executive councils, nor indeed federal intervention through the courts.
This move of the country to authoritarianism was a cooperative operation between the federal and state governments, with Canberra generously using taxpayer funds and incurring massive debt to underwrite, directly or indirectly, the states.
More and more, the principal political parties can hardly be distinguished from one another. Hence the renaissance of alternative parties, especially the United Australia Party, which has engaged in a major advertising campaign, as well as One Nation.
But the question remains will they be able to restore constitutional governance after the 2022 federal election?
From Australia, Ronald Reagan’s prescient warning is especially applicable to America today. But it is just as applicable to Australia.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.