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Delusions of Viceroys

August 28, 2011


At Government House in Hobart on Friday night I picked up a brochure that gives a guide to the building. It contains some inaccurate observations about Australian government.

For example that Tasmania "possesses all the constitutional elements of an independent state, including its own head of state who is the Governor."

No Australian state enjoys "the constitutional elements of an independent state." They lack, to start with, the capacity to make treaties and to run defence forces. They have to accept that the federal government has powers given to it by section 51 of the constitution: over the census, posts and telegraphs, copyright, immigration, insurance, marriage and so on. There have been more important powers awarded or upheld by High Court decisions. For the Commonwealth to impose income tax or duties on petrol, for example. In other words, Australian states have to accept that the Commonwealth has these powers and the states do not. The states cannot be said, therefore, to possess the qualities of independent states.

Tasmania is a state in a federation and, by definition, has nothing approaching independence.

Moreover their governor is not head of state. The Queen is. That's what it means to be a constitutional monarchy. The governor is her representative and not remotely a head of state.

In listing the governor's powers the brochure includes "determining the machinery of elections." I have no idea what this means.

There is another clanger. The brochure says that from 1812 one Lieutenant-Governor "administered the whole state." What? In 1812? Tasmania did not become a state until 1901 when Federation commenced. Until then it was a colony. There were no states before 1901.

A school text would be withdrawn if it included such inaccuracies.

The Tasmanian governor should trash this brochure before it confuses school students.

A knowledge of constitutional practice should be required of people appointed state governor.

I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the brochure's observations on the Huon pine floor of the ball room or the hand painted French Empire wallpaper, although the brochure does not specify which of the two empires.

  1. Tom Round permalink
    August 28, 2011 8:41 pm

    > ‘In listing the governor’s powers the brochure includes “determining the machinery of elections.” I have no idea what this means.’

    I’d read this as meaning “issues the writs”. I note that even in Victoria (with fixed terms) there is still a formal role for the Governor in issuing writs. It’s what our American cousins would call a “purely ministerial” function – of course, “ministerial” is an adjective whose political meaning changes as it crosses the distinction.

    Mr Carr is quite right that Tasmania wasn’t a State before 1901, but brochures are not textbooks and if they start to say “State/ Colony” (or “State/ Colony/ Province” where South Australia is concerned) they will grow prolix and the young folk will get bored and start texting their friends “OMG im so borde ths iz complc8d”.

    I used to crusade persistently for official forms to say “State/ Territory of residence?”, not just “State of residence”, but gave it up after realising that even in Canberra about half of all forms simply say “State”. I guess they took Question C of the 1977 referendum very seriously.

  2. Kester Takayama permalink
    August 29, 2011 11:16 am

    Perhaps the use of the word phrase “independent state” is used to describe the fact that Tasmania is a “State” as described by Chapter 5 of the Australian Constituent which is “independent” when compared to a “territory” (such as the NT), rather than in some kind of legal International Law context?

    And maybe the word “state” in reference to the Lieutenant-Governor administering the whole state in 1812 refers to the State as it is now.

    Would you tell a child off if they pointed to a pre-settlement map of Australia and called it “Australia”? “No it wasn’t called that yet!”

    I appreciate the need for accuracy but I also think that non-legal documents probably don’t need to use words in a legal context.

  3. Tom Round permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:24 am

    Err, “as it crosses the Pacific Ocean”

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