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Symbols matter

By George Williams - posted Monday, 18 February 2008

Who may become the Queen's next representative in Australia has attracted speculation months before any choice needs to be made. One reason for this is that the office of governor-general is now central to debates over contemporary Australian identity and our national symbols.

Far from being a curious relic of Australia's colonial past, the post continues to raise questions about our independence from the British crown. Even the gender of the appointee matters. What does it say about the status of women in Australia when not one has been chosen as governor-general since 1901?

Symbols matter. They define who we are and can be a powerful way of redressing injustice and building social cohesion around shared goals and values. Prime minister John Howard always understood this and during his leadership Anzac Day and Australia Day gained new significance.


After many years disputing the value of symbolic reform in Indigenous affairs, he told the Sydney Institute in October last year: "I announce that, if re-elected, I will put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution - their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation."

He declared that his "goal is to see a new statement of reconciliation incorporated into the preamble of the Australian Constitution".

Howard was right, it is long past time that Aboriginal people were recognised in the Constitution.

The other major symbolic agenda is the Australian republic.

The Constitution is at odds with the reality of Australia's political and legal independence and its contemporary values.

It is more than incongruous that Australia's head of state is the monarch of a foreign nation born to a position, according to a 1701 British statute, that ranks men over women and rules Catholics ineligible.


Sexism and religious discrimination are unacceptable tests for office in modern Australia and should not determine who is eligible to be the country's head of state.

Section 2 of the Constitution suggests Australia is not an independent nation and establishes the governor-general as the Queen's representative: "A governor-general appointed by the Queen shall be Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth and shall have and may exercise in the Commonwealth during the Queen's pleasure, but subject to this Constitution, such powers and functions of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him."

The now obsolete section 59 even grants the Queen power to "disallow any law" passed by federal Parliament.

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First published in the Herald Sun on January 31, 2008.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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