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[The King with His Prime Ministers 1926 (left to right): Walter Stanley Monroe (Newfoundland), Gordon Coates (New Zealand), Stanley Bruce (Australia), J. B. M. Hertzog (Union of South Africa), W.T. Cosgrave (Irish Free State). Seated: Stanley Baldwin (United Kingdom), King George V, William Lyon Mackenzie King (Canada).]

The Crown is Australia’s oldest legal and constitutional institution.

Introduced with the settlement in 1788, it remains at the centre of our constitutional system. 

From 1926, as a result of decisions taken at an Imperial Conference of Prime Ministers in London, the single Imperial British Crown began to divide into the Australian, Canadian,  New Zealand , British and other Crowns of other Realms. (Realm comes from an old French word which means a  kingdom.)

Each Realm has long been fully independent. Each one recognizes The Queen as its Sovereign, or Monarch.

Although the Australian states became self governing colonies in the nineteenth century, and the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901, Australia was not yet fully independent. Nor was Canada and the other self governing Dominions, now called Realms. 

But the Australian Constitution was the first one approved by the British where the constitution could be changed without the need for British legislation, which indicated a considerable degree of freedom.

After the First World War, Australian representatives were involved for the first time in the negotiation and signature of a political treaty, the Treaty of Versailles of 1919.

As a result, Australia became a foundation member of the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. So did Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

For Australia and these other Dominions, this was a significant step in their being recognized around the world as independent countries.

But until 1926, the Imperial Crown remained a single legal and political institution across the whole British Empire. At the local level, the Crown would be advised by local ministers in relation to day to day activities, but on the most important matters, for example, the appointment of a Governor-General.the Sovereign, then King George V,  would act on the advice of His British ministers.

At the Imperial Conference that year, it was agreed under what came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, that the United Kingdom and the Dominions , including Australia, Canada and New Zealand were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations".                                  

As a result the  Australian  Governor-General would represent the Australian  and not the Imperial Crown.

He or she would no longer be appointed on the advice of the British ministers, but on the advice of the Sovereign’s Australian ministers, which in practice meant  the Prime Minister.

It confirmed something which had already occurred  - that the Governor-General he would  “hold in all essential respects  in relation to the administration of public affairs” in Australia  in the country as “the King did in the United Kingdom.”

The difference was that he was no longer also accountable to  British ministers, and would no longer act as a conduit between the British and Australian governments.

This would be done by High Commissioners appointed by each government.

The Balfour Declaration of 1926 was an effective declaration of independence for the Dominions. Some  took advantage of this as soon as they could, others took years.

As a result, the Imperial Crown began to divide into separate Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealand and other Crowns.

The legal position is that the Crowns of each are separate and distinct institutions, but have the same Sovereign ( the  King or Queen), a point confirmed by the High Court of Australia in 1999, in the case of Sue v Hill.

This sharing of a Sovereign is well known in international law, and is called a personal union.

Legal effect to this separation of the Crowns was given by a Proclamation under the resulting British legislation, the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927.

Then the Statute of Westminster,1931 confirmed the independent status of Australia and the other Dominions. It was adopted in Australia in 1942,and for legal reasons  back dated to the beginning of the Second World War in 1939: the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act, 1942 (Cth).

But at the request of Australia, the Statute of Westminster was not to apply to the Australian States.

This was because State politicians of all parties had less confidence in Federal governments  than  British ministers, to convey their advice to the Crown on such matters as the appointment of Governors, and the reservation of proposed legislation for Royal Assent.

Accordingly, on State matters, the Sovereign was advised by Her British Ministers. Technically then, the British Crown retained a vestigial role in Australian affairs until 1986.

It is important to understand that this was only because State governments trusted the British more than the Federal government.  The States were not prepared to have the Prime Minister advise The Queen on State matters, for example on the appointment of Governors, or on disallowing State legislation.

This was terminated under legislation passed by the all Australian Parliaments and by the British Parliament: the Australia Acts, 1986.

The Queen played a crucial role in agreeing to a solution which is unique in the Commonwealth. This is that on State matters The Queen would be advised by the Premier, a practice which does not apply in Canada.

That the British Crown was to play a residual role in Australia until as late 1986 is not so surprising given the peaceful way in which Britain transferred power to her former colonies.

Until 1982, the Canadian constitution could only be changed by the British Parliament, but not because of any British wish to retain control. The Canadian governments could not agree on how to amend their constitution.

This development demonstrates once again the genius of our evolving and enormously successful constiutional systems.

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