Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942

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Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942
Australian coat of arms 1912 edit.png
Parliament of Australia
An Act to remove Doubts as to the Validity of certain Commonwealth Legislation, to obviate Delays occurring in its Passage, and to effect certain related purposes, by adopting certain Sections of the Statute of Westminster 1931, as from the Commencement of the War between his Majesty the King and Germany
Date of Royal Assent 9 October 1942
Date commenced 3 September 1939
Amendments
1986 (minor)
Related legislation
Australia Act 1986
Status: Current legislation

The Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 is an Act of the Australian Parliament that formally adopted the Statute of Westminster 1931, an Act of the British Imperial Parliament enabling the legislative independence of the various self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. The Statute of Westminster allowed the Dominion parliaments and governments to act independently of the British Parliament and Government.

The Act is more important for its symbolic value than for the legal effect of its provisions. While Australia's growing independence from the United Kingdom was well accepted, the adoption of the Statute of Westminster formally demonstrated Australia's independence to the world. It also symbolised the shift in Australia's foreign policy from a focus on the United Kingdom to the United States.

Background[edit]

Australia's progression to effective independence has been gradual and largely unemotional (see Eureka Stockade for evidence of some emotionality).

New South Wales was founded as a British colony in Sydney in 1788. Other colonies split away from New South Wales or were separately established over the Australian continent in the ensuing decades. The colonies became self-governing during the second half of the 19th century, starting with Victoria in 1852, although well before this time, all of the colonies had non-elected Legislative Councils to advise their respective Governors on matters of administration.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was formed with federation of the six colonies in 1901, following royal assent of the Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900, it became classified as a Dominion of the British Empire. This accorded Australia somewhat greater independence. After the end of World War I, each of the Dominions (including Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa) independently signed the Treaty of Versailles, but under the collective umbrella of the British Empire, and each became a founding member of the League of Nations in its own right. This was an important international demonstration of the independence of the Dominions.

The Statute of Westminster[edit]

During the 1926 Imperial Conference, the governments of the Dominions and of the United Kingdom endorsed the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which declared that the Dominions were autonomous members of the British Empire, equal to each other and to the United Kingdom. The Statute of Westminster 1931 gave legal effect to the Balfour Declaration and other decisions made at the Imperial Conferences. Most importantly, it declared that the Parliament of the United Kingdom no longer had any legislative authority over the Dominions. Previously, the Dominions were legally colonies of the United Kingdom, and thus had no legal international status. The Statute made the Dominions de jure independent nations.

The Statute took effect immediately over Canada, South Africa and the Irish Free State. However, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland had to ratify the Statute through legislation before it would apply to them. Canada also requested certain exemptions from the Statute in regard to the Canadian Constitution.

Australian politicians initially resisted ratification of the Statute. John Latham, the Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, was particularly opposed to ratifying the Statute, because he thought it would weaken military and political ties with the United Kingdom. Latham had attended both the 1926 Imperial Conference and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and he had much experience in international affairs. He preferred that the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Dominions not be codified in legislation.

However, other politicians supported the Statute, and the new independence it gave to Australia.

In 1930, shortly before the Statute was enacted, the Labor Prime Minister James Scullin recommended Sir Isaac Isaacs (then the Chief Justice of Australia) as the Governor-General of Australia, to replace Lord Stonehaven. This was a departure from previous practice whereby the British monarch, acting on the advice of the British Prime Minister, would offer the Australian Prime Minister a number of choices for the position. However, the Australian Prime Minister, acting in line with the principles of the Balfour Declaration permitting Dominion governments to look after their own affairs, insisted on the appointment of Isaacs. Although King George V disapproved of Isaacs, the 1930 Imperial Conference upheld the procedure under the declaration, and so the King appointed Isaacs. The other Dominions supported this demonstration of political independence.

Adoption[edit]

Four successive Prime MinistersJames Scullin, Joseph Lyons, Robert Menzies and Arthur Fadden — did not adopt the Statute. John Curtin, who became Prime Minister eight weeks before the Imperial Japanese Navy's attack on Pearl Harbor, was finally prompted to adopt the Statute in 1942 after the Fall of Singapore and the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. Prior conservative governments had asserted that British military forces would be able to protect Australia, but Curtin, along with External Affairs Minister Dr H.V. Evatt, thought that focusing on an alliance with the United States would be more valuable.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill had promised to send forces to defend Australia in return for Australia's contribution to the war in the Middle East Campaign and the North African Campaign. However, relatively few forces arrived, because Churchill was focused on first defeating the Axis Powers in Europe before turning to Japan. Curtin made the decision in December 1941 to recall the 6th Division and the 7th Division to defend Australia, although the 9th Division remained in North Africa until Axis forces there were defeated. Curtin openly stated that Australia was turning to America rather than the United Kingdom.

Before the 1940s, the United Kingdom had managed Australia's foreign relations as a matter of course. Curtin's decision to formally adopt the Statute of Westminster in late 1942 was a demonstration to the international community that Australia was an independent nation.

Provisions of the Act[edit]

The act had just three sections, one setting out the short title, one declaring that the Act was to come into operation as soon as it received Royal Assent, and one declaring that the Statute of Westminster had been adopted, and was considered to have had effect since 3 September 1939, the beginning of World War II.[1] For a simple Act, it had a significant effect.

Section 2 of the Statute of Westminster abrogated the effect of the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865, and adopting it meant that laws made by the Parliament of Australia which were repugnant to British laws were no longer invalid. Section 4 of the Statute provided that laws made by the Parliament of the United Kingdom would only have effect on a Dominion at the request of the government of that Dominion.

Under the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act 1890, the British monarch had the ability to reserve certain legislation for his or her own consideration, rather than simply allowing the Governor-General to give the Royal Assent on the monarch's behalf. Section 6 of the Statute removed this power. The Statute also removed British control over merchant shipping in Australian waters.

References[edit]