CHAPTER XXXII. IMPERIAL RELATIONS AND THE AUSTRALIAN SPIRIT

The time came, however, when it was considered desirable to define in legal form the position of the Dominions and their relations with Great Britain. A step in that direction was taken by the Imperial Conference in 1926 when it passed a resolution declaring that 'every self-governing member of the Empire is now the master of its destiny.' But that was somewhat vague. 'Destiny' is beyond 'mastery' by definition. Many empires and nations which no longer exist supposed themselves to be masters of their destiny, but were not saved from extinction nevertheless. The Imperial Conference also adopted a declaration, drafted by Mr. A. J. (afterwards Lord) Balfour, defining the Dominions as 'autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another, in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.' But the Imperial Conference, though composed of very influential men, had no legislative authority. It could formulate principles, but could not bring them out of the region of opinion into that of law. What was wanted was a statement in black and white, in the form of a statute, of the relations between Great Britain and the Dominions. That purpose was attained by the passing of the Statute of Westminster, 1931.

That Act sets forth that 'the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.' It guarantees the legislative independence of the Dominions by providing that no law passed by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void on the ground that it is repugnant to the laws of England. No Act of the Imperial Parliament shall extend to a Dominion unless a Dominion requests to be brought under it. These two provisions, then, leave the Dominions beyond control by any legislation of the Imperial Parliament, and enable them to legislate free from restraint by the Imperial Government.

This short Act of Parliament brought to a conclusion a process of historical development within the British Empire. The Dominions, by its means, form the group of States which are named in the Act itself 'the British Commonwealth of Nations.' That descriptive group-name does not separate them from the British Empire, but indicates that they occupy a distinctive position within it. They are all Free States, and their people enjoy the privileges of British citizenship.

This defined 'Dominion Status' implies obligations on both sides. That the Imperial Parliament will not interpose in a matter affecting the relations of the Commonwealth and the States was shown in 1934-5, when the unfortunate movement in Western Australia for the secession of that State resulted in a petition being prepared for presentation to the Lords and Commons. The petitioners desired the Imperial Parliament to pass an Act providing that after a proclaimed date Western Australia should cease to be a State of the Commonwealth of Australia. The House of Lords and the House of Commons appointed a joint committee to advise whether the petition should be received. This committee in its report (May 22, 1935) pointed out that in addition to the fact that the Constitution of the Commonwealth, which Western Australia had accepted in common with the other States, provided that all the States of Australia had 'agreed to unite in one indissoluble constitution under the Crown,' the Statute of Westminster affirmed the rule that the Parliament of the United Kingdom would not pass any law affecting a Dominion except at the request of that Dominion. The Western Australian petition asked for legislative action 'which it would be constitutionally incompetent for the Parliament of the United Kingdom to take, except upon the definite request of the Commonwealth of Australia conveying the clearly expressed wish of the Australian people as a whole.' Therefore the petition was 'not proper to be received,' and both Houses of the Imperial Parliament declined to receive it.

'Dominion Status' also implies that the advantages derived by the Dominions from their association with the British Commonwealth of Nations - the defensive power which they thereby acquire, the prestige which they share from membership of a world-wide political system - shall carry the obligation of fidelity to the British Empire in the event of war. It is true that in the Second World War that began in 1939 the Irish Free State remained neutral, and legally all the other Dominions were free to do the same if they had wished. But in fact all the other dominions declared war on Germany, because once Britain was at war they all considered that their own interests and security were at stake. If the other dominions had followed the example of Eire, then it would probably have spelt the end of the British Commonwealth of Nations before very long. But the Australian people felt that so long as they accept the advantages of membership of the British Commonwealth, they must also share its dangers and responsibilities.

The British Commonwealth is a great confederacy of nations, independent within their own sphere, each member enjoying freedom to shape its own destiny, as far as destiny can be shaped by policy. But the whole is not only mightier than its parts, but grander. A French author has expressed the view that the British Commonwealth 'furnishes the most praiseworthy example of political creation which the world has known since the dissolution of the Roman Empire.' And the British Commonwealth is something more than a 'political creation.' It has a moral cement which the Roman Empire lacked even in its best period. It is founded on goodwill and animated by the spirit of co-operation. It has grown into its present shape because its people desired that it should develop in such a direction; and its achievement is beneficial to them and to the world at large.