When it comes to sovereignty, talk is cheap

Aussie rules: to be sovereign or not to be sovereign, that is the question. Credit: Stuart Boulton/Shutterstock

Boris Johnson may be leading the fight for Britain to reclaim its sovereignty from the EU but he is content to see Queen Elizabeth remain Australia’s head of state, writes Geoff Kitney.

In the event that Boris Johnson needs to find a place of refuge if Britain changes its mind and decides not to Brexit, the door to a future life in Australia is wide open.

On a brief visit to Australia a few days ago, Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. It was as if he was a Messiah, bringing word of the creation of a place of heavenly beauty, wisdom and wealth, which when it finally breaks free of its tyrannical rulers of the past 40 years, will be a beacon of freedom and economic prosperity for the world.

He was talking about Britain, post Brexit.

But he waxed almost as lyrically about Australia. In fact, he offered Australia as proof of why Brexit is a great idea and why it will work miracles for Britain.

Johnson harked back to an idea briefly contemplated in Australia when the United Kingdom joined the European Common Market – that it might follow the mother country, Britain, and also apply for ECM membership.

Johnson argued that had Australia taken that step, there was no way it could have achieved the prosperity it enjoys today.

Australian independence is circumscribed by a Constitution drafted well over a century ago which still keeps ultimate sovereign power in the hands of the British Monarchy

Johnson said that, as a nation which has found its own way in the world free of economic unions and trade blocks, Australia was an example of what Britain could be as a free, independent and sovereign country.

“When we look at the forward momentum of Australia in the last few decades you can perhaps see why we in Britain are inclined to take with a pinch of salt some of the very slight gloom and negativity that is emanating from some distinguished quarters about the decision of the British people to leave the European Union,” Johnson said in a speech to the foreign policy think tank, The Lowy Institute.

“And you can see why we might be moved to reject their notion that little old Britain is just too small, too feeble, too isolated, to cope on its own.

“On the contrary, when we look at what Australia has achieved, we can see grounds for boundless excitement and optimism.”

With his Australian fan club swooning over every word, Johnson added one more observation that struck a chord with Brexit-cheering Australians – the fact that we shared what Winston Churchill called “the special genius of the English-speaking people”.

“For my part,” he said, “I think we must be careful to avoid any such conceit or complacency that English-speakers are especially blessed; but it is certainly true that there is a series of interconnected ideas that have been highly successful, and that I certainly believe in.

“They are democracy, the rule of law, habeas corpus, an independent judiciary, the absolute freedom to make fun of politicians, and above all the freedom to live your life as you please provided you do not harm the interests of others.”

One conservative commentator was so moved by what Johnson had to say that he suggested that there may well be “a trace of genius” in his political wisdom.

Even Australia’s Ambassador to Washington, Joe Hockey, was moved to tweet his enthusiasm about what Johnson had to say.

Hockey, who was the senior economic minister in the conservative Australian government elected in 2010, tweeted that Johnson had made “a superb speech”.

He had put a “convincing case for Brexit” and, he added: “I am a strong believer in Brexit.”

But here is a curious thing about the mutual admiration of Brexit Britons and Australian conservatives.

It seems that they have a confused understanding of the meaning of sovereignty, what difference being sovereign or not sovereign can make to the affairs of nations and in what circumstances incomplete sovereignty is OK.

Johnson came to Australia and won the cheers of the pro-Brexit crowd by declaring Australia as a model of robust independence yet, in doing so, ignores the truth that Australian independence is circumscribed by a Constitution drafted well over a century ago which still keeps ultimate sovereign power in the hands of the British Monarchy.

The Australian head of state is the Queen of England. Under the Australian Constitution, the English Monarch retains significant reserve powers over the Australian government and parliament.

These powers were exercised 40 years ago when, on the advice of her representative in Australia – the Governor General – Queen Elizabeth allowed the sacking of the democratically elected government of the day. That power remains in the Constitution.

‘As a nation which has found its own way in the world free of economic unions and trade blocks, Australia was an example of what Britain could be as a free, independent and sovereign country’

Yet the leading pro-Brexit Australian conservatives who laud Johnson for his leadership in the fight for Britain to reclaim its sovereignty from the European Union form a bulwark against all attempts to change the Australian Constitution to remove the reserve powers of the Queen.

They resist with vigour Australian republicans who want to sever the constitutional link with Britain to allow Australia to amend its constitution to make a completely sovereign nation.

At a more prosaic level, both the UK and Australian conservatives who are leading advocates of liberalising international trade by way of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) – Johnson said he hoped the UK and Australia could have one ready to go immediately that the Brexit process is completed.

But they are perfectly content to facilitate the negotiation of new FTAs by agreeing to include in these agreements provisions that erode sovereignty.

Since 2010 Australia has completed negotiations for a series of FTAs with major Asian nations, including China, Japan and South Korea.

These negotiations had been stalled for years because, on legal advice and in the face of public opposition, Australia refused the demands of their negotiating partners for the inclusion of so-called Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions. These provisions provide for the establishment of international tribunals that can adjudicate claims of damages by foreign corporations in relation to sovereign decisions by the government of the country in which they have invested.

A recent, famous example of this was action taken by multi-national tobacco company Philip Morris to sue the Australian Government for damages it claimed were the result of Australia’s plain packaging laws intended to discourage Australians from smoking.

The international court that sat in Singapore and heard all of its evidence in secret ultimately found in Australia’s favour, but legal experts say the decision could just as easily have gone the other way, with Australia facing a multi-billion dollar damages bill.

It has now become almost impossible for agreement on free trade to be signed without the inclusion of ISDS provisions, as Britain will discover when it is finally free from its obligations to the European Union.

Only after a change of government did Australia decide to set aside its reluctance to allow these provisions in future trade agreements when FTAs with China, Japan and South Korea were finally signed.

Given that the British government has put free trade at the top of its economic agenda for post-Brexit economic prosperity in a raft of free trade agreements, it is certain to have to agree to the compromise to Britain’s sovereignty that ISDS provisions in those agreements will cause.

This is certainly likely to be the case with the United States where US multi-national businesses have wielded their influence to compel successive US administrations to demand ISDS rules in trade agreements.

This all just goes to show that, when it comes to bold pronouncements about the sanctity of sovereignty, talk can be cheap.