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The Australian High Court is the highest independent judicial arm of the government, which is also a significant feature of Australia’s liberal-democratic governance (Patapan, 2010, p. 167; Banks, 2007, p. 16).
The main functions of this court include interpreting and applying the Australian constitution, solving cases regarding the federal system of governance such as instances where the constitutional validity of the laws is challenged, and officiating appeal cases (Singleton et al., 2009, p.64).
However, in the recent past, there have been arguments over the court’s role in the shifting balance of power, which tends to favor the Commonwealth.
As a result, there is the need to look into the factors underlying this shift in the balance of power and the relevant constitutional interpretations since the initial constitution provided for the preservation of the balance of power between the commonwealth and the states (Singleton et al., 2009, p.64).
To this end, the essay will look at the role of the high court in interpreting the wording of the Australian constitution by considering the Engineers case (Amalgamated Society of Engineers Vs Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd) of 1920.
In addition, this essay aims at illustrating the High Court’s role as a political institution of governance through considering the court’s input in supporting the legislation regarding income tax, which was enacted by the Commonwealth in 1942.
Overall, the two cases will serve as examples of the roles played by the high court in interpreting the Australian constitution, and acting as a political institution in the Australian system of governance.
The role of the High Court in interpreting the laws
Considering that all the constitutional rights of appeal bestowed upon the Privy Council have been abolished in the recent past, it is certain that the Australian constitution allows the High Court to interpret the laws (Singleton et al., 2009, p.65).
This implies that all the constitutional cases including appeals originating from different jurisdictions, which bear a greater political significance to the federal government, are referred to the High Court.
Here, it is worth noting that most constitutional cases are based on disagreements involving the balance of power between the federal and the state governments particularly in matters dealing with trade, banking, and arbitrations (Singleton et al., 2009, p. 65; Wiltshire, 2008, p. 31).
Thus, the decisions made by the High Court regarding these cases can have far-reaching implications since they form the framework for decisions made by other courts several years later.
Accordingly, since its inception, the High court’s rulings have been centered on controlling the federal powers, giving wider interpretations of the federal powers, sustaining the role played by the Commonwealth in governance without bias, and as can be noted from the recent developments, the High Court is engaged in providing additional interpretations of the powers held by the federal government (Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 105).
However, of particular interest in this respect is the court’s role in the Engineers case whereby it was decided that the federal adjudication powers as provided in section 51(xxxv) of the constitution could also apply in other parts of the country including Western Australia (Singleton et al., 2009, p. 66; Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 115).
Additionally, regarding the Engineers case, the High Court is said to have given the Commonwealth the full control over worker’s wages at the national level.
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In so doing, the court can be regarded to as playing the role of reshaping the constitutional interpretations put forward in 1901, and thus, providing a framework upon which the disagreements arising between the Commonwealth and the States can be solved.
Here, the court played the role of a constitutional adjudicator considering that despite enlarging the legislative powers of the Commonwealth on one hand, it also confined these powers on the other hand.
Further, it is to be noted that the majority of the court was of the idea that the interpretation of the constitution should be based on its original wording, and not on implied prohibitions or implied immunity, which were two major doctrines used by the courts in the early 1900s (Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 119).
Therefore, by giving the constitution its normal word meaning, the High Court extended the powers of the Commonwealth to cover some aspects, which were initially prohibited by interpreting the laws on the basis of the drafters’ wishful meanings of the constitutional wording.
However, it should be noted that this broader interpretation of the laws was not meant to give the federal government an upper hand, but it served to check almost all aspects of governance, and to maintain the balance of power between the federal and state governments (Wiltshire, 2008, p. 35).
The role of the High Court as a political institution
If we had to examine what the drafters of the Australian constitution had in mind, it is certain that they wanted to develop the US-system of the judiciary, which performs various functions such as the federal judicial review (Banks, 2007, p. 18).
Here, the role played by the High Court entails examining the laws made in both the Commonwealth and the State legislatures in order to ensure that they fall within the provisions of the constitution.
Accordingly, considering that disputes could arise between the federal and state governments such as the one discussed above, there is the paramount need to have a mediator who should be impartial and unconcerned with issues raised by either party in order for justice to be served.
This role could not fit any institution apart from the Australian High Court. As a result, the High Court can be regarded to as an arbiter of federalism or an advocate of the Australian constitution (Patapan, 2010, p.168).
It then follows that the decisions made by the High Court will have extensive political implications. For instance, during the war-time in 1942, the federal government came up with a legislation meant to control the overall income tax, a move which was challenged in court by the state governments (Singleton et al., 2009, p. 169).
In this constitutional conflict, the High Court ruled in favor of the federal government, and thus gave the Commonwealth the authority to implement uniform taxation at the national level. This implied that the state governments could not impose their own taxes outside those implemented by the Commonwealth.
Besides, it is to be noted that the court also gave a broader meaning of section 90, which entails the Excise, and thus limiting the taxation power of the Commonwealth in some aspects.
These decisions of the court point to the fact that it plays a political role in that the High Court has the power to look into the actions of both the legislature and the executive in order to determine whether those actions fall within the exact meaning of the constitution.
Furthermore, the case shows instances where the High Court can annul some actions of the executive, which may not be based on proper interpretation of the constitution.
Moreover, this case is one of many instances where the High Court came in to help solve constitutional conflicts arising from wrong interpretation of the constitution or obscure laws (Ward & Stewart, 2010, p. 105).
Here, it is also important to note that the High Court was acting purely within its constitutional mandate, which dictates that such conflicts be treated as legal questions irrespective of the impending political consequences. Overall, the court’s decisions show that the High Court judges understand their role in the political sphere and judicial review (Patapan, 2010, p. 169).
Banks, R 2007, Hot topics: legal issues in plain language, Legal Information Access Centre, Australia.
Patapan, H 2010, High court, (Insert the publisher and the Town for the book you scanned for me).
Singleton et al. 2009, High court, (Insert the publisher and the Town for the book that you scanned for me).
Ward, T & Stewart, R 2010, Politics one (4th ed), Palgrave MacMillan, Australia.
Wiltshire, K 2008, ‘Australian federalism: the business perspective’, The University of New South Wales Law Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 31-45.