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The Australian National University

Popular Sovereignty and the Nationhood Power

George Duke (2017) 45 (3)

The principle that the constitution derives its ultimate authority from the sovereignty of the people and the nationhood power were both developed by the High Court in the context of Australia’s emergence as an independent nation. Although this shared provenance suggests the possibility of a more significant connection between the two doctrines, such a connection has not been developed in Australian constitutional jurisprudence. The heavily criticised judgment of French J in the Tampa decision appears to allude to such a connection, but the relevant reasoning is ambiguous and either left undeveloped or implicitly rejected in subsequent High Court cases. This paper critically examines the relationship between popular sovereignty and the nationhood power on two levels. In the first instance, the paper investigates whether it is even coherent to seek to provide a normative ground for the nationhood power in popular sovereignty. The paper then considers whether such a justification is consistent with Australian constitutional doctrine. Unsurprisingly, the weight of constitutional principle and doctrine supports the general subjection of the executive to prior legislative authorisation, rather than a robust non-statutory executive power grounded in popular sovereignty. While this conclusion is predictable in an Australian context, a detailed examination of the relationship between the weaker conception of popular sovereignty operative in the reasoning of High Court and the nationhood power nonetheless reveals some important underlying assumptions of current doctrinal orthodoxy.

Vol 45, Issue 3, 2017

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