After a tireless round of celebrations for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta we should now ask, in the spirit of sobriety, why all the fuss?
The English Supreme Court judge and historian Lord Sumption in an address to the Friends of the British Library in March said, “It is impossible to say anything new about Magna Carta, unless you say something mad. In fact, even if you say something mad, the likelihood is that it will have been said before.”
Australia, we’ve had more than our fair share of mad comments about the charter – an attempt to elevate it into a mystical source of our liberties.
Attorney-General George Brandis believes we can trace our constitution back 800 years “to the fundamental principles enshrined in the Magna Carta – limiting arbitrary power, holding the executive to account and affirming the rule of law”.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop thinks it is “one of the defining codes of Western civilisation” and the source of inspiration for “a new paradigm in foreign aid”. Tony Abbott said on Monday that Magna Carta was one of “the most important constitutional documents of our time”.
The education minister Christopher Pyne has complained about an “over-emphasis on indigenous culture and history and almost an entire blotting out of our British traditions and British heritage”. He wants Magna Carta classes in the schools.
Indeed, the attorney-general has set this as homework for Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. He’s asked Wilson “to take particular interest in promoting and educating the Australian people, in particular schoolchildren, about the importance of the Magna Carta”.
Heaven help the nation’s children if Wilson’s understanding of the Magna Carta is to be unleashed on them.
In an address to the National Press Club in February, the commissioner effused about Magna Carta as the foundation force from which flowed “Western civilisation, liberal enlightenment thinking, human rights and the creation of institutions that preserve our free society”.