Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world. First written in 1215, it set out rules limiting the power of the monarchy and safeguarding basic human rights. Over its long history it has been reinterpreted as an icon of justice and liberty. Magna Carta is one of the historic foundations of Australian democracy. Its principles about the rule of law and good government remain relevant today.
Explore Magna Carta through its clauses or view the stories to discover how people have used this medieval document to shape modern Australia.
Eight hundred years ago this June, the barons of England met King John on the lawns of Runnymede in southern England. The purpose of that famous meeting was to extract concessions from the King on a range of issues. The political settlement thus achieved was embodied in a document known to history as Magna Carta. The document guaranteed certain rights and liberties to the barons and to the church, such as protection from arbitrary imprisonment and guarantees against the imposition of certain feudal dues. Those concessions might seem modest to us now. Magna Carta was certainly much less than a bill of rights. Yet it was the first time in English history when significant limitations were placed upon the principle of absolute monarchy. At a time when the principle of the divine right of kings was still accepted by both church and state, and the institution of Parliament was yet to develop, the importance of Magna Carta in limiting the arbitrary power of the Crown cannot be underestimated. It does not mark the beginning of democracy: democracy, in a sense we would recognise it today, was still more than half a millennium away. Yet the fundamental premises of modem liberal and democratic government — that citizens have rights, and that those rights limit the powers and prerogatives of those who govern — are traceable to the selfsame principles that inspired the barons at Runnymede that summer day eight centuries ago.
Australians owe our constitutional forms and traditions, our political values and much of our law to that which we inherited from England. So just as Magna Carta marked a critical moment in the evolution of English constitutional and legal traditions, so equally it matters to us, as the legatees of those traditions. Magna Carta may be an ancient document, but the values which inspired it—the subjection of government to the rule of law, the need to curb the power of the state, and the recognition that citizens have rights which rulers may not abridge—remain as relevant to modem Australians as they were to medieval Englishmen. It is to this great document that we owe the first declaration of those principles in our constitutional history. The celebration of the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta is a time not merely to commemorate an important historical event, but to remind ourselves of the enduring relevance to contemporary Australia of the political values and constitutional tradition which it embodies.
The central idea of the Australian Constitution—that government is governed and restrained by law—is the very idea that was first established in our system of government by Magna Carta. Government under law is an idea that retains its life and vitality after 700 years because it expresses our fundamental desire to plan our own lives.
The Great Charter was the first successful attempt in our history to bring the government under the control of law and to begin to impose the rule of law on politics itself.
Magna Carta may have been made by the few, but it has been the many who have benefited.
Magna Carta is one of the historical foundations upon which Australian democracy is built. It was a landmark in the move away from despotic, arbitrary power in England, and remains today as a powerful symbol of the liberties of the people, including in Australia. On the other hand, Magna Carta has little relevance to the day-to-day work of the law in Australia. It talks of rights and duties from a different era, and even its most fundamental provisions must give way to the laws made by our parliaments.
The rights that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have achieved and continue to fight for are enshrined in Magna Carta itself:
“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
These words were not intended to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when they were written in 1215, and yet they encompass the struggle for human rights in Australia since colonisation. It is a long road to achieving reconciliation, building a movement committed to the belief that all individuals are treated fairly and have equal access to justice—concepts that can be traced back to Magna Carta.
In politics, we often forget the ideological founding fathers and legislation, which has formulated the grounds for our leadership. The Magna Carta is certainly one of those influential documents in civil political history. Such an important document, that it has transcended its own era, to permit the liberties that we enjoy within our parliamentary and legislative processes today. Citizens formulating and guaranteeing their own rights is a major step in developing contemporary democracies. This legal concept is relevant to the current freedoms that we enjoy as part of the Australian Constitution, particularly when compared with colonial times.
The Magna Carta on display in our Parliament House is one of only fourteen surviving charters. When purchased by Australia in 1952, Prime Minister Robert Menzies said this English charter, though not founding democracy, expressed the idea of the rule of law, a future foundation stone for democracy. Opposition Leader Herbert Evatt said the Charter meant the rule of liberty under law, and a hatred of arbitrary government and despotism. We Australians have grown our own version of law and democracy under the Southern Cross; it’s still growing; at our peril would we forget this ancient taproot of our freedoms.
Magna Carta is an incantation of the spirit of liberty. Whatever its text or meaning, it has become the talisman of a society in which tolerance and democracy reside, a society in which each man and woman has and is accorded his or her unique dignity, a society in which power and privilege do not produce tyranny and oppression. It matters not that this is the myth of Magna Carta, for the myth is the reality that continues to infuse the deepest aspirations of the Australian people. Those aspirations are our surest guarantee of a free and confident society.
Magna Carta was the resolution of a power struggle in feudal England. As feudal society yielded to parliamentary democracy, Magna Carta could have lost its relevance entirely. In fact, little of it remains in force today. But as Churchill famously noted, it has come to stand “for principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles ever dreamed”. And fragments of it still survive, especially the promise of a speedy trial and the rule of law, because they reflect basic social norms which were valued then and now.
King John entered the muddy meadow at Runnymede as an absolute ruler—he left it subject to the rule of law. That's why he soon tore it up—but it became the banner of the parliamentary army that overthrew Charles I, thereby ending torture and establishing judicial independence and a form of representative government. Magna Carta today still serves as a warning to our politicians: Don't you dare to pass laws which that deny to the Australian people rights that descend from the Great Charter such as rights to jury trial, access to justice, free speech and the power to call government to account. You cannot have democracy without Magna Carta's guarantee of the rule of law.
Magna Carta was a creation of hard-nosed politics. As sealed in 1215 it was a treaty not a law. King John repudiated it within weeks. Yet despite the myth and its often overlooked early history, the Magna Carta has transmitted through the centuries the idea that all official power is subject to the law. That has been described by a great English Judge as its enduring legacy—the lesson that no power is absolute. It informs our constitutional heritage of the rule of law under which Australians can enjoy their freedoms, develop their talents and pursue their opportunities.
The framers of Australia’s Constitution are sometimes criticised for not adopting a bill of rights, but their trust in the rule of law and commitment to democracy laid stronger foundations for the nation. Representative and responsible government, common law liberties, and a robust separation of powers between government and judiciary provide our constitutional shields against arbitrary and unchecked power. Magna Carta was the product a far distant time and should not be idealised, but it remains an icon for these values.