No. 269 NAI DFA 105/80
Preliminary report by the Irish Free State delegation on the first meeting of the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation
London, 8 October 1929
The first meeting of the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation was held in the Moses Room of the House of Lords at 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning, 8th October.
Lord Passfield on behalf of the British Government opened the proceedings by proposing a resolution of Greeting to the King, after which he called upon the Attorney General, Sir William Jowitt, M.P., K.C. to read his address upon the work of the Conference.1
The address of the Attorney General was couched in a somewhat reactionary vein and caused some surprise among the Dominion delegations. Among the more objectionable of his proposals may be mentioned his suggestion that reservation should be retained as a method of securing consultation on matters of general Commonwealth importance, and the suggestion that the Imperial Parliament should retain the power of enacting legislation affecting the Dominions provided that, in the case of such statutes, the consent of the Dominion or Dominions concerned should be recited in the preamble to the Act.
The Attorney General was followed by Mr. Lapointe, the Canadian Minister for Justice. He said that it was merely the task of the Conference to consider how best to register and record a stage of growth which had already been attained. It was noticeable that he stated that it was the duty of the Conference to report its findings for the consideration of the respective Governments. This was apparently intended to controvert the British Attorney General's statement that the function of the Conference was to make recommendations to the next Imperial Conference.
Sir Harrison Moore and Sir James Parr, on behalf of Australia and New Zealand respectively, made long statements agreeing in substance with the tenor of the Attorney General's remarks. Later in the afternoon the Minister for External Affairs of the Irish Free State spoke. He said that while congratulating the Attorney General on his statement he would like to say that it appeared to him that some of the principles, particularly that of coequality, to which reference had been made at the beginning of the Attorney General's remarks, appeared to have been lost sight of before their end. With reference to the Attorney General's suggestion that the Imperial Parliament should have power to legislate for the Dominions provided that the advice of the Dominion concerned, obtained beforehand, were recited in the preamble to the Act, he said it would be interesting to see how we are going to arrive at a situation where, amongst co-equal States, one of those States, being co-equal but nothing more than co-equal, is going to have the power to secure agreement amongst other co-equal States by imposing its will upon the others, and that it would be an interesting experiment in democratic methods to see how the legislature of one State was going to pass legislation to have force and validity amongst another people who had also an independent legislature and how both legislatures were to be called supreme in their own countries or founded on democratic principle.
The Minister went on to say that, if there were such an artificial slowing down of the pace of constitutional development of the members of the Commonwealth that we were reduced, by a sort of slow motion process, almost to a standstill we should end by making ourselves grotesque. With respect to certain matters with which the Conference would have to deal, there was no question of misunderstanding; they were definitely anomalous, quite anachronistic and could only be described as the continuance of a usurped power. It was the function of the Conference to report to the respective Governments and not to the Imperial Conference, which was not a super-Parliament; that having got clear indication of the points that required change we should proceed at once to take the steps to change them.
Sir Muhammad Habilullah, on behalf of India, closed the discussion. It was decided to avoid publicity as much as possible and to reject the idea of appointing sub-Committees to deal separately with the various items on the Agenda of the Conference. The entire work of the Conference was to be done in plenary session. It was decided to take up the question of ex-territoriality on Wednesday morning.