From The High Court of Australia 1903-2003 by Crispin Hull
Prime Minister Alfred Deakin referred to the High Court as “the keystone of the federal arch”. A century later, the sort of architecture that made use of a keystone has largely been replaced. Stronger materials have meant large amounts of space can be obtained with the standard column and lintel approach. We use the metaphor of the foundation stone when referring to important institutions. For the High Court, however, Deakin’s metaphor is more apt. The keystone is at the top; foundation stones at the base. The keystone is small but critical. Without it the whole structure collapses. It holds together other elements of a building in a more intelligent and less brutal way than heavy concrete foundations. And it enables a building to reach greater heights than a lintel made of similar material.
The High Court helps hold together the Australian Federation in several ways. It resolves disputes between the Commonwealth and States by applying the Constitution and the rule of law. The rule of law is surer glue for a federation than the application of other means to resolve disputes. The Court resolves disputes between the citizen and the executive government. And through the appeal mechanism from the eight State and Territory court systems, the Court ensures that a cohesive, consistent body of common law and equity is applied throughout Australia. In applying the rule of law, the Court brings legitimacy to the process of dispute resolution. Parties and others may not like decisions and may well criticise some of them. But they accept them.
In the past century the High Court has contributed enormously to the stability, prosperity and fairness of Australian life, though often its contribution has not been well understood or widely recognised. By applying the rule of law it has helped enable people to conduct their affairs with certainty and confidence, and it has helped ensure that the political institutions of the Australian Federation do not abuse their power or act beyond it. To achieve that it has required extraordinary dedication, hard work and intellectual rigour on the part of its Justices.
As with all institutions, the performance of some members falls short and the performance of others excels. In the case of the High Court, however, the former has been the rare exception and the latter common.
The Court will never be free from controversy. But at the end of its first century, Australians can look to their High Court with pride and gratitude and be certain that in its second century, it will continue to enjoy the confidence of the vast majority of Australians and will remain the keystone of the federal arch.