Not another centenary?

Research Brief 1


In a world full of centenaries (outbreak of World War 1914, the prelude to Gallipoli next year, the Armistice of 1918 and the Versailles Conference of 1919) there are some that understandably escape attention.

One of these is Australia’s Crimes Act of 1914. This was the founding statute of Commonwealth criminal law, enacted more than a decade after the Australian parliament started its business of law-making.

Centenary blog copy

The enactment of the Crimes Act in the year of war’s outbreak was no accident. Introducing the bill, Labor Attorney-General Billy Hughes apologised for the delay in bringing forward such a measure. What marked this moment was the need for the Commonwealth to keep Australia free from the threat of foreign spies.  ‘It is especially necessary at the present juncture’, said Hughes in parliament on October 21, 1914, ‘because, right throughout the British Dominions, the law in regard to espionage may be designated as shamefully lax’.

The only new offences enacted in the bill in fact were those relating to espionage. These were drawn largely from Westminster’s Official Secrets Act of 1911, a statute that had been passed in a state of anxiety over possible German espionage. The remainder of the legislation (dealing with matters including the definition of punishments, and offences against the state such as treason, mutiny and interference with political liberty)  drew on the Queensland Criminal Code of 1901, drafted originally by Sir Samuel Griffith during his time as Chief Justice of the Queensland Supreme Court.

The Crimes Act did not displace the primary responsibility of the States for criminal offences against individuals. At this stage the Commonwealth did not even have police officers. Its policing tasks had to be delegated to State police, and offences prosecuted in State courts. The new Act provided that offences against the Commonwealth would now be tried in a Commonwealth jurisdiction, and harmonised in form and penalty across the States. In practice they continued to be tried in State courts.

The Act remains in place, if much altered by a century of active law-making by the Commonwealth parliament. It became a house of many rooms, accommodating an expanding range of offences and legal procedures. Amendments enacted in 1920 preserved the legacy of wartime struggles in the adoption of offences of ‘sedition’, including seditious intentions and the conduct of seditious enterprises. The incorporation in 1926 of wartime prohibitions on ‘unlawful associations’ made the act into a target of political attack, provoking  a decade later the formation of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. Both terms were finally the casualty of a decade of controversy over anti-terrorism legislation, disappearing from the statute book in 2010.

In spite of the shedding of archaic laws the Crimes Act turns 100 on 29 October – its demise is not anticipated.


Author: Professor Mark Finnane, ARC Laureate Fellow

To cite this research brief: Mark Finnane, ‘Not another centenary?’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 1, (12 October 2014, viewed 19 July 2016).