Why do parliamentarians take an oath of office?

By Dan Holmes

August 5, 2022

Lidia Thorpe's Black power salute.
Lidia Thorpe makes a statement within her statement. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Lidia Thorpe angered royalists and reactionaries alike on Monday by referring to the Queen as “a coloniser” during her oath of office.

Putting aside conversations about whether she speaks for the wider Indigenous community or whether she is objectively right, the oath of allegiance new parliamentarians take was designed to keep agitators like Thorpe away from power.

For the first 348 years of the English parliament, there was no requirement to take an oath of office. Introduced in 1563, the first oath was implicitly designed to keep Catholics out of parliament by forcing them to swear fealty to the monarch as head of both church and state.

After a group of marginalised Catholics attempted to assassinate King James I in the now infamous gunpowder plot, the Parliament of England passed the Popish Recusants Act. It established a more onerous oath and extended it to doctors, lawyers, and other positions of authority.

Called ‘juramentum fidelitatis’, or, the ‘oath of fidelity,’ it was designed to stamp out political activism by Catholics by forcing them to explicitly reject the authority of the pope, and swear to the King’s absolute authority in all matters of state and divinity.

The oath was enforced inconsistently over the next century, with Charles I using it as a cudgel against political opponents, and exerting his authority to help Catholic allies avoid it.

While parliamentarians no longer have to reject the pope or swear to an almighty God, the echoes of the oath of fidelity can still be felt in the Australian oath of allegiance. Like its English progenitor, our oath demands Australian parliamentarians swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.”

As some republicans have noted, this technically makes arguing for a republic treasonous under both English and Australian law.

On Friday, Labor’s new assistant minister for the republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald the absurdity of this vestigial part of our constitution.

“Ironically, under section 44 of the constitution, you cannot run for parliament if you hold allegiance to another country, yet the first thing we do in parliament is promise to serve a foreign monarch,” Thistlethwaite wrote.

“It’s archaic and ridiculous. It does not represent the Australia we live in and it’s further evidence of why we need to begin discussing becoming a republic with our own head of state. We are no longer British.”

In England, there has been four recent attempts to change their oath to parliament and regular subversions of its meaning by republican-leaning members of parliament.

In recent years, new British MPs have taken the oath while crossing their fingers, saying they were taking the oath under duress, and implying the monarch was a ship. All were ultimately allowed to sit.

In the most extreme case, Irish republican party Sinn Féin does not sit in the house of commons because of its refusal to take the oath of allegiance. 

Like Thorpe, Sinn Féin takes the fundamental position the English are foreign invaders with no rightful claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. They pay for this abstentionism dearly by making themselves ineligible to hold power in a system designed to protect itself from radical reform.

While the oath of allegiance is embedded in the Australian constitution, its endurance in the UK is a credit to the staying power of the monarchy. Without a written constitution, the oath could be changed or removed entirely with a simple act of parliament.

In the 17th century, the oath of office forced Catholics to lie in order to participate in democracy. In the 21st century, it asks the same of Irish republicans and Indigenous Australians by forcing them to swear fealty to a regime that has unambiguously committed genocide against them.

In a recent interview with the project, Thorpe said she was elected “to question the illegitimate occupation of the colonial system in this country.”

“I am here for my people, and I will sacrifice swearing allegiance to the coloniser to get into the media like I am right now, to get into the parliament like I am every day,” she said.

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