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The Constitution of Australia is the supreme law under which the Australian Commonwealth Government operates. It consists of several documents. The most important is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution was approved in referendums held over 1898 1900 by the people of the Australian colonies, and the approved draft was enacted as a section of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp), an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker.

The Commission of Assent was signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900, upon which the Constitution became law. The Constitution came into force on 1 January 1901. Even though the Constitution was originally given legal force by an Act of the United Kingdom parliament, the Australia Acts removed the power of the United Kingdom parliament to change the Constitution, and only the Australian people can amend it (by referendum).

Other pieces of legislation have constitutional significance for Australia. These are the Statute of Westminster, as adopted by the Commonwealth in the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942, and the Australia Act 1986, which was passed in equivalent forms by the Parliaments of every Australian state, the United Kingdom, and the Australian Federal Parliament. Together, these Acts had the effect of severing all constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom. Even though the same person, Queen Elizabeth II, is the monarch of both countries, she acts in a distinct capacity as monarch of each.

Under Australia's common law system, the High Court of Australiamarker and the Federal Court of Australia have the authority to interpret constitutional provisions. Their decisions determine the interpretation and application of the constitution.


The history of the Constitution of Australia began with moves towards federation in the 19th Century, which culminated in the federation of the Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. However, the Constitution has continued to develop since then, with two laws having particularly significant impact on the Constitutional status of the nation.


In the mid-19th century, a desire to facilitate cooperation on matters of mutual interest, especially intercolonial tariffs, led to proposals to unite the separate Britishmarker colonies in Australia under a single federation. However, impetus mostly came from Britain and there was only lacklustre local support. The smaller colonies feared domination by the larger ones; Victoriamarker and New South Walesmarker disagreed over the ideology of protectionism; the then-recent American Civil War also hampered the case for federalism. These difficulties led to the failure of several attempts to bring about federation in the 1850s and 1860s.

By the 1880s, fear of the growing presence of the Germansmarker and the French in the Pacific, coupled with a growing Australian identity, created the opportunity for establishing the first inter-colonial body, the Federal Council of Australasia, established in 1885. The Federal Council could legislate on certain subjects, but did not have a permanent secretariat, an executive, or independent source of revenue. The absence of New South Walesmarker, the largest colony, also diminished its representative value.

Henry Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales, was instrumental in pushing for a series of conferences in the 1890s to discuss federalism one in Melbournemarker in 1890, and another (the National Australasian Convention) in Sydneymarker in 1891, attended by colonial leaders. By the 1891 conference, significant momentum had been built for the federalist cause, and discussion turned to the proper system of government for a federal state. Under the guidance of Sir Samuel Griffith, a draft constitution was drawn up. However, these meetings lacked popular support. Furthermore, the draft constitution side-stepped certain important issues, such as tariff policy. The draft of 1891 was submitted to colonial parliaments but lapsed in New South Wales, after which the other colonies were unwilling to proceed.

In 1895, the six premiers of the Australian colonies agreed to establish a new Convention by popular vote. The Convention met over the course of a year from 1897 to 1898. The meetings produced a new draft which contained substantially the same principles of government as the 1891 draft, but with added provisions for responsible government. To ensure popular support, the draft was presented to the electors of each colony. After one failed attempt, an amended draft was submitted to the electors of each colony except Western Australiamarker. After ratification by the five colonies, the Bill was presented to the Westminster Parliament with an Address requesting the Queen to enact the Bill.

Before the Bill was passed, however, one final change was made by the imperial government, upon lobbying by the Chief Justices of the colonies, so that the right to appeal from the High Courtmarker to the Privy Council on constitutional matters concerning the limits of the powers of the Commonwealth or States could not be curtailed by parliament. Finally, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1900. Western Australiamarker finally agreed to join the Commonwealth in time for it to be an original member of the Commonwealth of Australia, which was officially established on 1 January 1901.

In 1990, the original copy of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 from the Public Records Officemarker in Londonmarker was lent to Australia, and the Australian government requested permission to keep the copy. The British parliament agreed by passing the Australian Constitution Act 1990.

The Statute of Westminster and the Australia Acts

Although Federation is often regarded as the moment of "independence" of Australia from Britain, legally the Commonwealth was a creation of the British Imperial Parliament, through the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp), which applied to Australia by paramount force. As a result, there was continued uncertainty as to the applicability of British Imperial laws to the Commonwealth. This was resolved by the Statute of Westminster 1931, adopted by the Commonwealth via the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942. The Statute of Westminster freed the Dominions, including the Commonwealth, from Imperial restrictions. Legally, this is often regarded as the moment of Australia's national independence.

However, Imperial laws continued to be paramount in Australian states. This was resolved by the Australia Act 1986, which was passed in substantially the same form by the parliaments of Australia, the United Kingdom, and each of the states. In addition to ending the British Parliament's power to legislate over Australian states, the Australia Acts also cut the last avenues of appeal from the Australian courts to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker. As a symbol of the significance of this legislation, Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Australia to personally sign the proclamation of the law.

One result of these two laws is that Australia is now a fully independent country, and the text of the Constitution is now regarded as fully separated from the text in the original Act, since only the Australian people can amend the Constitution, by referendum . However, the Act remains on the UK's law book with a citiation noting "The Constitution is not necessarily in the form in which it is in force in Australia". Even if the United Kingdom Parliament were to repeal the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, it would have no effect on Australia .


The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) contains a Preamble, and nine sections. Sections 1 8 are covering clauses outlining the legal procedures for the establishment of the Commonwealth. Section 9, beginning with the words "The Constitution of the Commonwealth shall be as follows ...", contains the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution itself is divided into eight chapters.

The Parliament

Chapter I sets up the legislative branch of government, the Parliament of Australia, which consists of three constituent parts: The Sovereign of Australia, who is also the Sovereign of the United Kingdom and is represented by the Governor-General of Australia, the House of Representatives of Australia, and the Senate of Australia. Section 1 provides that legislative power is vested in this Parliament, which has paramount power of governance.

Part II of this chapter deals with the Senate. Senators are to be "directly chosen by the people of the State", voting as a single electorate. Each State is to have the same number of senators. Currently, there are 12 senators for each State, and 2 each for the mainland territories, the Northern Territorymarker and the Australian Capital Territorymarker.

Part III deals with the House of Representatives. As nearly as practicable, Section 24 requires the House to be composed of twice as many members as the Senate, each elected by a single electorate. This is the so-called 'Nexus', which is designed to prevent swamping of the senate's power in the case of a joint sitting (see Section 57 below). The number of electorates in a State is to be (roughly) proportional to its share of the national population.

Part IV ("Both Houses of the Parliament") deals with eligibility for voting and election to the parliament, parliamentary allowances, parliamentary rules and related matters.

Part V deals with the powers of the parliament. Section 51 deals with powers of the Commonwealth parliament and are called "specific powers". These contain "concurrent powers", in the sense that both the Commonwealth and States can legislate on these subjects, although federal law prevails in the case of inconsistency (Section 109). Of the thirty-nine elements of section 51, a few have become critical in determining the scope of Commonwealth government action, including the Trade and Commerce Power, the Corporations Power and the External Affairs Power. Section 52 deals with powers exclusively vested in the Commonwealth parliament. States cannot legislate on these subjects.

The Executive

Chapter II sets up the executive branch of government. Executive power is to be exercised by the Governor-General, advised by the Federal Executive Council. Under this Chapter, the Governor-General is the commander in chief, and may appoint and dismiss the members of the Executive Council, ministers of state, and all officers of the executive government. These powers, along with the powers to dissolve (or refuse to dissolve) parliament (Section 5, Section 57), are termed "reserve powers", and their use is dictated by convention. Generally, the Governor-General acts only on the advice of the Prime Minister. There has been only one instance of the Governor-General acting outside the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, when Governor-General Sir John Kerr, acting on his own authority, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Witlam in the 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis.

Reserve powers in all Westminster nations are only extremely rarely exercised outside of the understood conventions. However, in contrast with the constitutions of other Commonwealth Realms such as Canadamarker which formally grant extensive reserve powers to the Monarch, even the formal powers of the Queen of Australia are extremely limited, and most powers are only exercisable by the Governor-General. One other difference with Canada is that there is no Privy Council for Australia.

The Judicature

Chapter III sets up the judicial branch of government. Section 71 vests judicial power in a "Federal Supreme Court" to be called the High Court of Australiamarker, and such other federal courts as Parliament creates, and in such other courts as Parliament invests with federal jurisdiction. Such courts are called "Chapter III Courts" are the only courts that can exercise federal judicial power. Sections 73 and 75-78 outline the original and appellate jurisdiction of the High Court. Section 74 provides for the circumstances in which an appeal can be made to the Queen in Councilmarker. Section 79 allows Parliament to prescribe the number of judges able to exercise federal jurisdiction and section 80 guarantees trial by jury for indictable offences against the Commonwealth.

Finance and Trade

Chapter IV deals with finance and trade in the federal system. Section 81 prescribes that all Commonwealth revenue shall form the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Parliament can make laws as to the appropriations of money (Section 53). Unlike most other powers of the parliament, laws made under the appropriations power are not ordinarily susceptible to effective legal challenge. Section 90 gives the Commonwealth exclusive power over duties of custom and excise.

Section 92 provides that "trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States shall be absolutely free". The precise meaning of this phrase is the subject of a considerable body of law.

Section 96 gives the Commonwealth power to make grants to States "on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit". This power has been held to be unconstrained by any other provision, such as Section 99 which forbids giving preference to one State or part thereof over another State or part thereof. It is subject only to Section 116, freedom of religion, and possibly other such freedoms. This power, although evidently envisaged as a temporary measure ("during a period of ten years ... and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides"), has been used by the Commonwealth to encourage cooperation by the States to various extents over the years.

Section 101 sets up an Inter-State Commission, a body which is now defunct, but which was originally envisaged to have a significant role in the federal structure.

The States

Chapter V contains provisions dealing with the States and their role under the federal system. Sections 106-108 preserves the Constitution, powers of the Parliament, and the laws in force of each of the States.

Section 109 provides that, where a State law is inconsistent with a federal law, the federal law prevails (to the extent of the inconsistency).

Section 111 provides that a State can surrender any part of the State to the Commonwealth. This has occurred on several occasions, most notably the surrender by South Australiamarker to the Commonwealth of the Northern Territorymarker.

Section 114 forbids any State from raising a military force, and also forbids the State or the Commonwealth from taxing each other's property.

Section 116 establishes what is often called "freedom of religion", by forbidding the Commonwealth from making any law for the establishment of a religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the exercise of a religion, or religious discrimination for public office.

New States

Chapter VI allows for the establishment or admission of new states. Section 122 allows the Parliament to provide for the representation in Parliament of any territory surrendered by the States, or placed by the Queen in the authority of the Commonwealth. Section 123 requires that changing the boundaries of a State requires the consent of the Parliament of that State and approval by referendum in that State.

No new states have been admitted to the Commonwealth since federation.


Chapter VII provides that the seat of government of the Commonwealth (now Canberramarker) shall be located within New South Walesmarker but no less than one hundred miles from Sydneymarker, and that the Governor-General may appoint deputies. Section 127 previously provided that Aborigines cannot be counted in any Commonwealth or State census. This section was repealed in 1967.

Alteration of the Constitution

Chapter VIII specifies the procedures for amending the Constitution. Section 128 provides that constitutional amendments must be approved by a referendum. Successful amendment requires:
  • an absolute majority in both houses of the federal parliament; and
  • the approval in a referendum of the proposed amendment by a majority of electors nationwide, and a majority in a majority of states.

The referendum bill must be put to the people by the Governor-General between two and six months after passing parliament. After the constitutional amendment bill has passed both the parliamentary stage and the referendum, it then receives Royal Assent from the Governor-General. When proclaimed, it will be in effect, and the wording of the Constitution will be changed.

An exception to this process is if the amendment bill is rejected by one house of Federal Parliament. If the bill passes the first house and is rejected by the second, then after three months the first house may pass it again. If the bill is still rejected by the second house, then the Governor-General may choose to still put the bill to the people's vote.


As mentioned above, successful amendment of the Constitution requires a referendum in which the "Yes" vote achieves a majority nationally, as well as majorities in a majority of states.

Forty-four proposals to amend the Constitution have been voted on at referendums, of which eight have been approved. The following is a list of amendments which have been approved. For a complete list of all referendums and plebiscites held, see Referendums in Australia Referendums and plebiscites by year.

  • 1906 Senate Elections amended Section 13 to slightly alter the length and dates of Senators' terms of office.
  • 1910 State Debts amended Section 105 to extend the power of the Commonwealth to take over pre-existing state debts to debts incurred by a state at any time.
  • 1928 State Debts inserted Section 105A to ensure the Constitutional validity of the Financial Agreement reached between the Commonwealth and State governments in 1927.
  • 1946 Social Services inserted Section 51 (xxiiiA) to extend the power of the Commonwealth government over a range of social services.
  • 1967 Aborigines amended Section 51 (xxvi) to extend the power of the Commonwealth government to legislate for people of any race to Aborigines; repealed Section 127 which stated that "In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted."
  • 1977
    • Senate Casual Vacancies part of the political fallout of the constitutional crisis of 1975; formalised the convention, broken in 1975, that when a casual vacancy arises in the Senate, the state parliament concerned, if it chooses to fill the vacancy, must choose the replacement from the same party as the departing Senator if that party still exists.
    • Referendums amended Section 128 to allow residents of the Territories to vote in referendums, and be counted towards the national total.
    • Retirement of Judges amended Section 72 to create a retirement age of 70 for judges in federal courts.

The role of conventions

Alongside the text of the Constitution, and Letters Patent issued by the Crown, conventions are an important aspect of the Constitution, which have evolved over the decades and define how various constitutional mechanisms operate in practice.

Conventions play a powerful role in the operation of the Australian constitution because of its set-up and operation as a Westminster system of responsible government. Some notable conventions include:
  • While the constitution does not formally create the office of Prime Minister of Australia, such an office developed a de facto existence as head of the cabinet. The Prime Minister is seen as the head of government.
  • While there are few constitutional restrictions on the power of the Governor-General, by convention the Governor-General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

However, because conventions are not textually based, their existence and practice are open to debate. Real or alleged violation of convention has often led to political controversy. The most extreme case was the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, in which the operation of conventions was seriously tested. The ensuing constitutional crisis was resolved dramatically when the Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, appointing Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister pending the 1975 general election. A number of conventions were said to be broken during this episode. These include:
  • The convention that, when the Senator from a particular State vacates his or her position during the term of office, the State government concerned would nominate a replacement from the same political party as the departing Senator. This convention was allegedly broken by first the Lewis government of New South Walesmarker and then by the Bjelke-Petersen government of Queenslandmarker who both filled Labor vacancies with an independent and a Labor member opposed to the Whitlam government respectively. The convention was subsequently codified into the Constitution via a referendum. The amendment requires the new Senator to be from the same party as the old one and would have prevented the appointment by Lewis, but not that by Bjelke-Petersen. However, the amendment states of the appointee that if "before taking his seat he ceases to be a member of that party...he shall be deemed not to have been so chosen or appointed". Bjelke-Petersen appointee Albert Patrick Field was expelled from the Labor Party before taking his seat and would therefore have been ineligible under the new constitutional amendment ..
  • The convention that, when the Senate is controlled by a party which does not simultaneously control the House of Representatives, the Senate would not vote against money supply to the government. This convention was allegedly broken by the Senate controlled by the Liberal-Country party coalition in 1975.


In line with the common law tradition in Australia, the law on the interpretation and application of the Constitution has developed largely through judgments by the High Court of Australiamarker in various cases. In a number of seminal cases, the High Court has developed several doctrines which underlie the interpretation of the Australian Constitution. Some examples include:
  • Separation of powers The three separate chapters dealing with the three branches of government implies a separation of powers, similar to that of the United Statesmarker, but unusual for a government within the Westminster system. Thus, for example, the legislature cannot purport to predetermine the legal outcome, or to change the direction or outcome, of a court case.
  • Division of powers Powers of government are divided between the Commonwealth and the State governments, with certain powers being exclusive to the Commonwealth, others being concurrently exercised, and the remainder being exclusively held by the States.
  • Intergovernmental immunities Although the Engineers' Case held that there was no general immunity between State and Commonwealth governments from each other's laws, the Commonwealth cannot enact taxation laws that discriminated between the States or parts of the States (Section 51(ii)), nor enact laws that discriminated against the States, or such as to prevent a State from continuing to exist and function as a state (Melbourne Corporation v Commonwealth).

The vast majority of Constitutional cases before the High Court deal with characterisation: whether new laws fall within a permissible head of power granted to the Commonwealth government by the Constitution.


Protection of rights

See also Australian constitutional law Protection of rights

The Australian constitution does not include a Bill of Rights. Some delegates to the 1898 Constitutional Convention favoured a section similar to the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, but the majority felt that the traditional rights and freedoms of British subjects were sufficiently guaranteed by the Parliamentary system and independent judiciary which the Constitution would create. As a result, the Australian Constitution has often been criticised for its scant protection of rights and freedoms.

Some express rights were, however, included:
  • Right to trial by jury Section 80 creates a right to trial by jury for indictable offences against Commonwealth law. There are serious conceptual limitations to this right however, since the Commonwealth is free to make any offence, no matter how serious the punishment, triable otherwise than on indictment. As Justice Higgins said in R. v. Archdall & Roskruge; Ex parte Carrigan and Brown (1928) 41 CLR 128: "if there be an indictment, there must be a jury, but there is nothing to compel procedure by indictment". In practice, however, no major issue of abuse of this loophole has been raised.
  • Right to just compensation Paragraph 51(xxxi) creates a right to just compensation for assets taken by the Commonwealth.
  • Right to freedom of religion Section 116 creates a limited right to freedom of religion, by prohibiting the Commonwealth (but not the states) from "making any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion." This section is based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but is weaker in operation. As the states retain all powers they had as colonies before federation, except for those explicitly given to the Commonwealth, this section does not affect the states' powers to legislate on religion, and, in accordance with High Court interpretations, no Federal legislation on religion, short of establishing an official religion of Australia, would be limited by it either.
  • Right to freedom from discrimination against out-of-State residents -Section 117 prohibits disability or discrimination in one state against the resident of another state. This is interpreted widely (Street v Queensland Bar Association), but does not prohibit states from imposing residential requirements where they are required by the State's autonomy and its responsibility to its people.

In 1992 and 1994, the High Court of Australiamarker found that the Constitution contained an "implied" right to freedom of political communication, in a series of cases including the Australian Capital Television case and the Theophanous case. This was seen as a necessary part of the democratic system created by the Constitution. The application of this "implied right" has, however, been restricted in later cases, such as Lange v ABC. It is in no way equivalent to a freedom of speech, and only protects individuals against the government trying to limit their political communication: it offers no protection against other individuals.

In 2007, the High Court of Australiamarker in Roach v Electoral Commissioner held that sections 7 and 24 of the Constitution, by providing that members of the House of Representatives and the Senate be "directly chosen by the people", created a limited right to vote. This entailed the guarantee of a universal franchise in principle, and limited the Federal Parliament's legislative power to modify that universal franchise. In the case, a legislative amendment to disqualify from voting all prisoners (as opposed to only those serving sentences of three years or more, as it was before the amendment) was struck down as contravening that right.

Other attempts to find other "implied rights" in High Courtmarker cases have not been successful.


While a pro forma preamble prefaces the Imperial Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, the Australian Constitution itself does not contain a preamble. There have been some calls for the insertion of such a section to express the spirit and aspirations embodied in the constitution. However, there has been fierce opposition, usually on the basis of the content of the preamble, as well as possible legal ramifications of this text. In 1999, a proposed preamble, principally authored by John Howard, the then Prime Minister, was defeated in a referendum held concurrently with the Republic referendum. The "Yes" vote (in favour of the insertion of the preamble) did not achieve a majority in any of the six states.

Republic proposals

At various times since Federation, debates have occurred over whether Australia should become a republic. On 6 November 1999, Australians rejected a proposal to remove the Queen and replace the Governor-General with a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament. This was despite opinion poll results suggesting that the majority of Australians are in favour of some form of a republic. Many voters who voted against the 1999 referendum cited the appointment of the President by a joint action of Parliament, rather than through direct election, as a fatal flaw in that referendum. In research and polling following the 1999 referendum, the single greatest concern expressed about the referendum as written seemed to be that it did not create and respect a meaningful separation of powers between a Republican President and Parliament and its legislative authority. By being able to appoint the President, rather than having the President popularly elected from the entire nation for a fixed term, many felt that too much power was being focused into Parliament's hand with no check or balance on that power. Another Republic referendum with a popularly elected, independent and separate President with a fixed term that was not subject to the pleasure of the Parliament would almost assuredly win in a landslide, if another referendum were to be held. Support for holding another referendum in the foreseeable future seems to be growing, and another referendum being held is more possible than it has been recently. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stated that while it is not an active priority, the current structure "no longer reflects either the fundamental democratic principles that underpin the Australian nation or its diversity", and he has given some indications that a referendum for an independent, elected President, repairing the main issue of the 1999 vote, is being considered. He went on to say that "over the next year there would be an "accelerated public debate" about the monarchy question".


Constitution Day is celebrated on 9 July, the date the Constitution became law in 1900. The date is not a public holiday. Constitution Day was first held on 9 July 2000 to mark the centenary of the Constitution in the lead up to the Centenary of Federation, although commemorations were low key and were not widely held after 2001. Constitution Day was revived in 2007 and is jointly organised by the National Archives of Australiamarker, which holds the original Constitution documents, and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

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