How Australia formed its Constitution
Before 1901 Australia did not exist as a nation. It was a collection of six British colonies which were partly self-governing but under the law-making power of the British Parliament.
During the 1890s representatives of the colonies came together at special meetings called constitutional conventions to draft a constitution which would unite the colonies as one nation and provide for a new level of national government.
Each Australian colony sent delegates to the conventions. By 1898 they had formed and agreed on a draft constitution which was taken back to their respective colonial parliaments to be approved.
Passing the Constitution
The final draft of the Constitution was approved by a vote of the people in referendums held in each colony between June 1899 and July 1900.
The Constitution had to be agreed to by the British Parliament before the colonies could federate (unite as a nation). An Australian delegation travelled to London to present the Constitution, which was part of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill, to the British Parliament.
After negotiating some changes, the British Parliament passed the bill in July 1900. Among these changes was the right to appeal decisions of the state Supreme Courts and the federal High Court in Britain's Privy Council (final law court of appeal for Commonwealth countries).
Queen Victoria approved the bill on 9 July 1900 by signing the Royal Commission of Assent and the bill became the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900. Section 9 of this Act contained the Constitution which stated that on and after 1 January 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania would be united and known as the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution Act made provision for Western Australia to join the Commonwealth. Western Australia agreed to federate in a referendum held on 31 July 1900, two weeks after the Act was passed.
After Federation in 1901 Australia still had constitutional ties with Britain, particularly in matters of foreign policy and defence. Since then the British and Australian parliaments have passed a number of statutes which have progressively given the Commonwealth greater constitutional independence. For example, in 1942 federal Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 which meant Australian laws could no longer be over-ruled by an act of British Parliament.
In 1968 and 1975 federal Parliament passed acts that limited and then ended appeals from the High Court to the Privy Council. The Australia Act 1986 removed all remaining legal links between the Australian and British governments.
Key people who were involved in Federation and in framing the Constitution.
Andrew Inglis Clark
key author of the original draft of the Australian Constitution, introduced proportional representation to Tasmania.
Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office. Creator: J W Beattie
became the first chief justice of the High Court of Australia.
State Library of Queensland, Image no. 68307
was part of the constitutional delegation to London and became the second Prime Minister of Australia (Protectionist Party) 1903–1904.
Sir Edmund Barton
was part of the constitutional delegation to London and became the first Prime Minister of Australia (Protectionist Party) 1901–1903.
wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became postmaster general.
Portia Geach, National Library of Australia, an2241658
Sir Richard Baker
wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became first President of the Senate.
National Library of Australia, vn3582887
Sir Robert Randolph Garran
wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became the first solicitor-general of Australia.
National Library of Australia, an23435998
was part of the constitutional delegation to London and became the first minister for trade and commerce.
National Library of Australia, an23379300