Key features of the Constitution

Closer Look – The Australian Constitution [PDF 1.58Mb, 9 pages]

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (the Act) granted permission to the six Australian colonies, which were still subject to British law, to form their own Commonwealth government in accordance with the Constitution. The Act consists of a preamble and nine clauses, of which clause 9 is the original Australian Constitution. The Constitution consists of eight chapters and 128 sections.

Chapter 1 describes the composition and powers of our federal Parliament, which consists of the Queen and a bicameral legislature with:

  • Single-member representation for each electorate for the House of Representatives (the lower house)
  • Multi-member representation for each state for the Senate (the upper house).

Chapter 2 describes the power of the most formal elements of Executive Government, including the Queen, Governor-General and the Federal Executive Council.

Chapter 3 provides for the creation of federal courts, including the High Court of Australia, which is the final court of appeal. The High Court can interpret the law and settle disputes about the Constitution.

Chapter 4 deals with financial and trade matters.

Chapters 5 and 6 outline the federal relationship between the Commonwealth, and the states and territories. Importantly chapter 5 states that if federal Parliament and a state parliament both pass laws on the same subject and these laws conflict, then the federal law overrides the state law. Section 122 in Chapter 6 gives the federal Parliament the power to override a territory law at any time. It also allows the Commonwealth to legislate for the representation of the territories in federal Parliament.

Chapter 7 describes where the capital of Australia should be and the power of the Governor-General to appoint deputies.

Chapter 8 describes how the wording of the Constitution can be changed by referendum.

Although many sections of the Constitution appear to be simple, there have been many different legal interpretations over the last century. Section 51 is particularly significant because it lists most of the areas in which the Australian Parliament can make laws. The Commonwealth makes laws on a range of issues (such as regulating marriage and divorce) but the Constitution allows other powers (such as providing roads and transport) to remain with the states.