The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
Federalism and the
Constitution
Brian Galligan

In designing the Australian constitution the founders combined federalism, copied mainly from the US constitution, with the institutions of parliamentary, responsible government familiar from British and colonial practice (Quick and Garran 1976; La Nauze 1972). The product was a unique constitutional system of government that has been dubbed a 'Washminster' mutation (Thompson 1980). Federalism is the core of the Australian constitution, the purpose of which, as the preamble to the Westminster enabling act expressed it, was to create an 'indissoluble Federal Commonwealth' based upon the consent of the people of the Australian colonies. The federal constitution has been a stable but flexible system of government, serving the purposes of democratic governance of the Australian people and developing in ways scarcely envisaged by the founders. Nevertheless, the design features of the federal constitution have provided the institutional basis for such developments.

Two features have characterised the development of Australia's federal constitution during a century of nationhood: increasing dominance of the Commonwealth, but at the same time the continuing significance of the states. Federalism divides powers between the Commonwealth and the states, but the sum of government powers is not a fixed quantum. While Commonwealth powers have increased, that increase has not always been at the expense of the states because the expansion of total government powers has favoured mainly the Commonwealth. In 1930 W.K. Hancock reported that Australians looked mainly to the states for their routine governmental needs (Hancock 1961), and to an extent they still do. They also looked mainly to Britain for their defence and foreign policy. After World War II, the Commonwealth became dominant in domestic politics and foreign affairs. Nevertheless the states remain integral parts of Australia's federal system, while a complex network of international organisations and treaties provides a significant third dimension of Australian governance.

Federalism, as adopted in the US constitution and defended in The Federalist Papers, is one of the great institutional inventions of modern government. The founders of the United States of America took the old confederal, or alliance, form of government that involved an association of member states and infused it with national and democratic attributes. The people were made citizens of the national polity while remaining members of their smaller states. This innovation was based upon 'a wholly novel theory,

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