Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


July 9th, 1900

The period between 1850 and 1900 was crucial for Australia's development. It was no longer a penal colony. After the sensational gold discoveries of 1851 there was a steady influx of middle-class professional immigrants and skilled workers. Industry and agriculture developed until the country was practically self-sufficient, modern transport and communications systems were introduced, cities, universities and formidable trade unions appeared and the main political parties took shape -- Liberal, Conservative and Labour. With this went a rising sense of nationhood and a demand for greater self-government. The individual states had their own elected legislatures and executives, with London-appointed governors who were mainly figureheads, but Westminster was still responsible for their defence and foreign policy. The need was growing for a central government and parliament to create, as one Australian politician said, 'a great and glorious nation under the Southern Cross'.

A federal government was first discussed as early as the 1860s, but the decisive moves came in the 1890s. The case was urged by the veteran Sir Henry Parkes, five times premier of New South Wales. A draft constitution was accepted at a conference in Melbourne in 1898 and after a succession of referenda six states -- New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia -- agreed to federate. Western Australia almost stayed out, but joined; New Zealand could have joined but stayed out.

The text of the new constitution was essentially the work of a Welshman by origin, Samuel Walker Griffith, born in Merthyr Tydfil and taken to Australia by his father as a boy. A brilliant lawyer and translator of Dante, he was a former premier of Queensland. Devised to blend the best features of Britain and the United States, it established two houses of parliament -- the Senate and the House of Representatives -- and a federal authority called the Commonwealth, drawn from, and responsible to, parliament for national defence, foreign policy, immigration and other nationwide matters. A High Court was to be established, similar to the US Supreme Court (Griffith would be the first chief justice, as it turned out), and a governor-general appointed by Westminster represented the monarch and acted as guardian of the constitution. Both houses were elected by universal suffrage from 1902, when Australian women were all given the vote. …

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