How did the Australian Constitution come about?


Before 1901 the present Australian States were separate colonies within the then British Empire. Although they each had their own parliaments and managed, to a great extent, their own affairs, they were still answerable to the British government in London.

Since the 1840s London was sympathetic for the colonies to assume a greater deal of independence and from around the 1880s people within Australia were seeking some sort of joining together of the separate colonies.  Initially, because each colony had separate customs and tariffs, even on each other and then later for the need to defend the continent of Australia as European powers became more aggressive.  Representatives of the colonies started to meet and then decided to work at moves for all the Australian colonies to join together in one federation.  The Australasian Federal Council was established in 1885 and official representatives from each colony were elected to attend meetings which were called constitutional conventions to debate and draw up a constitution for the new nation.

The Australian Constitution was drafted between 1891 and 1898 by Australian representatives led by Sir Samuel Griffiths from Queensland. The draft Constitution Bill was revised by Griffith, Kingston, Barton and Inglis Clark, afloat on the Queensland Government yacht Lucinda, during the Easter break of the 1891 Convention in Sydney. This draft was revived and debated at the 1897–98 Convention, and final changes were made at the 'Secret Premiers' Conference' early in 1899 in order to gain the agreement of all the colonies.

The draft combined elements from the constitutions of the United States of America, of Canada and of Switzerland.  Of course, much of the Constitution was based on the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom.  The Australian drafters decided that the Constitution would be established under the Crown of the United Kingdom and that Australia would be a constitutional monarchy with power for change vested in the people and not in the Parliament as in the case of the United Kingdom.

The Australian Constitution was thus 10 years in the shaping, starting with the proposals presented to the 1891 Convention. It was put to the people to vote on in a series of referendums in each colony in 1898-1900 with each referendum being approved by the then electors.

Accordingly, the new Australian nation was established on the 1st of January 1901 following the passing of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act by the United Kingdom Parliament. The purpose of the Act was ‘to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia’.