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The Australian Constitution

Birth certificate of a nation

The Australian Constitution provides the rules for how Australia is run. Described as the birth certificate of the nation, the Constitution is made up of eight chapters and 128 sections.

It united the six British colonies as separate states within the Commonwealth of Australia. While each state kept its own parliament, the Constitution also created a Commonwealth (federal) Parliament.

The Constitution describes what the federal Parliament can make laws about and how it shares power with the states. Under the Constitution, the states kept many of their existing powers. The federal Parliament was given responsibility for areas that affected the whole nation. Sections 51 and 52 of the Constitution outline most of the law-making powers of the federal Parliament.

This sharing of responsibilities between the federal Parliament and state parliaments gave Australia a 'federal' system of government.

Separation of powers

The Constitution established three groups – the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary – and described the roles that they play in governing Australia.

The power to make and manage federal law is divided, or shared, among these three groups.This division is based on the principle of the 'separation of powers'. It allows each group to keep a check on the actions of the others and so prevent the misuse of power.

Australia does not have a complete separation of powers because some of the roles of the Parliament and the Executive overlap. For example, the Executive is chosen from among government members of the Parliament, and members of the Judiciary (High Court judges) are appointed by the Governor-General.

The Parliament

is made up of:

  • the Queen (represented by the Governor-General)
  • the Senate
  • the House of Representatives.

The Parliament has legislative power, which means it can make and change laws.

The Executive

(also known as the executive government) includes:

  • the Prime Minister
  • ministers.

The Executive puts laws into action and carries out the business of government. The Constitution gives the Queen executive power; in reality, it is the Prime Minister and ministers who perform the work of the executive. However, they regularly inform the Governor-General (the Queen’s representative) about this work.

The Judiciary

is made up of all federal courts, including the High Court.

The High Court acts like an umpire. It interprets the Constitution and existing laws. It also resolves disagreements between the federal and state governments about their law-making powers. Since federation, rulings made by the High Court have strengthened the law-making role of the federal Parliament.

Changing the Constitution

The Constitution can only be changed if the Australian people agree. A proposed change must be approved by the federal Parliament. It then has to be put to the Australian people in a special vote called a referendum.

For the change to be agreed to, it must gain a double majority. This means that the referendum has to be approved by:

  • a majority of voters in a majority of states (at least four of the six states)
  • a national majority of voters (more than half the voters in Australia must vote YES).

Territory voters are counted in the national majority.

Nineteen referendums proposing 44 changes to the Constitution have been held since federation. However, only eight changes have been agreed to by the Australian people.

Voting Yes to constitutional change

The Australian people have agreed to eight changes to the Constitution. For example, they agreed to:

  • give the federal Parliament power to provide social services such as maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment and sickness benefits (1946)
  • give the federal Parliament power to make laws for Aboriginal people and to include all Aboriginal people in the national population count (1967)
  • fill casual vacancies in the Senate with a person from the same political party as the senator being replaced (1977).
Constitution Alteration +

Nearly 91% of Australians voted ‘YES’ in the 1967 referendum – the largest ever ‘YES’ vote