The Australian Constitution is the set of rules by which Australia is run. It came into effect on 1 January 1901. This fact sheet summarises the key features of the Constitution and how it can be changed.
The Australian Constitution describes the composition, role and powers of the Australian Parliament. It sets out how the Australian and state parliaments share the power to make laws. It also details the roles of the executive government and the High Court of Australia, and some of the rights of Australian citizens, such as the right to religious freedom.
Birth certificate of a nation
For at least 50 000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on these lands and practiced traditional cultures and languages. From the late 1700s, British colonies were established. By the late 1800s, these colonies had their own parliaments but were still subject to the law-making power of the British Parliament. Many colonists began to see the benefits of uniting into a federation. During the 1890s a series of meetings, called conventions, were attended by representatives from each colony. During these conventions, the Constitution was drafted. The Constitution was then put to a vote by the people of the colonies in referendums.
The Constitution was approved in the referendums; however, it also had to be agreed to by the British Parliament. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 was passed in 1900 and came into effect on 1 January 1901. The colonies became Australian states and the new Australian Parliament was formed.
The Australian Constitution is divided into 8 chapters and 128 sections. It sets out the basis for Australia's federal system of governance, the key features of which include:
- an Australian Parliament and government, responsible for national decision-making and law-making
- a bicameral Parliament, including the King (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives
- 6 state governments, responsible for state matters
- power-sharing arrangements between the Australian and state parliaments
- the High Court of Australia, which is the final court of appeal. The High Court interprets the Constitution and decides its meaning, as well as settling disputes between the Australian and state governments.
The Constitution does not cover all aspects of the governing of Australia. For example, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are not mentioned in the Constitution. The Prime Minister and Cabinet operate by custom and tradition, similar to the British system from which they came.
The Constitution does not detail many of the rights of the Australian people. Unlike the Constitution of the United States, Australia's does not include a bill of rights. In Australia these rights are protected by common law (made by the courts) and statute law (written law made by Parliament).
Changing the Australian Constitution
The Constitution can only be changed with the approval of the Australian people. A proposed change must be approved by the Parliament and then be voted on by Australians in a referendum. A referendum is only passed if it is approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states, and by a majority of voters across the nation. This is known as a double majority.
Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900: Original Public Record Copy (1900).
Parliament House Art Collection, Art Services Parliament House
This image shows the front page of the original public record copy of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900. There is a a red ribbon tied in a bow on the left hand side of the document. The paper looks faded from age.
Permission for publication must be sought from Parliament House Art Collection. Contact DPS Art Services, phone: 02 62775034 or 02 62775123