Former PMs battled over original Constitution

Media release: Thursday, 22 January 2015

A document that British and Australian prime ministers crossed swords over in the 1980s is on public display at the National Archives of Australia this weekend.

Recent files released by the British National Archives reveal the tension between former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over whether an original copy of Australia's Constitution should be transferred to Australia.

Mr Hawke spent several years battling to secure the document, originally passed by the British Parliament in 1900 and approved by Queen Victoria. But former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was adamant the Constitution should stay in Britain.

Eventually, in 1990, the British Government agreed to transfer the document to Australia, where it had been drafted. Australia's Parliament House agreed for the National Archives of Australia to hold it in custody and ensure its preservation.

The Constitution is one of seven documents housed in the National Archives Federation Gallery in Canberra, often described as the 'birth certificates' of the nation. 

Because of their fragility and importance – and the need to preserve them for future generations – the documents are usually stored under heavy blackout material and opened to public viewing only on special occasions.

This weekend, to mark Australia Day, they will be on view, with gallery hosts on hand to escort visitors and explain the significance of the documents.

The Federation Gallery contains some of Australia's most important documents – those that record the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia.

As well as the Constitution, the gallery contains the Royal Commission of Assent signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900, her wax seal attached and protected within an impressive silver skippet. Also on view are documents that record later changes to Australia's Constitution.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
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