Constitution for a Nation

Cover of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK)
Cover of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK)

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK) is the most important document for the modern nation of Australia.

The Constitution expresses our understanding of ourselves as a democratic nation.

The Constitution is an agreement among the six colonies of the 1890s about what powers would be granted to the new federal parliament of Australia and how they should be exercised.

Constitution for a Nation is the story of the 10 tumultuous years (1890–1900) of the creation of the Constitution, the people, the conventions, the arguments, the passion and the politics that created your Constitution.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this contains names and images of people who have died.

Fast facts

Commonwealth Coat of Arms
Commonwealth Coat of Arms (NAA: A462, 828/3/8 PART 1, p. 35 )

National treasure

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK) is the most important document for the modern democratic nation of Australia.

Founding document

The Constitution is the legal document upon which the Commonwealth of Australia was founded at Federation.

Transfer of power

The Constitution transferred specific powers from the six independent British colonies to the future Australian federal government.

Ten years

The Constitution was written between 1890 and 1900.

Democratic nation

Politicians, government officials, lawyers and the ordinary people of Australia all helped to create a uniquely democratic Constitution for Australia.

Call to action

Portrait of Alfred Deakin, taken from a photograph of the Australasian Federation Conference delegates, Melbourne, February 1890. Photographer: Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co., Melbourne.
Portrait of Alfred Deakin, taken from a photograph of the Australasian Federation Conference delegates, Melbourne, February 1890. Photographer: Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co., Melbourne. (NAA: A1200, L13363 )

National identity

As the number of people born in the colonies increased, so did their sense of pride and identity as distinct from Britain.

The men who wrote the Constitution

The men who wrote the Constitution of Australia were from different backgrounds and colonies, but they shared a vision of one Australian nation.

Sir Henry Parkes 1890

Persuaded by Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, the colonies met in Melbourne in February 1890 to discuss federation.

Agreement to draft a Constitution

In 1890, the colonies agreed to meet again the following year to begin work on a Constitution for Australia.

Andrew Inglis Clark 1891

Andrew Inglis Clark believed that the Constitution should be a living document, capable of meeting the needs of each generation.

Reasons to federate

There were good practical reasons to form a federation. Free trade among the colonies, telecommunications, immigration and defence would all benefit from a centralised approach.

Sir Samuel Griffith 1891

Sir Samuel Griffith believed that the continued independence of the states was an essential condition for federation.

Alfred Deakin 1891

Alfred Deakin was a skilled conciliator and a keen observer of human nature. Although a man of strong personal ideals, he was prepared to compromise on practical issues in order to achieve the great goal of federation. His delightful written portraits of the delegates provide us with insight into the personalities behind federation.

The Lucinda 1891

The first draft of the Constitution was produced over 22 days, including an Easter weekend on the Queensland Government steamship Lucinda.

Draft Constitution 1891

On 9 April 1891, Sir Samuel Griffith moved that the National Australasian Convention adopt the draft Constitution.

Quick steps

Centre page of the Melbourne Cartoon, featuring Sir Henry Parkes, 3 March 1891, copyright application.
Centre page of the Melbourne Cartoon, featuring Sir Henry Parkes, 3 March 1891, copyright application. (NAA: A1786, 4873B)

Sir John Forrest 1891

Despite agreement on a draft Constitution, the federation movement ground to a halt in 1891. Local economics and politics were still more important.

Federation is put aside

In December 1891, after battling an unsympathetic parliament, Sir Henry Parkes resigned as Premier of New South Wales. Federation was put aside.

Corowa Conference 1893

The Federation Leagues and Australian Natives Association worked to promote federation to the people. In 1893, a conference was held on the banks of the Murray River at Corowa, New South Wales.

Dr John Quick 1893

At the 1893 Corowa Conference, Victorian lawyer Dr John Quick proposed a three-step process to achieve a federal Constitution.

Quick step: one

In 1897, the first of Quick’s steps was carried out. Each colony elected representatives to attend a federal convention.

Quick step: two

Between 1897 and 1898, the second of Quick’s steps was achieved. The Australasian Federal Convention of 1897–98 consisted of three sessions, spanning three cities and 82 days.

Constitutional convention 1897–98

Ten elected delegates represented each colony at the 1897–98 Australasian Federal Convention, except Queensland which did not attend.

Draft Constitution 1898

On 17 March 1898, New South Wales politician and leader of the convention, Edmund Barton, moved that the draft Constitution be adopted by the convention.

Edmund Barton 1898

Edmund Barton moved that the draft Constitution be accepted by the convention.

Quick step: three

The third and final of Quick’s steps required that the draft Constitution be put to the people. Referendums were held in each colony from 1898 to 1900.

The people

Certificate of Australasian federal referendum, 1899, presented to Arthur Calwell Senior.
Certificate of Australasian federal referendum, 1899, presented to Arthur Calwell Senior. (NAA: M3967, 1)

Catherine Helen Spence 1897

The majority of delegates elected to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897 were politicians and lawyers. The writer Catherine Helen Spence ran for election. She was Australia’s first woman to stand for public office, and placed 22nd out of 33 candidates.

The people petition 1897–98

Businessmen, suffragettes, environmentalists, religious groups and journalists all tried to influence the outcome of the Australasian Federal Convention.

Preamble of the Constitution

The 'people' were included in the preamble of the 1897 draft Australian Constitution, as an expression of its creators’ democratic ideals.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

The 'people' referred to in the Australian Constitution of 1900 did not include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The people vote 1898–1900

Between 1898 and 1900 the people of Australia voted on the Constitution in referendums held in each colony. In South Australia Aboriginal people, both men and women, were able to vote.

Argy bargy

Portrait of George Houston Reid, taken from a photograph of the premiers’ conference, Melbourne, 29 January – 2 February 1899. Photographer unknown.
Portrait of George Houston Reid, taken from a photograph of the premiers’ conference, Melbourne, 29 January – 2 February 1899. Photographer unknown. (NAA: A1200, L16930 )

Against federation

Not everyone wanted federation. When it came to the crunch in 1898, the people of New South Wales rejected the draft Constitution Bill.

Premiers’ conference 1899

In 1899, in a last-minute bid to save federation, the premiers met in Melbourne to discuss more changes to the draft Constitution.

Federal powers

The colonies had always been concerned about the economic consequences of transferring powers to the federal government.

Democratic rights

Many viewed the draft Constitution as very democratic for its time. Some called for even greater recognition of ‘the will of the people’. Changes were made at the 1899 premiers’ conference in response to demands from the growing labour and social welfare movements.

Britain holds out

Postcard, ‘Greetings from Australia’, copyright exhibit (animated version).
Postcard, ‘Greetings from Australia’, copyright exhibit (animated version). (NAA: A1861, 243)

London calling

In March 1900, the Australian delegation sailed to Britain to present the Constitution Bill to the British Parliament for approval.

Appeal to Privy Council

Before it would approve the draft Constitution Bill, Britain demanded a right of appeal to its Privy Council. The Australian delegation stood by the will of the people, insisting the Australian High Court be the final court of appeal.

Success at last!

Eventually, a compromise was brokered allowing a limited right of appeal to the Privy Council. In London, Barton, Deakin and Kingston danced for joy.

Royal assent

On 9 July 1900, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent, making the Australian Constitution law.

Royal proclamation

On 17 September 1900, Queen Victoria proclaimed that the Commonwealth of Australia would come into existence on 1 January 1901.

Office of Governor-General

On 29 October 1900, Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor-General of Australia.

Birth certificates of a nation

These documents are Australia’s birth certificates and are on display in the Federation Gallery at the National Archives, Canberra.

Celebration

Crowds at Centennial Park celebrate the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth, Sydney, New South Wales, 1 January 1901. Photographer unknown.
Crowds at Centennial Park celebrate the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth, Sydney, New South Wales, 1 January 1901. Photographer unknown. (NAA: A1200, L16936)

Inauguration Day 1901

Celebration of the new Commonwealth of Australia took place on 1 January 1901. On this day the Australian Constitution came into force.

The Governor-General’s blunder

In a last-minute faux pas the Governor-General invited the unpopular anti-federationist William Lyne to be Australia’s first Prime Minister. British Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, demanded an explanation.

First Commonwealth Ministry 1901

The first Commonwealth Parliament opened in Melbourne in May 1901. Edmund Barton was sworn in as Australia’s first Prime Minister after 10 years of devotion to federation.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017