Tomorrow marks the 116th anniversary of the most important law in Australian history: our Constitution.

The Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) was passed by the British Parliament in Westminster on 9 July 1900, received Royal Assent from Queen Victoria later that day, and entered into force on 1 January 1901. It granted a federated Australia its own constitution, and set the parameters within which we still conduct our political and legal debates today.

The passing of the Act on 9 July marked the end of one long process, and the beginning of another. Popular support for federation had been building for decades prior to 1900, and Constitutional Conventions had been held around the country in 1891 and 1897-98. One round of referenda on the draft Constitution were held in the Australian colonies in 1898, receiving majority support in all participating states, but failing to meet the required quota in New South Wales.

After a series of amendments to the draft Constitution, a second round of referenda were held in 1899, with the ‘yes’ vote sweeping Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia. New South Wales was more circumspect, and Queensland – voting for the first time – broke almost evenly. Nevertheless, the draft was carried, and a later referendum in Western Australia in July 1900 led to a clear majority voting in favour there too.

It was the first time in world history that a national constitution had been put to a popular vote. Of course, the eligibility requirements in the various colonies meant that most people – even most adults – in Australia did not vote. As the Australian Electoral Commission points out:

Only South Australian and Western Australian women voted in the referendums. Indigenous Australians, Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were not allowed to vote in Queensland or Western Australia unless they owned property. In several colonies poor people in receipt of public assistance could not vote and Tasmania required certain property qualifications.

In addition to these barriers, voting was not yet compulsory in the colonies. As a result, only about 1 in 4 Australian adults ended up voting in the referenda.

Nevertheless, there was a clear sense of a new beginning. As John Quick and Robert Garran wrote in 1900:

During the past century the foundations of Australian nationhood have been laid; with the new century will begin the task of building the superstructure. Political barriers have been broken down, and the constitutional compact which, politically speaking, creates the Australian people, has been framed, accepted, and established.

But all of this is only the beginning. The new national institutions of Australia have to be tested in the fire of experience; provincial jealousies have to be obliterated; national sentiment has to be consolidated; the fields of national legislation and national administration have to be occupied.

Australian statesmanship and patriotism, which have proved equal to the task of constructing the Constitution, and of creating a new nation within the Empire, are now face to face with the greater and more responsible task of welding into a harmonious whole the elements of national unity, and of guiding the Australian people to their destiny.

That “task of building the superstructure” continues today. Other steps have been taken, most notably the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth) – which removed the requirement for Australian federal laws to be compatible with British ones, and removed the capacity of the British Parliament to legislate for the Commonwealth of Australia without Australian acquiescence – and the Australia Act 1986 (Cth) and the Australia Act 1986 (UK) – which commenced simultaneously, and effectively did the same as the Statute of Westminster, but for the Australian States and Territories, as well as ending appeals from Australian courts to the Privy Council.

The tradition of Australian independence is one of calmness and respect for institutions and the rule of law. This tradition has served us well, avoiding the violence that has so often accompanied independence movements in the past. It is a tradition worth celebrating and preserving, as we continue to work at that “greater and more responsible task of welding into a harmonious whole the elements of national unity, and of guiding the Australian people to their destiny.”

 

— William Shrubb

Check out last year’s Constitution Day forum at Parliament House, which discussed the enduring impact of the Magna Carta.