1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/02/2004   
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Contents >> Government >> The constitutional basis of government

Australia is a constitutional democracy based on a federal division of powers. The constitutional basis of government consists of:

  • the Commonwealth Constitution, including amendments made to that Constitution
  • state and territory Constitutions, including amendments
  • legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament and the state and territory parliaments
  • High Court judgments
  • significant conventions of responsible government adopted from the system of government in use in the United Kingdom (the 'Westminster' system) that are in use at both the Commonwealth and state levels of government.

Commonwealth Constitution

The national Constitution is found in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, a British Act that became law in July 1900 and came into force on 1 January 1901.

Amendment of the written Commonwealth Constitution is by Act of Parliament followed by public referendum. Any proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution must be passed by an absolute majority of each House of Parliament (except in circumstances specified in section 128 of the Constitution which permits a referendum to proceed if passed by only one chamber). It must also be submitted to a referendum of the electors in each state and territory. An amendment must be approved by a majority of the voters in a majority of the states and by a majority of all voters.

Since 1901, 44 proposals have been submitted to referenda. The consent of the electors has been given in regard to eight matters:

1906 - election of senators
1910 - state debts
1928 - state debts
1946 - social services
1967 - Aboriginal people
1977 - Senate casual vacancies
1977 - retirement age for federal judges
1977 - the right of territory electors to vote in constitutional referenda.

Each state and territory has its own Constitution found in legislation. Where a law of a state is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth, the latter law prevails and the former law is, to the extent of the inconsistency, invalid (for state and territory government, see later sections).

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