1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2002  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2002   
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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;
  • legislation passed by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Parliaments;
  • High Court judgments;
  • State and Territory Constitutions, including amendments; and
  • Significant conventions of responsible government adopted from the system of government in use in the UK (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 (UK), 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:
  • the election of Senators (1906);
  • State debts (1910 and 1928);
  • social services (1946);
  • Aboriginal people (1967); and
  • Senate casual vacancies, retirement age for federal judges, and the right of Territory electors to vote in constitutional referenda (all 1977).

On 6 November 1999 a vote to establish Australia as a republic was put to a national referendum. The proposal was defeated, with 54.9% of electors voting against it.

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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