On 17 September 1900 Queen Victoria signed the proclamation that declared that on and after 1 January 1901, the people of the Australian colonies would be united in a federal commonwealth: the Commonwealth of Australia. The British Parliament had, in July, passed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, which would determine the way the people of this new nation would govern themselves.
- The six former colonies would become states of the Commonwealth.
- The new federal parliament would have two Houses: a House of Representatives, elected on a population basis, and a Senate, made up of an equal number of Senators from each state. (The territories now elect two Senate representatives each.)
- The head of government would be the prime minister: the leader of the party or parties commanding majority support in the House of Representatives.
- A High Court was established to interpret the new Constitution and to be the highest court of appeal in the land.
- Amendments to the Constitution could only be made as a result of a referendum of the people.
The 1850s to the 1890s were years when the colonies developed as separate, self-governing colonies. The colonies experimented with parliamentary democracy and with developing the economic and social well-being of their people.
Loyalties to particular colonies grew, but the colonists also shared British traditions, the English language and the immigrant experience. A sense of identity was shaped by colonials proud of their achievements (a colonial team even beat the British at cricket). This sense of identity was fostered by writers and painters. Politicians became more aware of the advantages of common action on defence, immigration and economic growth.
One experience all colonies, except Western Australia, shared was the severe economic depression of the 1890s.
During the 1890s the colonies decided on a process to achieve a federal union: to create a nation. Peacefully and deliberately the Australian people chose to be a nation and chose a form of government.
Not all countries are divided into states and territories, each with separate parliaments like Australia. Countries such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand only have one parliament which makes the decisions for the whole country, with councils looking after the day-to-day matters of a local community. Countries with state level governments as well as national parliaments, such as the United States of America and Malaysia, are called 'federations'. In a federation, responsibilities of government are divided between the central parliament and regional or state parliaments. Australia also has local governments.
To read more about the ideas in this unit refer to Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia.
The Australian Constitution 1997, Constitutional Centenary Foundation, Carlton, Melbourne.
Dermody, Kathleen 1997, A Nation at Last: The Story of Federation, AGPS Press, Canberra.
Hendry, Leone 1993, Governing a Nation, Rigby Heinemann, Melbourne.
The Parliament Pack 1987, Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra.
Russell, Roslyn and Chubb, Phillip 1998, One Destiny!, Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood, Melbourne.
The Australian Experience (television series) 1996, ABC TV.
Triolo, Rosalie 1996, The Australian Experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Constitutional Centenary Foundation
Australian Government Information
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