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Focus question 2: Who makes the law?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: British law comes to Australia (30 min) ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Was one-man rule the best system for a penal colony? (50-60 min) ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Who makes the laws today? (20 min) ESL Activity 3


In Australia today parliament, which is elected by the people, makes the law. When the British landed in Australia, Aboriginal law, which we will look at in more detail later in the unit, was ignored. British law applied; new local laws were made by the governor.

Activity 1: British law comes to Australia (30 min)

Handout 7 1a Distribute Handout 7 to groups of students.

1b Discuss the people shown in the first cartoon. Each of them represents a group affected by the introduction of British law to Australia. Ask student groups or pairs to consider the perspectives of the different groups. For example: How would you have felt as an Aboriginal person to suddenly find that your own system of law was ignored and this new system was imposed on you?

1c Groups should prepare and present a brief spoken statement from the perspective of one of the groups (the governor/military, the convicts and the Aboriginal people).

1d Discuss the diagram 'Who sailed on the First Fleet?'.

1e Ask students in their groups to work out who they think would be under the direct orders of the governor and who they think might have more freedom. The point here is that the colony was controlled by the governor. Prisoners had few rights (but they did have the right to a fair trial) and the military had to follow orders from the governor.

1f Ask students to draw up and fill in a chart, sorting new arrivals under the headings 'Not free' and 'Free'.


  • the ratio of convict to non-convict people in the settlement
  • whether the military personnel (who were under orders) were really 'free' (as a citizen in Britain might be free).

Activity 2: Was one-man rule the best system for a penal colony? (50-60 min)

The purpose of this activity is to show that at the beginning of European settlement in Australia the governor made the laws and that the courts were really under his control because New South Wales was a penal colony. In our system today the courts are separate from those who make the laws. In other words, parliament creates the laws and sets out the consequences for breaking the law but the courts decide on individual cases. In Governor Phillip's time the governor did both, which gave him the power to control individual lives.

2a Explain that the governors had the power to create laws they felt were necessary for the running of the colony. Consider this case: One of the early governors made a law that no-one could be away from their tent area after 6 pm. This was called a 'curfew law', and if you were caught breaking the curfew you were punished, regardless of your status or your reason for breaking the law.

2b Appoint one student to be governor and one student to be a person caught breaking the curfew law. With the assistance of other students, these two are to argue from opposite points of view:

  • The governor explains why the decision was made (eg for safety, because there has been crime at night, there is not enough light to see by).
  • The person who was caught explains why the decision is unfair (eg 'Because I had to finish an important job and was unable to get back to my area in time').

2c List some other early laws on the board:

  • Bakers were only allowed to make one type of bread.
  • Dogs that barked at horses had to be destroyed.
  • People loitering on the wharves were sent to hard labour or were imprisoned.
  • Everybody had to go to church on Sunday.
  • Idle people were made to do work.

2d Using these examples discuss the system of law and its implications for people (both free and convict):

  • Which of these laws sound fair and which do not sound fair?
  • Do you think any of these laws would still be used today?
  • Do you think the governor would change any of these laws if everybody disagreed with it? If he didn't, what could they do about it?

2e Remind students that the settlement was a penal colony at the time, and that most of the population were prisoners. Ask students whether they think one-man rule was the best way of ruling a place where most people were prisoners.

2f Ask students if they would rather live under the law in the early penal colony or under our legal system today.

Handout 8

Activity 3: Who makes the laws today? (20 min)

3a Distribute Handout 8. Highlight the following:

  • In Australia today parliament, which is elected by the people, makes the laws. (Each of the states and territories has its own parliament and courts.)
  • Courts decide whether someone has broken those laws or not.
  • Laws are handed down from the past and the courts decide how these laws should apply in the present. The parliament can change these laws if it wishes to.
  • The police have the job of enforcing the law by bringing people they think have broken the law before the courts. They have no say in the decision.
  • In courts, the decisions are made by judges, magistrates or a judge and jury.

If parliament doesn't like a decision of the courts, it can't change the decision. Parliament can only change the law itself.

3b Write on the board: 'Ordinary people should have a say in what the laws are'. Point out to students that we have a say today because we elect the parliament, which makes the laws. Discuss the advantages of this system over a system of one-man rule.

3c Groups should now complete 'The Law Rules' chart by filling in the section 'Law making'.

ESL activities

Back to 'The Law Rules - At a glance'

AcknowledgementsLegal Information