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Australia became a nation in 1901, after a decade and more of constitutional discussions between the semi-autonomous British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. The Commonwealth of Australia was formed by the passage of an Act by the British Parliament establishing the Australian Constitution. Australia then became a federation of six States (New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia) and possessing also a number of territories: some offshore islands, the claimed Antarctic Territory, the continental Northern Territory, and later the Australian Capital Territory (ACT, like the District of Columbia in Washington DC). New Zealand decided not to join, and Western Australia joined at the very last minute, so the Constitution carries provisions for these decisions.
The constitutional arrangement is definitely a federation. The Commonwealth Parliament only has the legislative powers written into the Constitution. Anything not mentioned is still in the power of each State; however the Commonwealth has total jurisdiction over the Territories. Naturally over the last 100 years the High Court of Australia has interpreted a lot of this creatively.
The Constitution can only be changed by a complex process. First the Parliament has to pass a law to change the Constitution. Then an Australia-wide process called a Referendum is held, where all Australians vote (voting is compulsory). The law is only approved if a majority of all electors approve it, and a majority of States approve it (in other words at least 4 out of the 6). The Territories do not count in this second requirement, though their votes are counted in the first part. Very few of the Referendums put to the Australia people have passed, and conventional wisdom is that they only pass if all major political parties agree on the change.
Unlike the USA, the executive government is vested in the Parliament (analogous to the US Congress & Senate). The party having most seats in the House of Representatives chooses a Prime Minister, who forms a Cabinet from his or her colleagues in Parliament. Like the USA, the Parliament has fiscal and legislative powers. The High Court has judicial power over Commonwealth matters.
Being proudly Australian
In the early 1970s, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam started Australianizing our affairs. As a result of this we abolished regal awards for distinction and created the Order of Australia, honorific titles like 'Sir' and 'Dame', legal appeal to the British Privy Council, and adopted a national song ('Advance Australia Fair') to replace 'God Save the Queen'.
Much later, in the early 1990s, then Prime Minister Paul Keating promoted the concept of removing the last mentions of the Queen from our Constitution. He suggested a form of 'minimalist republic' he favored, and set up a committee to advise him. It said (surprise!) the minimalist republic was a good idea and suggested a process.
The 1999 Referendum
The Labor party lost the next election and current Prime Minister John Howard took over. He was personally not in favor of changing the Constitution but kept faith with his election promise to hold a Constitutional Convention and act on it. This met, being composed largely of political appointments with some representatives, and failed to endorse any model. One however, got somewhat less than 50% approval. It replaced the Queen's representative in Australia, called the Governor-General, by a President who was appointed by two-thirds majority of the Parliament but was able to be sacked instantly by the Prime Minister by a simple letter.
John Howard then arranged for this model to be put to the people at a Referendum in 1999. People with republican sentiments were divided over whether to accept this flawed model, or one touted as the 'Direct Election President', in which Queen's representative was replaced by a popularly elected person. The politicians reacted in horror at the prospect of a popularity contest between a President and a Prime Minister. The traditional monarchists exploited the division between republicans. The referendum failed miserably.
The Prime Minister had also interjected an irrelevancy into the Referendum: to put some flowery words into a preamble to the Constitution, with no legal effect. Everyone wanted something different and this question achieved no majority in any State!
The outcome was that the current Prime Minister (Liberal Party) said that a republic was now off the agenda for at least ten years. The current Leader of the Opposition (Australian Labor Party) said that if they got elected they would hold a non-binding plebiscite to determine if Australians wanted a republic (any sort), and then try to work out what kind the people preferred. However this skirted around the legal situation that any change requires a Referendum on a specific change to theConstitution. Both approaches seem hopeless.
So what next? Go on now and read my six articles.

© Copyright  2000  AHJ Sale
Page last modified on 2000 April 24