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Surprising Facts about Australia’s Constitution

July 9, 2014

Happy Constitution Day! Today marks 114 years since Queen Victoria provided royal assent for the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900.

 

To celebrate its birthday, here are some surprising facts about the Australian Constitution… 

 

1. Our founding document was many years in the making. The Federation movement took hold in the late 1800s, with constitutional conventions taking place in 1891 and 1897-98. Delegates at these conventions discussed the form the Constitution would take, and went about drafting its sections. Once the Convention had agreed to the document, it was then approved by voters at referendums held in 1899 and 1900. What makes this process unique is that Australians were the first people in the world to vote on their nation’s Constitution. 

 

2. All three of Australia’s first High Court Judges – Griffith CJ, O’Connor J and Barton J – had a hand in the creation and adoption of the Constitution. Much of the document was written by Samuel Griffith, and Edmund Barton was a member of the delegation that took the Bill to Britain for enactment. 

 

A later High Court Justice, Higgins J, had also played a part in the constitution’s creation, but believed that the draft produced was too conservative and actually campaigned against its ratification in the 1899 referendum in Victoria. 

 

3. It took just 22 days in 1891 to complete the first draft of the Constitution. Part of this drafting process took place on a steamship called Lucinda, which was owned by the government of Queensland.

 

4. More recently, the Constitution has had a lower profile. A 1994 survey of Australians aged 15-19 found that 90 percent of respondents didn’t know what the Constitution covered, or how the Constitution could be changed.


Even more concerning, in 1987, another study found that only 30 percent of 18 to 24 year olds knew that Australia even had a Constitution.

 

5. The majority of referendums held since Federation have failed. Of the 44 questions put to the Australian public, only eight have been successful, giving referendums an 82 percent failure rate. As former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies put it: “to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules.”

 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 9 July 2013.

 

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