The Commonwealth Constitution provides the basic rules for the government of Australia. The Constitution is the fundamental law of Australia that binds everybody, including the Commonwealth Parliament and the parliaments of each State.
The first three chapters of the Constitution confer the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the Commonwealth on three different bodies that are established by the Constitution – the Parliament, the Executive Government and the Judicature. Legislative power is the power to make laws. Executive power is the power to administer the laws and to carry out the business of government. Judicial power is the power exercised by the courts.
Underlying the Constitution is the principle of ‘representative government’ – that is, government by representatives of the people who are chosen by the people. The Constitution established the Commonwealth Parliament comprising the Queen, a House of Representatives and a Senate. Sections 7 and 28 require regular elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate; and Sections 7 and 24 require members of the Commonwealth Parliament to be directly chosen by the people.
The Commonwealth Constitution was necessary to bring all parts of Australia together in a single federation in 1901. When framing the Constitution, the writers were influenced by three other constitutional models from Britain, the United States and Switzerland. Certain aspects of these models were taken and adapted to suit Australian circumstances.
The British Constitution was an obvious source of influence. Australia’s system of government was modelled on the Britain’s version of parliamentary government known as the Westminster system. Other influences included the acceptance of a constitutional monarchy and the reliance on democracy and the common law to protect individual rights.
Our Constitution draws on the United States’ model for the structure of a federal system of government, including the makeup of the Senate and the way that power is divided between the States and the Commonwealth. There is an influence, too, in the way the judiciary or court system works and the establishment of a strong Upper House.
The use of the referendum or popular vote for constitutional change was derived from Switzerland. Section 128 of the Commonwealth Constitution has strong similarities to this aspect of the Constitution of Switzerland. What has been described by the courts as “the sovereignty of the Australian people” is recognised by Section 128 which provides that any change to the Constitution must be approved by the people of Australia.
The Constitution framers adapted these influences to suit Australia, while developing other principles and institutions – such as the use of conciliation and arbitration to settle industrial disputes, and a way to overcome deadlocks between the Houses of Parliament - ensuring the Constitution was uniquely Australian.