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Changing Constitutions

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Symbol of a nation
In Australia, people live within a system of laws of which the Commonwealth Constitution is supreme. It is our most important founding document and a symbol of our national life.

A constitution outlines the framework of government and the rules and restraints that control its operations. Some rules in the constitution deal with relations between people and the government. Because these rules are so important, constitutions are usually more difficult to change than ordinary laws.

Most countries, including Australia and the United States, have a written document or documents outlining their constitutions. The United Kingdom and New Zealand do not.

Australia’s Constitution forms the cornerstone of our democratic society. By world standards it is a short document, divided into 8 chapters containing 128 sections. The first section is not actually part of the Constitution. It is the preamble or opening statement.

What is a preamble?
A preamble is the introduction to a constitution. It usually contains symbolic statements about the constitution, the system of government, or the common goals and values of the people.

It does not lay down legal rules but can be used to help interpret the constitution when the meaning is not clear. It is usually written at the same time as the rest of the constitution.

A constitutional referendum on the issue of a new preamble was held in Australia in November 1999 at the same time as the referendum on the republic.  It was rejected.

What is a Constitution?

A constitution is a set of rules defining a system of government.  It describes the institutional structure, the conditions under which power is held and exercised, and the procedures through which the rules themselves may be changed.

Alan Fenna, Essentials of Australian Government. Croyden Vic: Tertiary Press, 2000.

In principle, then, a constitution sits above the ‘ordinary laws’ that governments make day-to-day.  It is the fundamental law that binds the political process.

Constitutions can consist of both written and unwritten components.  The unwritten components are known as conventions, or accepted practices that constitute informal rules.

Today, virtually all liberal democracies have formally codified, or ‘written’, constitutions.  The chief exception is the United Kingdom where the rules of its Constitution are scattered through a range of charter documents, parliamentary Acts, elements of the common law, and constitutional conventions.

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia is a single document.  The Western Australian Constitution, on the other hand is found in two main and several supplementary documents.