Article Index

Federation, although first proposed by the British, was our own decision. This was to establish “an indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown ... and under the Constitution".

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act provided that the six self governing Australian colonies would be “Original States” in the new Commonwealth of Australia.

The law making power of the new Commonwealth was to be vested in a Federal Parliament which was to have only those powers clearly set out in the Constitution. Some powers would be exclusive to the Commonwealth, such as making laws for Commonwealth Territories, raising military forces to defend the Commonwealth or minting coins.

Charles Nuttall
[Charles Nuttall: The opening of the first Federal Parliament, 9 May 1901, Museum Victoria Collection]

Other powers would be shared with the states (the “concurrent powers”), for example, banking, insurance , corporations, marriage and divorced. But for each of these the Commonwealth law would prevail if there were an inconsistency with State laws.

The powers not listed, the so called “residuary powers were to be exclusively the States’. This would include land, school and university education, police , prisons, state taxes including state income taxation,mining, roads, railways, and fisheries.

Our federation can only be seen as a culmination of our colonial history, and in the context of a strong desire and intention to retain the self-governing states as important entities in themselves.

Although the constitution can be changed, most proposals to expand federal powers have been rejected by the people. However the powers of the Federal Parliament and Federal government have been expanded significantly since 1901.

It is relevant to ask two questions. First, how has this happened, and second is it in the national interest?

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