How does the Australian constitution empower the Commonwealth Parliament to make the most of the country’s laws?
Australia has taken great strides in its short history as a democracy. After winning sovereignty from British rule, the leaders of the young nation embarked upon creating democratic institutions and processes to ensure fairness and justice for all. They looked up to British legal history and the American written constitution to chart out a robust constitution for Australia. They’ve also incorporated deliberative mechanisms through which new laws could be passed. And the Parliament of Australia (Commonwealth Parliament) is the core institution where the process of debate, consideration and passage of bills into laws plays out. This is a crucial aspect of governing the nation, as it allowed obsolete laws to be replaced by more relevant ones (recent laws governing grants and rights of aboriginal Australians are a case in point). The constitution states that “a new Commonwealth (national) law can only be made, or an existing law changed or removed, by or under the authority of the federal Parliament, that is, by or in accordance with an Act of Parliament.” (www.aph.gov.au, 2010) This instance shows that the motives and objectives for the creation of the institution of the Parliament are well articulated in the
The Commonwealth Parliament is a bicameral arrangement, where the two houses of Parliament will have to concur before laws could be passed. The lower house of the Parliament is elected on the basis of ‘one-vote-one-value’ principle. The upper house, on the other hand, contains appointed members alongside elected members. The section 1 of the Constitution of Australia states that Parliament contains three units. The first component is the Queen, the second is the Senate and the third is the House of Representatives. Since the Queen is a nominal figure, she’s represented by the Governor-General. The Senate (the upper house) consists of 76 members (twelve each for each state and two for each mainland territory). Using the method of proportional voting, Senators are elected to the house. The lower house on the other hand is represented by 150 members. The members of the House of Representatives are drawn from electoral divisions or electorates. (Wear, 1999, p.544)
These two houses meet in separate chambers of the Parliament House in the capital city to debate and vote on several legislative proposals. This way, views from all sections of society are heeded in the process. Thus, the pioneers of Australian democracy have installed a stable and foolproof structure for updating the laws of the country. (Kelly, 2001, p.44) The framers of the constitution also imposed checks and balances in the system through the endowment of unequal amounts of powers to the two houses. For example,
“In matters relating to the collection or expenditure of public money the Constitution gives a more powerful role to the House of Representatives—the House of Government. Bills which authorize the spending of money (appropriation bills) and bills imposing taxation cannot originate in the Senate. The Senate may not amend bills imposing taxation and some kinds of appropriation bill, or amend any bill so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people but it can ask the House to make amendments to these bills.” (www.aph.gov.au, 2010)
In the two houses of the parliament, nearly half of the total sitting time is spent on debating bills. These proposed laws could range from “comparatively minor proposals of an administrative nature to comprehensive initiatives of major social, economic or industrial significance”. (www.aph.gov.au, 2010) In order to make sure that proper checks and balances are put in place, the framers of the Constitution restricted the areas of public affairs where the Federal Parliament can make laws. These areas include “international and interstate trade; foreign affairs; defense; immigration; taxation; banking; insurance; marriage and divorce; currency and weights and measures; post and telecommunications; and invalid and old age pensions.” (www.aph.gov.au, 2010) The remaining powers are handed to state legislatures so that local issues pertaining to governance, public utilities, schools and hospitals are addressed at that level. (Moon & Sharman, 2003, p.56)
In some policy areas, the Commonwealth Parliament is given sole powers, where the States play no legislative role. In other areas, the States and the Commonwealth share concurrent powers. By default, States hold the power to legislate in policy areas not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Furthermore, the Australian Constitution has bestowed the Parliament with powers to apply limits to the Senate’s ability to initiate or change certain financial legislation.
“In other respects the Senate has the same law-making powers as the House of Representatives (including the power to reject any legislation). The parliament can adopt special requirements for financial legislation procedures when there is disagreement between the Houses over legislation. This can result in both Houses being dissolved by the Governor-General and, when the disagreement continues, the two newly elected Houses meeting together (a ‘joint sitting’) to resolve their differences.” (www.aph.gov.au, 2010)
Hence, in conclusion, it is quite clear that the constitution empowers the Commonwealth Parliament to make most of the country’s laws. This is a significant achievement on part of the political leaders of the nation. This prevailing arrangement is also a success for democracy. This places Australia in an advantageous position over many of its geo-political allies in its march toward greater prosperity and progress.
Encel, S. (1962). Cabinet Government in Australia. Parkville, V.I.: Melbourne University Press. Print.
Kelly, P. (2001). 100 Years: The Australian Story. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin. Print.
Moon, J. & Sharman, C. (Eds.). (2003). Australian Politics and Government: The Commonwealth, the States, and the Territories. New York: Cambridge University Press. Print.
Wear, R. (1999). Commonwealth of Australia. The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 45(4), 544. Print.
Making Laws, House of Representatives – Infosheet, October, 2010, issue No.7, Retrieved from
House of Representatives, The Constitution – Infosheet, October, 2010, issue No.7, Retrieved from