Lesson 2 – How Australia Happened

The English Find another Island

In 1788 a North Englishman called Captain Cook planted the Union Jack at Botany Bay and did not found Australia. He founded the colony of New South Wales. Other colonies followed, each one with separate laws, its own territory, and its own Governor reporting directly to Britain. In the late 1800s the colonies decided to federate as a single country with a national parliament but with the English monarch as Head of State, and with each colony having its own parliament and independent laws. Since no single colony had the power to form a country, Australia came into being by virtue of a British Act of Parliament which was called “The Constitution of Australia Act 1900”. This Act of British Parliament created our constitution. The Act came into effect in 1901.

So in 1901 Australia became a country for the first time…a racially diverse but predominantly Anglo-Celtic nation with moral underpinnings from Christianity, some Nordic social values, and over eight centuries of social and legal development.

That is our heritage, that is where we have come from, and that is foundationally our identity. The critical difference is that Alfred sought to establish a Roman Catholic country whereas Australia is constitutionally Protestant. Whether Australia continues to be a culturally Anglo-Celtic Judeo Christian country will depend on the choices of this generation. However, in order to make a choice we need to know our history back far enough to understand how we got to where we are.

Like Britain the great southern land has always been culturally diverse. Hundreds of languages were spoken here prior to European contact. However, to the best of current knowledge, Indigenous people had no concept of Australia as a single entity. Rather there were many people groups, speaking many languages, and observing many customs.

The word ‘Australia’ means ‘southern’ and was used in different forms from the 1600’s onwards as a term for the great southern land. It was popularised by the navigator Matthew Flinders who was the first recorded person to circumnavigate the continent, and the term was officially accepted by the British Admiralty in 1824.

In 1824 ‘Australia’ was a place but not a country. It was more a collection of colonies surrounding a vast interior, but a sense of nationality was developing.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th Century there was a sense that it would be better for the colonies to agree to form a national government to take care of common things like coinage, defence, postal service, and diplomatic relations and to that end a number of conventions were held to thrash out how that might work.

It is important to say here that the founding fathers (and they were all men) did not want to go down the American route and declare a republic. They considered themselves culturally British and remained loyal to the British monarch. Furthermore they wanted all the colonies to become States of the new Commonwealth. The States would keep their independence and have their own Parliaments and make their own laws, but they would hand over some of their powers to the new central government. The new central government is called the Commonwealth or Federal government.

So if you are going to have five State governments and a central Commonwealth or Federal government, you are going to have to have some rules about how all that is going to work …and that is what the Constitution of Australia does.

What you need to know about the constitution is this:

  1. Some powers belong to the Commonwealth and some powers belong to the States.
  2. Some powers are held by both but the Commonwealth has the say if laws are not consistent, that is, the Commonwealth prevails.
  3. The Constitution sets up the Federal Parliament, elections and the role of the Governor General.
  4. The Federal Parliament has two houses.
  5. House of Representatives is based on electorates with equal number of electors in them.
  6. The Senate has equal numbers representing each State. Its role is to protect the interests of the States and keep the national government in check.
  7. The British monarch is the head of State in Australia and is represented by the Governor-General.
  8. The Constitution sets up the High Court of Australia.
  9. The High Court of Australia has the final say on interpreting the Constitution.

The Governor-General has a number of ceremonial roles but importantly he or she also holds reserve powers as a Head of State. So for example, if someone got into Federal Parliament and shot all our politicians, the Governor-General would take charge of the government, the Federal police and the armed forces, and issue writs for a new election. The same is true in Britain where the Queen is the head of the armed forces. Also if the Parliament becomes unworkable, the Governor-General can sack the Prime Minister and hold fresh elections; which is what took place in 1975.

Because the States have equal representation in the senate, a senate vote in a smaller State is worth more than a senate vote in a larger State. That is why smaller parties and Independents base themselves in the smaller States and aim for the Senate because they need fewer votes to win a seat. The Democrats were based in South Australia. So was Family First, and now Nick Xenophon. The Greens are still largely based in Tasmania, as was Brian Harradine. Family First is based in South Australia and has also run a candidate in Tasmania. Therefore if you want to have influence, a good place to start is with Independent Senate candidates and minor parties.

The Constitution of Australia Act also established the High Court as a final court of appeal and to rule on constitutional matters. So where does the High Court fit in? Well any Court in Australia can hear a constitutional matter. For example a local Magistrates Court once heard a case about abalone fishing that involved interpreting the constitution. However matters requiring a decision about how to interpret the constitution are normally heard in the High Court because that is the court of final appeal in Australia. The Court can sit anywhere but it is normally housed in a big building at the end of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.

Summary of lessons 1 & 2

We have just swept through over a thousand years of history.

We learned that our democratic traditions are Nordic in origin but were buried under feudalism that was imported and imposed from continental Europe.

We learned that Celtic Christianity in Britain was taken over by Roman Catholicism but the spirit of religious and political independence never died.

We learned about our origin as a multi-racial but predominantly Anglo Saxon Celtic Nordic nation.

We learned that Australia came about through the different colonies agreeing to form a central government that is still connected to the British Monarchy.

We learned that the written constitution of Australia sets up the Federal Parliament and the High Court of Australia, and sets out the rules about how the federation works.

End of Lesson 2


  1. Captain Cook was the founder of………… (complete)
  2. What does “Australia” mean?
  3. In what year did Australia become a country?
  4. Is Australia a Republic or a Constitutional Monarchy?
  5. Give a reason for your answer
  6. What is the role of the Governor General?
  7. Why is it necessary for Australia to have a constitution?
  8. Name the Houses of the Federal Parliament.
  9. Why do Independent politicians tend to run for the Senate in the smaller States?
  10. What is the main function of the High Court?

In our next lesson we will explore what rights and freedoms we have under our constitution. Do we really have a right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom from governmental tyranny?…and if so, where do these freedoms come from?



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