Constitutional Convention (Australia)

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In Australian history, the term Constitutional Convention refers to six distinct gatherings.

1891 convention[edit]

The 1891 Constitutional Convention was held in Sydney in March 1891 to consider a draft Frame of Government for the proposed federation of the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. There were 46 delegates at the Convention, chosen by the seven colonial parliaments. Among the delegates was Sir Henry Parkes, known as the "Father of Federation". The Convention approved a draft largely written by Andrew Inglis Clark from Tasmania and Samuel Griffith from Queensland,[1][2] but the colonial parliaments failed to act to give effect to it.

1897–1898 convention[edit]

The drafting committee at the 1897–98 convention – John Downer, Edmund Barton and Richard O'Connor

The next constitutional convention – the Australasian Federal Convention – was held in stages in 1897–98. Unlike the first convention, the delegates from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were elected by popular vote.[3] The delegates of Western Australia were chosen by its parliament. It met first in Adelaide in March 1897, then in Sydney in August, before, finally, it met again in Melbourne in January 1898. The intervals between the sessions were used for intense debate in the colonial parliaments and for public discussion of the draft constitution.

Since 1891, New Zealand had lost interest in federating with the Australian colonies, and was not represented. In Queensland, the parliament had not passed the necessary legislation, so the northern colony was also unrepresented. In the other five colonies ten delegates from each colony were elected by the people, although Western Australian attendance was sporadic. At Melbourne the convention finally produced a draft constitution which was eventually approved by the people at referendums in the colonies.

1942 convention[edit]

In November 1942, the Curtin government convened a constitutional convention for the sole purpose of discussing Attorney-General's H. V. Evatt proposed addition to the constitution of section 60A. This would have made the powers of federal parliament virtually unlimited, declaring "the power of the Parliament shall extend to all measures which in the declared opinion of the Parliament will tend to achieve economic security and social justice [...] notwithstanding anything contained elsewhere in this Constitution". The convention was held in Canberra and consisted of 24 members – six nominated by the federal government, six by the federal opposition, the six state premiers, and the six state leaders of the opposition. After an opening speech by Prime Minister John Curtin, Evatt announced that he was withdrawing his original draft due to public criticism and would substitute a watered-down series of proposals. The convention was immediately adjourned for 24 hours. It eventually appointed a drafting committee which produced the "14 powers" amendment that was put to a referendum in 1944.[4]

1973 convention[edit]

The 1973 Constitutional Convention was established by the Whitlam government in 1973 to consider possible amendments to the Constitution which could be put to the people for approval at a referendum. The Convention, which was not elected but consisted of delegates chosen by the federal and state Parliaments, met through 1973–75 but achieved nothing as a result of non-support by the conservative parties.

1998 convention[edit]

The 1998 Constitutional Convention met in Canberra in February 1998. The Convention was convened by Prime Minister John Howard to fulfill a promise made by his predecessor as Liberal leader, Alexander Downer. During the Convention, Prime Minister John Howard dedicated an area of parkland to the south-east of Old Parliament House as Constitution Place, Canberra.

The Convention consisted of 152 delegates, of whom half were elected by the people and half were appointed by the federal government. This latter group included senior federal, state and territory politicians appointed by virtue of their positions.

The Convention was divided into four philosophical groups: those wanting to retain Australia's existing constitutional monarchy, those wanting Australia to become a republic with a president chosen by the Parliament ("indirect electionists"), those wanting Australia to become a republic with a president elected by the people ("direct electionists"), and those having no fixed position or seeking a compromise between the other groups.[5] In the fourth group, Republicans dominated both subgroups, but proved far from united in their views.

At the opening of the Convention, Prime Minister John Howard stated:

If this Convention does not express a clear view on a preferred republican alternative, then the people will be asked – after the next election – to vote in a preliminary plebiscite which presents them with all the reasonable alternatives. Then a formal constitutional referendum offering a choice between the present system and the republican alternative receiving most support in the preliminary plebiscite would follow.

— Prime Minister John Howard, 2 February 1998.[6]

73 delegates voted in favour of the Bi-partisan appointment model, 57 against and 22 abstained. Not one constitutional monarchist delegate voted in favour. The policy of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) and other monarchist groups was to oppose all republican models, including the minimalist McGarvie model. In response, John Howard stated to the Convention:

The only commonsense interpretation of this Convention is, firstly, that a majority of people have voted generically in favour of a republic... Secondly, amongst the republican models, the one that has just got 73 votes is clearly preferred. When you bind those two together, it would be a travesty in commonsense terms of Australian democracy for that proposition not to be put to the Australian people. Moreover, it would represent a cynical dishonouring of my word as Prime Minister and the promises that my coalition made to the Australian people before the last election.

— Prime Minister John Howard on 13 February 1998.[7]

A number of republicans who supported direct election abstained from the vote (such as Ted Mack, Phil Cleary, and Clem Jones), thereby allowing the bi-partisan model to succeed.[5] They reasoned that the model would be defeated at a referendum, and a second referendum called with direct election as the model.[8]

2017 convention[edit]

The 2017 Constitutional Convention met in Yulara on 23 to 26 May 2017.[9] Called the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, it was held over four days at Yulara Resort, Yulara near Uluru in Central Australia.

The convention was held under the auspices of the 16-member Referendum Council, appointed on a bipartisan basis by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and leader of the opposition Bill Shorten on 7 December 2015.[10]

The Council was set up to advise the government on steps towards a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians had been campaigned for since 1910. In particular, the Convention built on extensive work by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians and the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.[11] The council was made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community leaders and co-chaired by Patrick Dodson,[12] and Mark Leibler AC.[13]

The Convention occurred through a two stage process of:

  • preparatory Dialogues on a Discussion Paper;
  • resulting in selected Delegates moving to a collective decision at the formal Convention.

The Referendum Council issued the Discussion Paper on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples on 26 October 2016.[14] This was followed by Dialogues, a series of meetings of Indigenous Australians, which were held around the country between December 2016 and May 2017. The purpose was to reach broad agreement on whether and, if so, how, to ‘recognise’ Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. The Dialogues also provided an opportunity for participants to discuss the main options for recognition, understand what they mean, combine or modify existing options and rank options in order of priority.

Attendance to the Dialogues was by invitation only. This ensured each Dialogue was deliberative and reached consensus on the relevant issues. Meetings were capped at 100 participants: 60% of places were reserved for First Nations/traditional owner groups, 20% for community organisations and 20% for key individuals. The Council worked in partnership with a host organisation at each location, to ensure the local community was appropriately represented in the process.[15]

Over this six-month period the Referendum Council travelled to 12 different locations around Australia and met with over 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. The First Nations Regional Dialogues were convened in the following locations:

  • Hobart, hosted by Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (9–11 December 2016)
  • Broome, hosted by the Kimberley Land Council (10–12 February 2017)
  • Dubbo, hosted by the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (17–19 February 2017)
  • Darwin, hosted by the Northern Land Council (22–24 February 2017)
  • Perth, hosted by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (3–5 March 2017)
  • Sydney, hosted by the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (10–12 March 2017)
  • Melbourne, hosted by the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owners Corporation (17–19 March 2017)
  • Cairns, hosted by the North Queensland Land Council (24–27 March 2017)
  • Ross River, hosted by the Central Land Council (31 March – 2 April 2017)
  • Adelaide, hosted by the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement Inc (7–9 April 2017)
  • Brisbane, (21–23 April 2017)
  • Thursday Island, hosted by Torres Shire Council and a number of Torres Strait regional organisations (5–7 May 2017).

Delegates for the Convention were selected from participants in the regional Dialogues held around the country.

The First Nations National Constitutional Convention met over four days from 23 to 26 May 2017.[16]

The Convention resulted in a consensus document on constitutional recognition, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. While the majority of delegates at the Convention backed the Uluru Statement, a small number walked out in opposition before the final consensus resolution was passed,[17] citing the lack of prioritisation of a Treaty as a critical issue.[18] Council member Megan Davis gave the first public reading of the Uluru statement at the conclusion of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru.[19] The Final Report of the Referendum Council was provided to the Prime Minister and to the Leader of the Opposition on 30 June 2017 and included as its main recommendation:[20]

  1. That a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament.

A second recommendation was that a non-referendum statement of recognition be given, by a vote of parliaments. Other recommendations were to progress Makarrata and Treaty processes.

The Government’s response was provided on 30 November 2017.[21] It rejected the recommendations of the report arising from the Convention, saying that the proposal undermined the principle of “one person one vote”, was not clear and was incapable of winning support in a referendum. Following a change of Government in 2022, the new Government made a commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Convention in full, with a Referendum on the proposal scheduled for late 2023.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ La Nauze, J. A. (1972). The Making of the Australian Constitution. Melbourne: Melbourne U.P.
  2. ^ Williams, John M. (2005). The Australian Constitution: a Documentary History. Melbourne: Melbourne U.P. pp. 34–458.
  3. ^ 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 1909
  4. ^ Louat, Frank (1943). "The Unconventional Convention". Australian Quarterly. Australian Institute of Science and Policy: 7–14. doi:10.2307/20631080. JSTOR 20631080.
  5. ^ a b Vizard, Steve, Two Weeks in Lilliput: Bear Baiting and Backbiting At the Constitutional Convention (Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-14-027983-0)
  6. ^ "Constitutional Convention Hansard" (PDF). Parliament of Australia. 2 February 1998.
  7. ^ "Constitutional Convention" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 January 2011.
  8. ^ Malcolm Turnbull (1999). Fighting For the Republic. South Yarra: Hardie Grant Books. p. 32.
  9. ^ "Uluru - National Convention". Referendum Council. National Indigenous Australians Agency. 26 May 2017. Archived from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  10. ^ "The Council". Referendum Council. National Indigenous Australians Agency. 2 January 2019. Archived from the original on 28 February 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  11. ^ "Get the facts". Referendum Council. 2 January 2019. Retrieved 6 August 2020. Text was copied from this source, which is available under a Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence. (See here.)
  12. ^ "Patrick Dodson". Referendum Council. National Indigenous Australians Agency. 2 January 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  13. ^ "Mark Leibler AC". Referendum Council. National Indigenous Australians Agency. Archived from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  14. ^ Discussion Paper on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (PDF). Referendum Council. 26 October 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 February 2017. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  15. ^ "Dialogues". Referendum Council. 2 January 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
  16. ^ "Uluru Statement: a quick guide". Australian Parliamentary Library. 19 June 2017. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  17. ^ "Quick Guide to the Uluru Statement". Parliament of Australia. 19 June 2017. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  18. ^ Blanco, Claudianna (25 May 2017). ""We won't sell out our mob" Delegates walk out of constitutional recognition forum in protest". Special Broadcasting Service. National Indigenous Television News. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  19. ^ Natassia, Chrysanthos (27 May 2019). ""What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart?"". Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 8 March 2023. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  20. ^ Referendum Council (30 June 2017). Final Report of the Referendum Council (PDF). Commonwealth of Australia. ISBN 978-1-925362-57-2. Retrieved 19 July 2020.
  21. ^ Turnbull, Malcolm. "Response to Referendum Council's report on Constitutional Recognition". Parlinfo. Australian Parliament House. Retrieved 1 June 2023. The Government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.
  22. ^ "Indigenous Constitutional Recognition and Representation". Parliamentary Library. Australian Parliament House. 2022. Retrieved 1 June 2023. The Albanese Labor Government has made a commitment based on their election policy to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full

Further reading[edit]

  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution, Melbourne University Press 1972
  • Vizard, Steve, Two Weeks in Lilliput: Bear Baiting and Backbiting At the Constitutional Convention (Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-14-027983-0)

External links[edit]