Edmund Barton's annotated copy of the 1891 draft of the Constitution

This is an excerpt from Edmund Barton's annotated copy of the 1891 draft of the Constitution. Barton’s handwritten notes in red ink record the decisions made by the Constitution Committee, which he chaired, at the beginning of the second Australasian Federal Convention. This document represents the first stage of a drafting process which began in March 1897 and would continue until January 1898.

Educational value

  • The Australian Constitution sets out the basic rules for the Australian system of government. The Constitution stipulates how power is shared and exercised by political and legal institutions and is Australia’s supreme law, binding the people together and underpinning many aspects of daily life. It provides the political and legal framework for the nation, which was formed at Federation.

  • The possibility of federation had been discussed for many years, but it was not until the Australian Federation Conference in 1890 that the colonies decided on a process for the drafting of a federal constitution. Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901, when the six colonies federated. The event was celebrated across the country. In Sydney, large crowds gathered to watch the official procession before the nation's inauguration was confirmed at a ceremony in Centennial Park.

  • Designing the Constitution was a difficult process that ultimately took ten years. A draft Constitution was designed at a series of conventions in 1891 and 1897–98. After further changes, at the request of New South Wales, the draft was endorsed by Australian electors at referendums in 1899 and 1900. The British Parliament requested further changes before passing the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900. This Act became law on 9 July 1900 when Queen Victoria gave her assent.

  • The National Australasian Convention was the first convention to draft the Constitution. It opened in Sydney on 2 March 1891, and was led by Queensland premier Samuel Griffith (1845–1920). Seven delegates appointed by each Australian colony and two delegates from New Zealand attended. By 9 April a draft Constitution was complete. Despite the success of the 1891 convention, political ructions in New South Wales delayed acceptance of the draft Bill and threatened the movement towards federation.

  • In 1895 the premiers agreed to a second convention, the Australasian Federal Convention, with ten democratically elected representatives from each colony except Queensland, which did not attend. This convention opened in Adelaide on 22 March 1897 and was under the leadership of Edmund Barton (1849–1920), who would go on to be Australia’s first prime minister (1901–03.

  • The draft Constitution devised during the Australasian Federal Convention used the 1891 Bill as the basis for discussion and was substantially complete by 23 April 1897. Representatives had time to reflect and consult before they met again in Sydney on 2 September to reconsider the draft. More amendments were made in the final session of the convention in Melbourne from January 1898. On 16 March 1898 Edmund Barton successfully moved that the amended Bill be adopted. The convention closed, with much rejoicing, the following day.

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This learning content – description and educational value statement – co-created by National Digital Learning Resource Network and National Archives of Australia.

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