This clip chosen to be PG
The 'separation of powers’ means that Australia is administered by the Parliament, the Executive comprising the Department of the Prime Minister and other departments, separate to the Judiciary.
This clip shows black-and-white footage of the 1901 Federation ceremony at which Australia’s constitution came into effect, as well as photographs of pages from the constitution document and aerial footage (in colour) of Parliament House and the High Court building in Canberra. A narrator explains that the Australian constitution sets out the role of the governor-general and the three arms of the federal government: the parliament, the executive government and the judicature. The narrator explains the doctrine of the ‘separation of powers’ and clarifies the role of the High Court in determining whether laws made by parliament are legal and constitutional.
Educational value points
- The Australian constitution, which has been described as the ‘birth certificate’ of a nation, united the six self-governing British colonies as states within the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia and came into effect on 1 January 1901. The clip captures part of the ceremony held on that day in Sydney’s Centennial Park to proclaim the new Commonwealth. The occasion attracted huge crowds, celebrating the birth of the nation. During the ceremony Australia’s first governor-general, John Adrian Louis Hope, seventh Earl of Hopetoun, was sworn in, while the first elections for the Australian parliament were held in March 1901. Edmund Barton became Australia’s first prime minister.
- The Australian constitution, based on the British Westminster model, and was drafted at a series of constitutional conventions held in Australia during the 1890s. It was approved by the Australian people in a succession of referendums held during 1899 and 1900, and came into effect on 1 January 1901. The Australian Constitution Bill was passed as part of a British Act of Parliament in July 1900. Today many legal experts, judges and commentators support major changes being made to the Australian constitution to make it more relevant and useful in the modern world.
- The constitution provides the basic rules for the government of Australia, establishing three separate branches of government: the parliament, the executive government and the judicature, which have been given the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the Commonwealth respectively. The Australian parliament has legislative power that allows it to make laws. The executive government has the executive power to administer laws and carry out the business of government through bodies such as government departments, statutory authorities and the defence forces. The judicature interprets the laws.
- The division of the institutions of government into three branches is known as the ‘separation of powers’. It ensures that the powers and functions of parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate), the executive government and the judicature are separate, but makes the three branches interdependent, thus building in checks and balances. The division prevents any one branch from exercising absolute power, and avoids the potential for corruption that might arise from such a concentration of power, thus ensuring the rule of law and protecting citizens’ individual rights.
- The separation between parliament and the executive government is less distinct than that between these two branches of government and the judicature. For example, because the ministry, which forms the executive government, is drawn from and responsible to parliament, there is an overlap in both personnel and actions between the executive and legislative branches.
- The main functions of the High Court are to interpret and apply the law of Australia and resolve disputes about the meaning of the constitution or the constitutional validity of laws. For example, the Court determines whether an Act passed by the Australian parliament is within the legislative powers of the Australian Government. The High Court, the highest court in the Australian judicial system, is also the final court of appeal against decisions reached by state and territory Supreme Courts.
- Australia is a constitutional monarchy. The governor-general is appointed by the Queen as her representative on the advice of the prime minister, and performs a number of duties, including commissioning the prime minister and ministers after elections. The governor-general gives assent to laws that have been passed by parliament and appoints ambassadors to other countries. Convention dictates that the leader of the party with the majority of seats in the House of Representatives is appointed prime minister, while, apart from exceptional circumstances, the governor-general acts on the advice of Australian Government ministers.
- While the High Court interprets the constitution, section 128 of the constitution specifies that amendments to the constitution can only be made by referendum. A referendum can be initiated only by the Australian parliament and must be approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states and territories and by a national majority of voters. Between 1901 and 2006, there were 44 referendums submitted to the Australian people. Only eight have been successful, including the 1967 referendum enabling Indigenous Australians to be counted in the national census and therefore recognised as citizens. In 1999, a referendum to establish Australia as a republic was defeated.
This clip starts approximately 12 minutes into the documentary.
There is black-and-white footage of the 1901 Federation ceremony, at which Australia’s constitution came into effect, followed by close-ups of the printed constitution.
Narrator The Commonwealth of Australia came into existence under a federal constitution. The constitution is the legal document that governs how the Australian nation functions. It sets out the role of the governor-general and the three arms of government: the parliament, that is the Senate and the House of Representatives; the executive, that is the prime minister, ministers and their departments; and the judiciary, that is the courts.
There is colour aerial footage of Parliament House and the High Court building in Canberra.
Narrator Under our system, all three exist separately. And yet none is an unbridled power unto itself. This is what is known as the ‘separation of powers’ doctrine. The parliament makes the laws, the executive carries them out but it is the courts which must determine that they are legal and constitutional. The High Court of Australia is the only court whose existence is guaranteed by the constitution and it is the High Court which is charged with the final responsibility of determining whether governments themselves are acting legally within the limits set by our constitution.
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