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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 76

Federal Constitution

page 20

Federal Constitution.

The Federal Constitution, "as finally adopted by the Australasian Federal Convention," contains 127 clauses, exclusive of the schedule, and occupies 23 pages foolscap. All that I can do in the limited space available, therefore, will be simply preliminary, sufficient, probably, for many' of my readers, until the full text of such an important document is available. It will be noticed that the word "Australasian" is employed, which, of course, includes New Zealand and the South Sea Islands. The document opens, as all such documents should do, by "Humbly relying upon the Blessing of Almighty God;" then follows the agreement "to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Queen." Clause 3 provides that the Queen may, by proclamation, bring the Constitution into existence on or before the 16th March next. Clause 6 has much significance for us It says : "The 'States' shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, etc., as are parts of the Commonwealth at its establishment" The door stands wide open for us. It remains for the Parliament and people of New Zealand to agree to enter, and we should then become one of the "Original States," to which irrevocable rights and privileges will belong. The consequences of delay will come under our observation when we get further on. Clause 9 defines the parts of the Constitution.

1—The Parliament.
2—The Executive.
3—The Judicature.
4—Finance and trade.
5—The States.
6—New States.
8—Alteration of the Constitution.

But I can only briefly summarize. The Constitution provides for a Governor-General, appointed by the Queen; that his page 21 salary shall be £10,000 per annum; that the legislative power shall be vested in a Senate and House of Representatives; that the first Parliament shall meet not later than six months after the proclamation of the Constitution, and thereafter annually; that the Senate shall be composed of six members from each State, and shall hold office for six years, except as to half their number, who shall retire at the end of three years, thus providing in the future for half the Senate coming before their constituents every three years, each elector having one vote.

The House of Representatives will consist of double the number of members provided for the Senate, in all the States of the Union; they will remain in office for three years, unless previously dissolved; the several States may make laws for determining the electoral divisions in each State, or, failing to do so, the State may vote as one constituency; the qualification of members shall be the same as at present in voting for the popular Chamber, but in the choice of members, each elector shall vote only once Clause 34 provides that the qualification of members shall be as follows :—He must be of the full age of 21 years, and must be an elector entitled to vote at the election of members of the House of Representatives, or a person qualified to become such elector, and must have been for three years a resident of the Commonwealth at the time he is chosen; he must be a subject of the Queen, either natural born, or for at least five years naturalised, under the law of the United Kingdom, or of a colony which has become, or becomes, a State, or of the Commonwealth, or of a State. Passing some formal clauses, we reach Part IV., dealing with both Houses of Parliament. Voters for the popular Chamber are entitled to vote for the Senate; members of one House cannot become members of the other Chamber; other disqualifications are enumerated, which are the usual ones, except as to one sub-section, which wears the aspect of originality, and is very important, viz., any member of either House, who, "directly or indirectly, takes, or agrees to take any fee or honorarium for services rendered to the Commonwealth, or for services rendered in the Parliament to any person or State." The framers of the Constitution give no quarter to bribery or corruption in high places. Any member of Parliament, moreover, who accepts a bribe, and becomes disqualified, may be sued in any court of competent jurisdiction, and shall become liable to page 22 pay the sum of £ 100 for every day he sits, to any person who chooses to take proceedings. Members of both branches of the Legislature shall receive an allowance of £400 a year, to be reckoned from the day on which they take their seats.

Part V. defines the powers of Parliament. These occupy 38 sub-sections, and are too lengthy to quote in full. They provide that the Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth; for trade and commerce; taxation, but so as not to discriminate between States; bounties on the production or export of goods, also uniform throughout the States; borrowing money on the security of the Commonwealth, etc. One sub-section provides as follows:—Banking other than State banking; also, State banking, extending beyond the limits of the State concerned, the incorporation of banks, and the issue of paper-money Other sub-section provide State insurance, old age pensions, the relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific, the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person, the control of railways for military purposes, the acquisition of State railways with the consent of any State, the construction and extension of railways with the consent of any State.

The Commonwealth Parliament shall have exclusive power to make laws in respect to the seat of Government, and matters relating to any department of the public service, the control of which is by the Constitution transferred to the Commonwealth. Clause 53 provides that all appropriations of moneys or laws imposing taxation shall originate in the House of Representatives, which the Senate may not amend; the latter may request any amendment, but the final issue rests with the popular Chamber. The powers of both Chambers are co-ordinate respecting other legislation; no money votes can be passed unless the purpose of the appropriation has in the same session been recommended by message of the Governor-General to the House of Representatives Then follows a final and wise solution of a grave problem. Clause 57 provides that if a deadlock occurs, both Houses may be dissolved, and if matters in dispute are not settled in the ordinary way, there will be a joint sitting of both Houses, voting as one Chamber, and a majority will put an end to any deadlock.

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We pass some formal clauses, and reach Chapter II., dealing with the Executive Government. There shall not be more than seven Ministers of State; £12,000 per annum is provided for their salaries; the Governor-General becomes chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth, and after the establishment of the Commonwealth the following departments of the public service, in all the States, shall be taken over by the Commonwealth by proclamation, viz., posts, telegraphs, and telephones, naval and military defence, lighthouses, lightships, beacons, buoys, and quarantine. But without proclamation the Customs will be transferred to the Commonwealth on its establishment.

Chapter 3 provides that the judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in the High Court of Australia. This Court will be presided over by a Chief Justice, and not less than two justices, and shall deal with all appeals from the High Court, the Supreme Court of any State, or in any matter in which an appeal lies to the Queen in Council, and the judgments of such High Court shall be final and conclusive. Clause 74 provides for the absolute independence of the Commonwealth in the interpretatation of the Constitution. Clause 80 provides for trial by jury, and all offences must be tried in the State in which the crime was committed. Chapter IV deals with finance and trade. The revenue of the Commonwealth shall be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund; payment of the expenses of the Commonwealth becomes a first charge upon the revenue. Officers in any Department taken over by the Commonwealth shall be under such conditions as now obtain in the several States; they shall be entitled to retiring allowances, as well as to all existing and accruing rights. All property of any such Departments taken over by the Commonwealth, shall vest in the latter, but in the case of the Customs for such time as the Governor-General-in-Council may declare to be necessary. The Commonwealth may acquire any property used, but not exclusively used, by this Department, by paying compensation to the State, and shall assume the obligations of the State in respect of the Departments so transferred. Clause 87 provides that for a period of 10 years after the establishment of the Commonwealth, and thereafter until Parliament otherwise provides, not more than one-fourth of the revenue from Customs shall be appropriated by the Commonwealth. The balance shall page 24 be returned to the States, or in payment of interest on debts of the States taken over by the Commonwealth. Clause 88 provides that within two years uniform duties of Customs shall be imposed. For two years a debtor and creditor account will be kept as between the several States, and on adjustment the balance (if any) shall be paid monthly to each State. At the end of that period the Federal Parliament shall deal exclusively with duties of Customs and excise. Clause 92 I will quote verbatim, it should be written in gold.

"On the imposition of uniform duties of Customs, trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free."

Clause 94 provides that after five years from the imposition of uniform duties, the Parliament may provide, on such basis as it deems fair, for the monthly payment to the several States of all surplus revenue.

Clause 95 contains an exception in favour of the State of West Australia for five years after the uniform tariff comes into force. That State will have power to levy special duties, which the Federal Parliament will collect, but no duty during the first year shall exceed the duty in force at the time the uniform tariff is imposed, and by a sliding scale will cease at the expiry of the fifth year. During a period of 10 years the Commonwealth Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State.

Other formal clauses follow, and we reach clause 100, which provides for an inter-State Commission, and other clauses define the functions of the Commission, these being generally questions as to trade, and commerce within the Commonwealth.

Clause 104 provides that the Federal Parliament may take the public debts of the several States and may convert, renew, or consolidate, any such debts, or any part thereof.

Chapter V. deals with the States, and contains 15 clauses. Clause 105 and the two following are saving clauses conserving the rights of the several States as at present constituted, clause 106 the rights of Parliament, and clause 107 the maintenance of page 25 State laws as now in force, or of altering or repealing any such laws, as the Parliament of the colony had until the Parliament became a State of the Commonwealth.

Clause 108 provides that State laws inconsistent with the laws of the Commonwealth shall be invalid.

Clause 112 vests the liquor traffic in the States.

Other clauses provide that States shall not raise or maintain any naval or military forces without the consent of the Federal Parliament; nor impose any tax on property of any kind belonging to the Commonwealth, nor coin money, nor make other than gold or silver a legal tender; nor establish any religion, nor impose religious observances, nor prohibit the free exercise of any religion, nor impose religious tests, nor shall the Commonwealth tax State property.

Clause 118 provides that the Commonwealth shall protect every State against invasion or domestic violence, and each State must provide for the punishment of persons convicted of offences against the laws of the Commonwealth.

Chapter VI. deals with the new States. The Parliament may admit to the Commonwealth or establish new States, and may make or impose such terms and conditions, including the extent of representation in either House of Parliament as it thinks fit. We said near the commencement of this précis that the door was standing wide open for New Zealand, if her people wish to enter and become one of the original States. Opportunity has come to us. But we must be quick and lively, or the door will be closed upon us, to be reopened only upon such terms and conditions as the Federal Parliament thinks fit.

Chapter VIII. refers to matters of detail, viz., the seat of Government, which will be in New South Wales; gives power to the Governor-General to appoint deputies; and defines the method of effecting alterations of the Constitution.