Australia was settled as a series of British colonies between 1788 and 1829; although by the time Europeans had discovered the island, aboriginal peoples had inhabited the area for at least 50,000 years. Between 1850 and 1891 six separate self-governing colonies emerged, each with a constitution and institutions of government of their own.
Throughout this period, there was some pressure for union between the colonies for economic, defense, and other purposes. The final and most serious phase of the federation movement took place during the 1890s. The terms of federation and of the constitution on which it was based were negotiated in two major constitutional conventions which occurred in 1891 and 1897-98 respectively. The conventions were attended by delegations of Members of Parliament from each of the colonies. The constitution that emerged was approved by referendum in each of the Australian colonies before it came into effect as an Act of the British Parliament. On 1st January 1901, the Australian self-governing colonies became the federated Commonwealth of Australia.
In designing the constitution the framers drew on the constitutional arrangements of both Britain and the United States. After some debate, the principles and institutions of responsible government already in operation in the six colonies were adopted for the new national government: the Commonwealth of Australia. Australian political leaders did not provide for constitutional protection of political rights, similar to the United Kingdom, even though the federal system and the constitutional framework were modelled on those of the United States.
The constituent parts of the Australian federation are the Commonwealth and the six Original States of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania. Australia also has two self-governing mainland territories, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. These territories are not full partners in the federation, but are treated as polities in their own right for many purposes. In addition, there are seven external territories.
In the more than 100 years since federation, Commonwealth (central government) powers have tended to expand through usage and judicial interpretation. The Australian federation relies in part on an extensive network of ministerial councils and a diversity of co-operative schemes designed to co-ordinate legislation and policy. The Commonwealth can intervene in areas solely of state concern, the most sensitive of which include the environment and human rights. Inevitably, these procedures diminish the authority of individual parliaments and enhance the role of executive government.
Over the past several decades, Australia’s main forum for federalism reform has been the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Established in 1992, the members of COAG comprise the prime minister and all state premiers. The Council for the Australian Federation, established in 2006, acts as a spokesperson for the state and territorial governments.