Victoria's Constitution

 

Image of the Constitution

 


Doctrine of the Separation of Powers

This refers to the constitutional separation of the powers and responsibilities of the:

Legislature - the Parliament

Judiciary - Judges and the Courts

Executive - the Ministry or Government


THE Constitution is Victoria's most important document. It defines the powers and responsibilities of the Parliament of Victoria and is entitled the Constitution Act 1975.

The Constitution

The Constitution was drafted in Melbourne by Victoria's first Legislative Council in 1853-4. It was sent to England and approved by the British Parliament in 1855, and was proclaimed in Victoria on 23 November 1855.

The Constitution provided the framework within which parliamentary democracy and responsible government would operate in Victoria.

In particular, it specified that the Parliament of Victoria was to comprise the Crown, a Legislative Council, and a Legislative Assembly.

This structure has never been altered.

The Crown

The Crown is represented in Victoria by the Governor .

All legislation passed jointly by the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council must be approved by the Queen. Indeed, no legislation can be proclaimed until the receipt of such Royal Assent. As Her Majesty's representative in Victoria, the Governor is therefore empowered to provide the necessary Royal Assent for proposed legislation.

In accordance with the Constitution, the Governor is assisted in this responsibility by an Executive Council.

In practical terms, this body comprises current Victorian ministers; a quorum of two ministers and the Governor is sufficient for the Executive Council to proceed. The Executive Council meets, on average, once a week at Old Treasury Building, Spring Street, Melbourne.

It is now accepted practice that the Governor follows the advice of his chief minister the Premier.

Accordingly, the Governor recalls, prorogues, and dissolves Parliament on the recommendation of the Premier.

That relationship is further reflected in the formal Opening of Parliament ceremony in which the Governor reads a statement of the Government's intended legislative program, and declares the new Parliament open.

The Governor resides at Government House, Melbourne. It is here that in-coming and out-going Premiers advise the Governor of the state of political play.

The Legislative Assembly

The Constitution originally provided for 60 Members of the Legislative Assembly (the Lower House) who would represent 37 Electoral Districts.

There are now 88 Members. Each Member represents one Electoral District.

The Constitution specifies that the Legislative Assembly is the seat of Government. The political party, faction, or group that can claim the support of a majority of the Lower House membership forms a ministry. The Government in turn is led by the Premier.

The Opposition comprises the largest party or grouping that does not support the Government.

The Constitution places no limits upon the number of parties, groups, or non-aligned individuals (Independents), who may wish to seek membership of the Parliament. Presently there are three parties represented in the Parliament.

The Constitution provides that the Lower House is the source of all money Bills. Financial management matters concerned with State revenue raising and expenditure, or with the passage of the annual Victorian Budget, must therefore be initiated in the Legislative Assembly.

Members of the Legislative Assembly serve for a minimum of three and for a maximum of four years. During the fourth year of the Government's term, the Premier advises the Governor of the Ministry's preferred General Election date. Provided all is in accordance with the Constitution, the Governor dissolves the Parliament and a General Election for a new Parliament then takes place.

The Legislative Council

There are 40 Members of the Legislative Council, or Upper House. They represent 22 Electoral Provinces with two Legislative Councillors representing each such province.

Originally the Legislative Council comprised 30 Members who, five at a time, represented six large Electoral Provinces.

Legislative Councillors serve for two terms of the Legislative Assembly. At any General Election, half of all Legislative Councillors are constitutionally obliged to submit themselves to the electorate. In this way the Legislative Council, unlike the Legislative Assembly, never formally dissolves.

The Legislative Council serves as a 'Second House' or 'House of Review ' for the Legislative Assembly. Although Legislative Councillors can, and do, initiate legislation, their principal task is to provide 'second opinions' on those Bills and measures proposed by the Lower House.

This bicameral, or two House, system of checks and balances has fundamentally shaped the nature of parliamentary democracy in Victoria. Disagreements between the two houses have resulted in 'deadlocks' and have provoked 'constitutional crises' particularly in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1930s. Such disputes have earned Victoria's Legislative Council the reputation of being one of the most powerful Upper Houses in the world.

Constitutional Change

The details of the Constitution are not irrevocably fixed. As Victoria's social and political circumstances have altered, then so too has the Constitution been adapted to meet new challenges. As with all other parliamentary determinations, this requires the agreement of both Houses.

Parliamentary membership numbers, voter eligibility, payment of members, voting methods, size of the Ministry, electorate numbers and the powers and responsibilities of both Chambers are some of the constitutional provisions that have been modified or altered since 1855.

One of the most important changes took place in 1975. From 1855 until 1975, Victoria's Constitution existed solely as an Act of the British Parliament. On 22 October 1975 the Constitution was proclaimed as an Act of the Parliament of Victoria.

Far from being an historical artefact, the Constitution is therefore central to the way in which democracy operates in Victoria. By defining what is possible, it protects the interests of all Victorians.

Further Reading

Cowen, Z., 'Historical Survey of the Constitution', in C. E. Sayers (ed.), One Hundred Years of Responsible Government in Victoria, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1958.

Serle, A. G., The Golden Age. A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963.

Wright, R., A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992.