Lower to middle secondary
Students participate in classroom activities to explore the concept of a preamble to a constitution. They apply this information to Australia's preamble and write a new preamble.
Three to four sessions
- text of the preamble to the Australian Constitution (see below)
- access to or downloads of information from Internet sites (sources listed below)
- poster-size paper
What is a preamble?
A preamble to a constitution is a short piece of text designed to introduce the constitution. Preambles are also used in other documents, most notably in Acts of Parliament.
Why is a preamble necessary?
A constitution forms the most basic law of an organisation, nation or state. By their very nature, constitutions are often long and extremely detailed Ñ after all they are subject to intense legal and moral scrutiny and must stand the test of time. While a preamble has limited legal authority, it is the first part of the document usually read. As such, it serves to explain the nature of the system and the vision of the people.
Do all constitutions have preambles?
Many do. Australia, however does not have a preamble to the Constitution itself. The text commonly referred to is the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 which was passed by the British Parliament to give the new Constitution legal force.
Does a new Australian constitution need a new preamble?
A new constitution for Australia will need to be enacted as an Act of the Australian Commonwealth Parliament as a result of a referendum of the people. The existing preamble is a part of an Act of the British Parliament and would no longer apply. Many people believe that it would be desirable to draft a newer, more complete version of the preamble to reflect contemporary Australia.
1. Introducing constitutional preambles
Divide the class into groups of four to six and provide them with markers and poster-size paper. Have them list everything they know about constitutions in two columns:
- What is a constitution?
- The Australian Constitution
When they have finished, have the groups share their information with the class.
If your students are unfamiliar with the Australian Constitution, provide time for them to examine copies. These are available online at http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/Constitution .
Discuss the textual elements of constitutions including:
- the formal language
- the detailed description of the system of government
- the sectional layout (chapters, numbered sections and sub-sections)
Point out the preamble or introductory section of the Constitution and display a copy of the text (see below). Explain that preambles are used to introduce the constitution, and that the constitutions of most nations have preambles.
2. What do preambles say?
While there is no one model or form for preambles, many have common features. Discuss these features with the class.
- The source of authority for the Constitution. Who has decided that this most basic law has the power over all other laws in a nation or state?
- The history of the Constitution. Who wrote it, when and why.
- A summary or description of the main ideas of the legal system the Constitution is describing.
- The aims or values of the people and the system.
- Statements about beliefs of the people to encourage unity in the country.
- The preambles are written in the present verb tense.
As a research task students might use an internet search engine to find the constitutional preambles of other nations. Students should examine the preambles to indentify any of the features listed above and list any other key elements.
A copy of the preamble to the constitution of the United States of America can be found at www.usconstitution.net/xconst_preamble.html
Display the Australian preamble and identify its features. Point out that the Australian preamble:
- draws its authority from the people of the colonies. Note that there is no mention of the people of Western Australia who hadn't yet voted to join the Federation when the Act was presented. The two mainland territories were not established until after Federation;
- includes a blessing from God which was a result of a petition presented at the Australian Constitutional Convention in 1898;
- recognises the legislative power of the British Parliament which includes the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons;
- mentions the power of the Constitution to create an indissoluble federal parliament as a part of the British Commonwealth.
Compare the features of this preamble to any others examined. Have them suggest ideas or features that might be added or considered in drafting a new preamble. List student suggestions on the board for later reference. Ideas might include statements about Australia's diverse population, our Indigenous peoples, democracy and our history.
3. Writing a preamble
Ask students to decide whether they would like to write a preamble individually or with a group. Have them use the following outline to organise their ideas before drafting their preamble. The preamble should be brief (no more than 500 words).
- Who does this Constitution represent? (source of authority)
- How did it come into being? (the history)
- What is it setting up? (the system)
- What does the Constitution hope to achieve? (aims)
- What does it say about democracy?
- What does it say about the people of the nation?
Have students share their drafts with classmates for comments.
The Preamble to the Australian Constitution
Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia,
Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God,
have agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth
under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,
and under the Constitution hereby established:
And whereas it is expedient to provide for the admission into the Commonwealth
of other Australasian colonies and possessions of the Queen:
Be it therefore enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with
the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons,
in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:
Students can compare the preamble that they developed with the one presented in the referendum on the constitution on 6 November 1999. The preamble put to, and rejected by Australian voters at that referendum is available on this website in the classroom activity: Fast Facts: The 1999 Referendum