Why are we called the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’?

Most of us would think that our country is called ‘Australia’. Although, with our penchant for shortening words, these days you often hear us being called ‘Straya’. But if you flip open a copy of our Constitution you’ll notice that our official country name is the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. You might have also heard the federal Government being called the ‘Commonwealth Government’.

Our Constitution was written over a period of about a decade before we federated in 1901. It is said that Henry Parkes, affectionately known as the father of federation, suggested the term ‘Commonwealth’ when the drafting process of the Constitution was beginning. A vote was taken and a substantial majority of the delegates at the 1891 constitutional convention in Sydney accepted the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. The British Colonies that became our six States were not uniting into one country out of fear or after a war, but for the common good. At the later Constitutional Conventions there were other potential names thrown around. In the 1901 Commentaries on the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia Quick and Garran wrote:

Other names were submitted for consideration, such as “United Australia,” “Federated Australia,” “The Australian Dominion,” “The Federated States of Australia,” &c., but the name Commonwealth was generally accepted.

They go on:

According to the derivation of the term from “common” and “weal,” or “wealth” it signified common well-being or common good.

Common good

Many philosophers and thinkers have mused over this term, going right back to ancient Greece. Generally, the common good is defined throughout history as government that operates for the good of all citizens, and is not perverted by special interests, whether those interests be for themselves, interested parties, special interest groups or private goods. Webster Dictionary in 1901 defined Commonwealth:

A Commonwealth is a State consisting of a certain number of men united by compact, or tacit agreement under one form of government and one system of laws. It is applied more appropriately to governments which are considered free or popular, but rarely or improperly to absolute governments. Strictly, it means a government in which the general welfare is regarded rather than the welfare of any particular class.

Webster’s (now known as Merriam Webster) is not as poetic with their definition these days, but the phrase common good is mentioned:

A commonwealth is a nation, state, or other political unit: such as

a)one founded on law and united by compact or tacit agreement of the people for the common good

b)one in which supreme authority is vested in the people


It then goes on to describe different individual uses of the word Commonwealth (with a capital C), and includes the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth or Empire).

You’ll notice that there is a definition of commonwealth as a republic. This meaning for the word ‘commonwealth’ was a concern for some of the people who wrote our Constitution. Speaking about republicanism back then was a sure-fire way to get yourself removed from public life. A few delegates dissented on the vote to call our country the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’:

The only objections raised to it being that it was suggestive of republicanism, owing to its association with the Commonwealth of England, under Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate.

Cromwell’s Protectorate

There was a brief period of British history when they were a republic. It only lasted for just over a decade from 1649 when what we now call Britain was known as the Commonwealth of England and then the Protectorate.

It wasn’t a particularly democratic republic in the sense that we would expect now (you’d more likely describe it as a military dictatorship) and it all kicked off with the execution of King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell was the mastermind behind the coup and took on the role of the Lord Protector of the republic. When Cromwell died in 1658 his son took over that role. However, the army that had supported Cromwell and kept the Government in place didn’t support his son. In May 1660 the restoration of the Monarchy occurred with the underlying principles of Parliamentary democracy.

Hundreds of years later, the people who wrote our Constitution wanted to be clear that our Commonwealth was not associated in anyway with a Cromwellian system of Government.

A federated Australia for the common good

The six British Colonies agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth. This meant that tasks that could be better performed by a federal government for the common good would be undertaken by the Commonwealth Government. The structure of our Government was designed so that the States would still have a role. Most of the powers that the new Australian States handed over to the Commonwealth Government are outlined in Section 51 of the Constitution. Over time as our nationhood has developed the Commonwealth has become more powerful such as through taxation and the external affairs power.

What do Australians want? Do we still have a common goal for our Commonwealth?

Every week there are reports that someone is speaking for ‘real Australians’ or advocating a certain policy position because that’s what ‘Australians’ want. But can we be all chucked in together and asked to define our common goal? Or as a very diverse nation is that impossible? What does it mean to be Australian these days?

It’s certainly very different to when our Constitution was written. We were described as British subjects or more specifically the wording in the Constitution calls us subjects of the Queen. Some Australians might still feel it’s appropriate to be described this way, but many would not feel as though they are the subjects of anyone. We now have Australian citizenship and a more individual outlook on the world. Being an Australian is significantly different than in 1901. But can we come together to decide our common goal or common values?

The Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Border Protection has written a list of Australian values for immigrants to Australia. Those applying for a permanent visa must sign the following statement:

Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good

Does this statement define the values you believe are Australian? Are there other values that should be added? Should all Australians be made aware of this statement? And perhaps we could sign a commitment to Australia when we first enrol to vote.  

A divided Australia?

We are told that Australian communities are polarising and dividing. Why might this be so? How are we dividing?

Fairfax Media and the ANU have recently completed the Political Persona Project where they surveyed 2600 Australians from all walks of life. Instead of the normal left/right divide that we often hear about, they found that there are now seven distinctive political tribes.

What we here at CEFA took a great interest in was the mapping. The people of these tribes were often located together in the same suburbs or areas. This means that the people who live near you, probably also think like you and have the same view on life as you. But this also means that Australians are unlikely to often speak with someone who might challenge their views.

The theory behind such research projects is that if you sit around talking about politics or Australian life with people just like you, then you might tend to think that everyone thinks the same way as you. You then log onto your social media accounts and enter an echo chamber. Facebook serves up the information that you want. Not the information that will challenge you or make you think about things from the perspective of a person from one of the other six political tribes.

We also seem to be dividing in age groups or generations. There was a big hoo-ha a while ago, with a baby boomer publicly criticising millennials who were going out on Sunday morning to eat avocado on toast, instead of saving up for a deposit on a house. ‘Smashed avo’ is now widely used as a way of pointing out the divide in the generations and of people not being able to understand the lived experience of others.

Our Constitution unites us

Every week we bring you news on how the Constitution, as the nation’s rule book, frames something that is happening in Australia. And even now, when we seem to be fracturing as a society, our Constitution reminds us that we are a Commonwealth, formed for the common good. We’re all in this together, whether we are the elected members of Parliament, the judiciary, the media, academics, business leaders, or ordinary Australians who vote. We became the Commonwealth of Australia to make a better society for the good of the people. So let’s keep that in mind whenever we have conversations about important contemporary constitutional issues.


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