The first Constitutional Convention was held in Sydney in March 1891 to consider a draft Constitution for the proposed federation of the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. There were 46 delegates at the Convention, chosen by the seven colonial parliaments. Among the delegates was Sir Henry Parkes, known as the "Father of Federation." The Convention approved a draft largely written by Sir Samuel Griffith, but the colonial parliaments failed to act to ratify it.
The second Constitutional Convention was held in stages in 1897-98. It met first in Adelaide in March 1897, secondly in Sydney in August, and thirdly in Melbourne in the sweltering heat of January 1898. The intervals between the sessions were used for intense debate in the colonial parliaments and for public discussion of the draft Constitution.
Since 1891 New Zealand had lost interest in federating with the Australian colonies, and was not represented. In Queensland, the parliament had not passed the necessary legislation, so the northern colony was also unrepresented. In the other five colonies ten delegates from each colony were elected by the people, although Western Australian attendance was sporadic. At Melbourne the Convention finally produced a draft Constitution which was eventually approved by the poeple at referendums in the colonies.
The third Constitutional Convention was established by the Whitlam government in 1973 to consider possible amendments to the Constitution which could be put to the people for approval at a referendum. The Convention, which was not elected but consisted of delegates chosen by the federal and state Parliaments, met through 1973-75 but was mired in the partisan atmosphere of the Whitlam years and achieved nothing.
The fourth Constitutional Convention (ironically known as "Con-Con") met in Canberra in February 1998. The Convention was convened by Prime Ministr John Howard, himself a monarchist, to fulfill a promise made by his predecessor as Liberal leader, Alexander Downer.
The Convention consisted of 152 delegates, of whom half were elected by the people and half were appointed by the federal government. Senior federal, state and territory politicians were delegates by virtue of their positions.
The Convention was divided into four groups: those wanting to retain Australia's existing constitutional monarchy, those wanting Australia to become a republic with a President chosen by the Parliament ("indirect electionists"), those wanting Australia to become a republic with a President elected by the people ("direct electionists"), and those having no fixed position or seeking a compromise between the other groups.
The Convention eventually opted for the indirect election model, over the bitter opposition of the direct electionists. At the 1999 referendum the proposed amendments to the Constitution were rejected.
The State of South Australia is currently holding a Constitutional Convention to draw up a new constitution for the state.
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