This blog post was first published on July 3 2011, and revised on July 9 2015.
On July 9 it will be Constitution Day, when Australia celebrates the date that our Constitution became law in the year 1900. Well, not so much “celebrates”, as “ignores”. Unlike in many other countries, Constitution Day is not a public holiday here, and only a tiny minority of people know of its existence.
This ignorance is not completely our fault. Constitution Day was only brought into being in 2000, and seems to be have been imagined as a one-off event for the Centenary of the Constitution. However, someone or other must have decided this was a bit slack, and it was revived in 2007, so technically we’ve only had a Constitution Day for a few years.
It is the National Archives of Australia in Canberra who organises events for Constitution Day, which includes ceremonial viewings of the original Constitution document – our nation’s “birth certificate”. It is a good opportunity to educate children and adults about our Constitution, as Australians are often more familiar with elements of America’s constitution.
Sir Samuel Griffith is accepted as the principal author of the Australian Constitution. Born in Wales in 1845, his family emigrated to Queensland when he was eight years old. A lawyer and politician, he became Premier of Queensland, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland.
Always a supporter of Federation, he headed the Queensland delegation to the 1891 Sydney Constitutional Convention, where he was appointed vice-president and took a leading role. “It fell to my lot to draw the Constitution,” he wrote, “after presiding for several days on a Committee, and endeavoring to ascertain the general consensus of opinion.”
Naturally there were several drafts to be submitted to committees, and approved in two referenda by the Australian people. More than half a million people in six colonies voted for the Constitution, the first national constitution anywhere in the world to be put to a popular vote. Finally, it was given royal assent by Queen Victoria on July 9 1900.
Sir Samuel Griffith saw the Constitution he helped write enshrined in law, and the Federation he’d worked toward come into being. He was the obvious choice to be the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, where he served admirably and was awarded several honours. In his spare time, he became the first Australian translator of Dante’s Inferno.
After his death in 1920, his name was commemorated by the naming of a suburb of Canberra after him; as well as Griffith University in Queensland (Griffith in New South Wales is named after Arthur Griffith, the state’s first Minister of Public Works). The Samuel Griffith Society is a conservative organisation dedicated to defending the principles of the Constitution.
The Australian Constitution is often praised internationally, because it isn’t the product of war or revolution, but came out of a democratic process of public debate and agreement. Australia had led the way in constitutional development, but unfortunately, we often think of it as rather boring.
It was not so when it was created, but an object of great pride, the beginnings of Australian independence. And many current issues, such as same-sex marriage, the rights of asylum seekers, and the citizenship of terrorism suspects and our prime minister, require an interest in and knowledge of our Constitution.
It’s not a dry old document at all, but a vital, engaging one which is still growing and evolving.
The surname Griffith is an anglicised form of the Welsh name Gruffudd, and this spelling has been in use since the Middle Ages. The meaning of Gruffudd is not certain, but is thought to mean something like “lord with a strong grip”, or “strong lord”.
The name Gruffud was commonly used amongst medieval Welsh royalty, and Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was an 11th-century Welsh ruler who fought against England. (Sir Samuel Griffith, always proud of his Welsh heritage, named his son Llewellyn).
Griffith is a name from our Federation history that’s traditional but still stands out from the crowd. It’s strong, but has a pleasantly soft sound; it looks distinguished and sounds smart, yet doesn’t seem elitist or nerdy. I admit it’s a tiny bit awkward to say, which means Griff as a nickname is almost certain to be used on an everyday basis.
Griffith received an approval rating of 78%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2011. 38% of people thought it was okay, while only 2% hated it.