Debates that shaped the nation: Federation fast facts
At the end of the 1800s, Australia was divided into six separate colonies instead of being one nation. But people had been talking for years about whether Australia should be one nation, and in the 1890s a series of meetings (called conventions or conferences) was held to discuss federation of the colonies.
The Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had announced in 1889 that the time had come to form a national parliament and government. There were many who did not agree, but by 1891 there was a convention held in Sydney to write a federal constitution. This was then sent back to the colonial parliaments for approval. But at the same time, Parkes was losing the leadership of NSW and the issue of federation was no longer a top priority. Without the largest colony, the others could not proceed towards federation.
In 1893, a conference was held in Corowa on the Murray River and attended by politicians from NSW and Victoria, business representatives from Melbourne and people from Victorian branches of the Australian Natives Association, an organisation which wanted federation. John Quick, a lawyer from Bendigo, suggested that the whole process should start again, but with the people electing delegates to a new conference, which would then write a constitution and put it back to the people at referendums. His scheme was accepted enthusiastically by the conference.
There was then a meeting of colonial premiers in 1895 in Hobart and Quick's scheme was accepted by New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. However, Western Australia's parliament agreed only that it would elect delegates to a convention (rather than having the people elect them) and Queensland could not agree and was eventually not represented at the convention at all.
In 1897, elections were held to choose delegates to attend a convention to draw up a constitution. The convention was held in three sessions in three places: Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. This draft constitution was then put to the people at referendums. People in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania voted twice. The first time all four colonies voted 'yes' but the vote was not high enough in NSW to satisfy the level set by the parliament. As a result, some changes were made to the proposed constitution and the vote was taken again. This time, the NSW 'yes' vote was high enough and the referendum was put to voters in Queensland and Western Australia, who also voted 'yes'.
Some of the delegates then had to take the draft constitution to London, so that it could be passed by the British Parliament. After some debate and argument in London it was passed. As a result, the Australian Constitution is in the form of an Act of the British Parliament. As it happened, Western Australia was not mentioned in the preamble to this Act, because Western Australia voted later than the other colonies and was too late to be included.
The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901 at a ceremony at Centennial Park in Sydney.
Arguments in favour of Federation
- All the colonies were British and most white people spoke English.
- School systems (which had begun in the 1880s) were teaching patriotic songs, stories and verses.
- Many people moved between the colonies to find work.
- Customs duties hindered trade between the colonies.
- Laws could be enforced better if accused people could not escape to a neighbouring colony.
- Sporting teams had begun to represent Australia. Such a cricket team in 1877 had beaten England in a Test match.
- Popular writers such as Henry Lawson were writing about Australia as a land and nation made by the struggles of ordinary people.
- Germany and France had colonies in New Guinea and the Pacific Islands and could pose a threat. Each Australian colony only had a small armed force.
- Influential politicians were strongly in favour of Federation and travelled the country giving speeches about it.
Arguments against Federation
- New South Wales and Victoria were more powerful than the other colonies.
- Each colony had its own characteristics that might be lost after Federation.
- All the colonies already had parliaments of their own.
- Federation would be expensive to achieve and a federated country would be expensive to run.
- The colonies had different policies about immigration, trade and other matters.
- Customs duties protected factories in the smaller colonies from goods made in factories in the larger colonies.
The issue of trade
One of the big issues about Federation concerned trade. People found it annoying that they had to pay customs duties to take goods over the borders between colonies.
Victoria had a policy of high duties so that it could protect its industries from overseas competition. New South Wales had a policy of low duties so that the cost of goods could be kept as low as possible and to encourage trade.
New South Wales and Victoria, as the two largest colonies, were jealous of each other. Although they could agree that it would be better to have free trade within a new nation of Australia they could not agree about what to do about goods coming from overseas. Should they be taxed (in an effort to protect local industries) or should there be completely free trade?
The smaller colonies also had policies of protection but their customs duties were not as large as those of Victoria. This made New South Wales suspicious about joining a federation. As well, some people in New South Wales thought that since it was the oldest and largest colony, the other colonies should become part of New South Wales if they wanted to become one country.
The issue of free trade versus protectionism threatened to stand in the way of Federation for some time in the 1890s. But it was resolved by leaving the issue to be decided after Federation had taken place.
A timeline of events at the time of Federation is available in one of the other classroom activities.
A collection of websites, books, CD-ROMs and videos provides more resources about Federation.
Back to Centenary of Federation: Debates that shaped the nation
Australia before 1901
Today Australia is one country, or nation, which is divided into six separate states and two territories. Whilst Australia's official head of state is the British monarch, Australia now has its own parliaments and is basically an independent nation. This has only been the case since Federation in 1901.
Before Federation, Australia's six states were separate colonies, all of which were considered part of Britain. Each state operated independently and had its own defence forces, its own trade, postal and railway systems and its own immigration laws.
How did the idea of Federation emerge?
As the colonies became more established throughout the 19th century they began to develop stronger trade relations with each other. As telegraph lines and railway networks spread from border to border, communication and travel between colonies became easier and more common. These things led to a growing sense of fellowship amongst people living throughout Australia and together they became aware of being distinct, in some ways, from Britain.
In the middle of the century, the gold rush attracted many people to Australia who brought with them new ideas and awareness of changes taking place throughout the world. Some immigrants inspired discussions about democracy and nationhood in the Australian colonies. One theme discussed was the idea of federation: the act of joining the colonies together to form a single nation. Other countries like Canada and Italy had done this not long before.
One person who was enthusiastic about federation was Sir Henry Parkes, a New South Wales politician (see image 1). As the premier of that colony, Parkes used his influence to gain public support for the idea. Other premiers supported him, as did some newspapers. Organisations were formed to help bring about federation.
Arguments against Federation
Other organisations formed to argue against federation. They felt that it would be expensive to set up and that the new central parliament would also be costly to run, which would make taxes higher.
Some people had patriotic feelings towards their own colony and negative feelings towards others. People living in the smaller colonies were worried that the federated nation would be dominated by the wealthy and powerful colonies, New South Wales and Victoria, who would disadvantage them in trade relations. On the flip side, people in those two colonies also felt they would be disadvantaged because they would be saddled with the financial problems of the smaller states.
New South Wales opponents of federation worried that a federal government would have relaxed immigration laws, which would allow more non-white people to come to Australia. They argued that they had a better chance of remaining a white colony on their own. They were also jealous of Victoria and worried that Melbourne would become the federation's capital city.
Arguments for Federation
The immigration issue was used on both sides of the argument. Supporters of federation argued that a central government could make uniform immigration laws to keep non-white people out of the whole country. They also pointed out that a single Australian nation could have one large defence force, which would be better able to protect the continent than six small defence forces.
As well as the advantage of a single defence force, the federation supporters argued that a federal government could control postal and rail services, which would make services uniform across the country. This would make those systems more effective.
Supporters highlighted, at the same time, the common British heritage of the mainstream populations of each colony and the growing independence of each colony from the 'mother country'. They wanted federation to cement this independence but made it clear that the new nation would remain part of the British Empire.
How Federation came into being
Throughout the 1890s a number of events were held at which people discussed federation. They worked out details about how the new nation and its government would work and what it would be called. They drafted and re-drafted a constitution for a federal government.
In the last few years of the 19th century, voters were given a say in the matter. Referenda were held in each of the colonies and voters - which by this time included women and Aboriginal men in some places - voted for or against federation.
By 1900 it was clear that most people in the colonies were enthusiastic about federation. The British government agreed to it that year. The new nation, the Commonwealth of Australia, came into being on 1 January 1901.