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Federation Facts - The Federation Story

The Federal Ideal

Australasian Federal ConferenceOn 1 January, 1901, in Centennial Park in Sydney, a great and solemn ceremony took place. In that moment, Australia's six colonies were joined together in one 'indissoluble federal Commonwealth'. But Federation did not happen overnight. It was the result of years of discussion, hard work and determination.

(Picture: The Australasian Federal Conference, 1890)

Proposals for uniting the colonies were in circulation for decades before Federation was achieved. As early as 1842, years before Victoria and Queensland had even separated from the 'mother colony' New South Wales, the idea of a 'federal authority' was first raised. Four years later, Governor Fitzroy sent a New South Wales proposal for a federal scheme to the British authorities. The British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, immediately followed with his own suggestions for a 'General Assembly' of the colonies. Then, over the next 10 years, parliamentary committees to look into Federation sprang up in the colonies. In the meantime, intercolonial conferences were meeting regularly, sometimes several times a year. Why all this activity?

The fact was, despite the colonies having separate and independent political systems, they also had many interests and concerns in common: postal services; lighthouses; immigration; quarantine; railways; rivers; defence; and tariffs. Some of the colonies levied customs duties on imports, including 'imports' from the other colonies. This created barriers for the sale of goods from one colony to another, as well as causing irritation to travellers who crossed colonial borders and making fellow Australians feel that they were foreigners. Tariffs became the source of the greatest intercolonial friction, and policy differences on tariffs were the principal dividing lines between the political parties. Solving the intercolonial trade problem became one of the biggest challenges for advocates of Federation.

From the 1840s on, scarcely a year passed without some serious discussion of Federation. Children were born and grew to old age hearing proposals to federate the colonies before the vision became anything like a reality.

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First steps

In 1839, a young immigrant arrived in Sydney with his wife and new-born child. Although he had little formal education, he quickly became immersed in colonial politics, first as a journalist and newspaper proprietor, then as a member of the colonial legislature. He would go on to be five-times Premier of New South Wales and to earn the title 'Father of Federation'. His name was Henry Parkes.

Many years were to pass, however, before Parkes took up the Federation baton. In 1867, at an intercolonial conference, he suggested that there should be a 'Federal Council', a type of incomplete federal arrangement, where the colonies could agree to pass certain uniform laws. Parkes spoke of the distant vision of 'six young giants' leaving their footprints in the early morning dew. It was an early expression of the idea that Federation was not just a matter of convenience, but might also be for nation-building. Parkes' proposal came to nothing at that time. But it left its own footprint, as an important step in the growth of the federal idea.

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The crucial decade

Henry Parkes

(Picture: Henry Parkes)

By 1880, Parkes was Premier of New South Wales and at yet another intercolonial conference, he again proposed a Federal Council. Very soon, the need for such a body became more urgent. Concerns about Germany's interest in New Guinea led the Queensland government in 1883 to attempt to annexe that territory in the name of Britain. Much to the alarm of the Australians, Britain denounced Queensland's action. An intercolonial convention met later that year to discuss Australian strategies for the South Pacific. There, they finally resolved to form a Federal Council. The Council was formally created in 1885. It had the power to make suggestions for common legislation in a range of matters. It proved a useful forum for intercolonial meetings and discussion, but from the start it was hampered by lack of funds and lack of authority. Most significantly, several of the colonies, including New South Wales, refused to join, or joined only briefly. Parkes had made up his mind by then that only full Federation would satisfy.

Other intercolonial issues, including the goal of a 'white Australia', were building in those years, and a report on the state of the colonies' defences in 1889 urged immediate Federation to ensure Australia's security. At the same time, communications and transport systems were rapidly expanding, and a distinctive style of Australian literature, art and journalism was emerging. The proportion of people born in Australia now greatly out-numbered those who had migrated here. Australian national sentiment was on the rise.

In this atmosphere, Henry Parkes began his campaign to unite the colonies. In 1889, he gave the 'Tenterfield Oration', calling for a Convention of Australia's leading men to discuss Federation. Within four months, following strenuous negotiations among the colonial Premiers, the first Federation Conference took place.

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Action at last

James Service

(Picture: James Service)

The Australasian Federation Conference met in Melbourne on 6 February 1890. That night, at the Conference banquet, former Victorian Premier, Sir James Service, warned the delegates that there was a 'lion in the path' - the intercolonial tariff - that would kill Federation if they did not kill it first. Sir Henry Parkes followed, giving one of his most memorable speeches. He told his audience to forget about the 'lion' and to focus instead on the 'crimson thread of kinship' that ran through all Australians. The Conference wound up 10 days later with a commitment to achieving Federation and to holding a full Convention at which a Constitution for a federal Australia would be written.

Sir Samuel Griffith

(Picture: Sir Samuel Griffith)

That Convention took place in Sydney one year later. With representatives from each of the colonial parliaments, including New Zealand, it met from 2 March to 9 April 1891. Over the three-day Easter break, a small drafting committee led by Queensland's Premier Sir Samuel Griffith sailed up the Hawkesbury River in the government launch, the Lucinda, working on revisions to the draft Constitution. Back in Sydney, their work was debated and completed. Importantly, it was agreed that there would be no internal tariffs in a future federated Australia. The delegates went home with a commitment to putting the Constitution through their colonial parliaments. It seemed that Federation was just around the corner.

Q.G.S Lucinda

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(Picture: Q.G.S. Lucinda)

The politicians' delay awakens the people

The Constitution had been completed but the parliaments did not adopt it. Some politicians thought it relatively unimportant and wanted to deal with other matters. In some colonies there was delay due to elections or changes in government. Almost immediately, a great Depression hit the colonies and the fortunes and careers of many men, including many politicians, were ruined. Federation went onto the back-burner as economic reconstruction took priority.

In some regions the desire for Federation did not fade. Those who lived along the Murray River border experienced the inconvenience of colonial separation almost daily. Those who crossed from New South Wales into Victoria had to open their luggage for customs inspection, and pay the tariff on any 'exports'. In the Riverina and in northern Victoria, the 'war' between Sydney and Melbourne over rail freight rates and control of the river water, had caused frustration among farmers for decades. In late 1892, a New South Wales Member of Parliament, Edmund Barton, visited the Riverina and encouraged its people to form citizens' Federation Leagues. The Australian Natives' Association - an organisation of white men born in Australia - was excited by this proposal. It quickly assisted the establishment of such Leagues. Within six months there was a central Australasian Federation League in Sydney. By the end of the 1890s, leagues were to be found in cities and country towns in virtually every region of Australia.

Customs House at Wahgunya

(Picture: Customs House at Wahgunya)

On 31 July, 1893, the leagues held a conference in the New South Wales border town of Corowa. It was to change the direction of Federation and restore the federal movement to life. Attended by many official, as well as unofficial, representatives from both Victoria and New South Wales, the Corowa conference wound up on 1 August, with a resolution - the 'Corowa Plan' - which suggested that there should be direct, popular involvement in the Federation processes. A new convention should be held, but this time the delegates should be directly elected. Then the newly-written Constitution should be put to a referendum in every colony before it was adopted by the parliaments. This would be the first time in the world that the electors were to take part in a nation-making process. In New South Wales, one year later, new Premier George Reid decided that he liked this plan, and he quickly persuaded the other Premiers to come together to discuss it. The Premiers' Conference met in Hobart, in January 1895. There they adopted the Corowa Plan, and committed their colonies to a new convention. Things were moving again.

George Reid

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(Picture: George Reid))


It still took some time for the parliaments to carry out the Premiers' plan. Once more, supporters of Federation grew anxious. In Bathurst in New South Wales, a Federation League was quickly formed and a People's Federal Convention held, in November 1896. Many politicians, as well as representatives from numerous organisations, attended. The Convention discussed the draft Constitution of 1891, and urged the politicians to hold the promised constitutional convention. Within two months, elections for 10 delegates each were announced in four colonies, taking place in March 1897. In Western Australia, the parliament elected its 10. Queensland's Houses of Parliament disagreed over the method of choosing delegates and in the end, that colony was not represented at the new convention. New Zealand had by now dropped out of the process.

Premiers' Conference, 1896

(Picture: Premiers' Conference, 1896)

The Convention met in Adelaide, on 22 March 1897. Many of the colonies' leading politicians, including seventeen veterans of the 1891 Convention, had been elected. Henry Parkes had died in April 1896, but other 'fathers' had stepped into his shoes: men like Edmund Barton, Charles Kingston, Alfred Deakin, Sir John Forrest, Sir Edward Braddon, Isaac Isaacs and George Reid. Their great political and legal experience was invaluable to the proceedings. Bendigo's John Quick, author of the Corowa plan, was also an elected delegate. By the end of April, a complete new Constitution had been drafted. It was then sent to the colonial parliaments for their comments while the Convention adjourned.

The second session of the Convention met in Sydney in September that year and began considering the numerous amendments suggested by the parliaments. A third session, running from 20 January to 17 March 1898, met in Melbourne in such searing heat that historians have wondered how they managed to do any work at all. It wound up with a full new draft Constitution which incorporated, as far as possible, the suggested amendments and tried to provide for all the different colonial interests.

Dr. John Quick

(Picture: Dr John Quick))

Referendums asking the voters to approve the Constitution as a whole were held in June 1898 in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia. A favourable majority was recorded in all the colonies. But the referendum was defeated in New South Wales because the Yes votes failed to reach the requisite number. Defeat in the 'mother colony' meant that Federation was now stalled again. To some it seemed that all the years of work and progress might be wasted.

Isaac Isaacs

(Picture: Isaac Isaacs))

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This time things moved quickly again. Premier George Reid suggested a meeting of all the Premiers, including Queensland's. Although reluctant at first, they came together in Melbourne in January 1899. There they agree to make several changes to the Constitution, including granting the federal capital to New South Wales. The amended Constitution was put to a second round of referendums between April and July that year, with Queensland finally holding its referendum on 2 September. The campaigns were exciting events, with pro- and anti-Federation organisations formed in all the colonies, and great public interest. The referendums were successful. Only Western Australia still held off.

The Constitution, written by elected delegates, had now been approved by the voters and it was quickly passed by the parliaments. One step remained. The Constitution needed legal authority. This would be provided by an Act of the British Parliament.

Delegates to England

(Picture: Delegates to England. Hon. A Deakin, Hon. E. Barton, Hon. J.R. Dickson, Hon. Sir P.O. Fysh, Hon. C.C. Kingston)

In early 1900, a small delegation of Australian federal leaders took the Constitution with them to London. There they spent nearly four months in discussion and debate with the British who were now seeking to amend it. The Australians resisted most of the proposed amendments, and finally came to a satisfactory compromise on the one great sticking point, appeals from Australian courts to Britain's Privy Council. When the compromise was agreed, Alfred Deakin, Charles Kingston and Edmund Barton joined hands and danced around in a ring to express their joy.

The Constitution was passed by both Houses of Britain's Parliament and received the royal assent on 9 July 1900. Federation was now a certainty. On 31 July, to everyone's great relief, Western Australia finally held a referendum, and its voters (both men and women) agreed to be part of the Commonwealth.

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Lord Hopetoun(Picture: Lord Hopetoun, Australia's first Governor- General))

Final steps

With the political and legal processes completed, several tasks remained. Australia's first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, was appointed. He then commissioned the first (transitional) Ministry, with Edmund Barton as the first Prime Minister. This Ministry would have the job of setting in train the first federal election (held in March 1901) and arranging the opening of the first federal parliament (on 9 May 1901). The inauguration celebrations had to be organised and the first activities of the new Commonwealth planned. Incredibly, all of this was achieved in less than six months.

Flying Australian Flag

(Picture: Flying Australian Flag, Australia Building, London 1901)

Federation, long talked-about, dreamed of, and hard-fought, was now accomplished. As we celebrate its 100th birthday in 2001, the Federation story seems every bit as remarkable as it did to those who lived through it. It is Australia's story.

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