Closer Look – Federation [PDF 2.11Mb, 15 pages]
Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901 when six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania—united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. This process is known as federation.
Australia's federation came about through a process of deliberation, consultation and debate, unlike many other nations that unified as a result of war or conflict. Federation only went ahead with the approval of the people in a referendum (vote of the people).
Reasons for federation
Before 1901 Australia did not exist as a nation. It was a collection of six British colonies which were partly self-governing, but under the law-making power of the British Parliament. The colonies were almost like six separate countries; for example, each had its own government and laws, its own defence force, issued its own stamps and collected tariffs (taxes) on goods that crossed its borders. The colonies had even built railways using different gauges, which complicated the transport of goods across the continent.
By the 1880s the inefficiency of this system, a growing unity among colonists and a belief that a national government was needed to deal with issues such as trade, defence and immigration saw popular support for federation grow. Sir Robert Garran, who was active in the federation movement, later reflected that the colonies were united by a combination of 'fear, national sentiment and self-interest'.
This sketch from the Illustrated Australian News, 2 July 1877, reflects contemporary fears the Australian colonies would be 'over-run' by Asian immigration
National Library of Australia, an8870597
Prior to federation, the colonies were ill-equipped to defend themselves. Each colony had its own militia consisting of a small permanent force and volunteers, but they all relied on the British navy to periodically patrol the vast Australian coastline. Increasingly, people feared the Australian colonies could be vulnerable to attack from nations such as Germany, France and Russia who had already colonised parts of the Pacific.
Australia's position as a sparsely-populated continent close to Asia also gave rise to concerns that countries such as China and Japan, with their larger populations and greater military might, could overrun the colonies. Alfred Deakin, then Chief Secretary of Victoria, warned: 'The Asiatic wave which has threatened to engulf us is only suspended for a short time, but if the colonies do not federate our comparatively trifling white population will be swept before it like a feather'.
The argument that a united defence force could better protect Australia was strengthened by a report released in 1889 by British Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards. It found that the colonies did not have enough soldiers, arms or even ammunition to adequately defend themselves. The report recommended a federal or centralised defence force be established.
Today Australia is a multicultural nation; however, in the late 19th century many people wanted to maintain the British heritage of the colonies.
To some extent, this desire was prompted by concerns 'cheap' non-white labour would compete with colonists for jobs, leading to lower wages and a reduced standard of living. These anxieties stemmed partly from anti-Chinese sentiment dating back to the gold-fields of the 1850s. They also reflected resentment towards Pacific Islanders who worked for low pay in Queensland's sugar industry.
Racial conflict was seen as an inevitable consequence of a multicultural society. It was felt a national government would be in a better position than the colonies to restrict and control immigration.
Colonists mostly shared a common language, culture and heritage, and increasingly began to identify as Australian rather than British. New South Wales Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, referred to this as 'the crimson thread of kinship that runs through us all'.
In fact, by the time of federation over three-quarters of the population were Australian-born. Many people moved between the colonies to find work and sporting teams had begun to represent Australia. In 1899 soldiers from the colonies who went to the Boer War in South Africa served together as Australians. The shift was apparent in contemporary songs and poems which celebrated Australia and Australians.
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