1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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This article was contributed by Scott Bennett of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra.


New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland were founded as separate British settlements, and at different times during the eighteenth century they each acquired separate systems of government. Despite this, there was a very early tendency to see them as representing a collective entity: as early as 1817 Governor Lachlan Macquarie had used the term 'Australia' in official documents. In the middle of the nineteenth century there were even a few suggestions in favour of a united system of government, though none of these was pushed as a realistic proposal. Among the suggestions were:

  • 1847 - a despatch from the United Kingdom spoke of the possible need for "a central legislative authority for the whole of the Australian colonies";
  • 1849 - a Privy Council committee recommended that one of the Australian Governors be created 'Governor-General' with power to convene a 'General Assembly of Australia';
  • 1853 - a New South Wales constitutional committee spoke of the need for 'a General Assembly', as did a Victorian parliamentary committee;
  • 1857 - a message to the UK spoke of a 'Federal Assembly'; and
  • 1860 - an attempt was made to convene a conference on federal union.

It was soon clear, however, that what became known as the 'Australian' colonies had much in common: the same language, the same God, the same sovereign. An emerging Australian nationalism was soon obvious, and by the 1880s people began to talk seriously of the possibility of some type of governmental union. Clearly, many Australians agreed with New South Wales Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, that "the crimson thread of kinship runs through us all".

Australian federation was thus partly to do with emotion, but there was also a practical side. During the 1880s serious problems associated with the separate status of the colonies became clear. One of the major Australian concerns was the increase in Chinese immigration which many people saw as a threat to Australian society. Australian governments also became worried about their vulnerability to outside attack, and various Australian fortifications were erected around the coast. Australians were also uneasy about the possibility of European nations establishing colonies close to their shores. Queensland was particularly concerned about German designs on New Guinea. On 4 April 1883 Queensland annexed eastern New Guinea, but this was disallowed by the British Government. When Germany annexed a portion of New Guinea in December 1884, this highlighted Australia's lack of independence.

In 1880 Parkes had raised the possibility of creating a federal council of the colonies "to accustom the public mind to federal ideas", but nothing was done. The concerns over defence gave this added point, and in 1885 the Federal Council of Australasia was established to deal with various matters, including maritime defence and relations with the Pacific islands. The Federal Council met every two years from 1886 to 1899, yet achieved little. It had no money, no executive power, limited legislative power, and no way of ensuring that all colonies would abide by its decisions. New South Wales never joined the Council and South Australia was a member only during 1889-90. Clearly, the Federal Council of Australasia was, in a politician's words, "a contemptible phantom".

Despite a gradual movement towards some type of national union, the colonies still maintained a jealous independence, symbolised by their separate flags. As part of this separate status, each colony maintained its own militia force, but these were small and hardly likely to act as a deterrent to an outside threat. In 1889 a UK-commissioned report recommended the establishment of an Australian defence force capable of acting in unison. For this to be achieved, defence force organisation and legislation needed to be uniform. During a visit to Tenterfield (NSW) later in 1889, Sir Henry Parkes referred to this report when he made a ringing call for "a great national Government for all Australia". The Tenterfield Address, as it became known, was said to have played a part in encouraging a general move towards Australian federation.

Immigration and defence were not the only issues bothering the Australian colonies. Since the 1850s, trade and movement between the colonies were restricted by the existence of tariff barriers. The train trip between Sydney and Melbourne, for example, was held up by the need for passengers' luggage to be checked by customs officers at Albury. According to the American writer Mark Twain, the colonies' tariff system was "the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australasia can show". Victorian Premier James Service warned that this problem was the "lion in the way" of final federation.


By 1890, there was enough interest in federation for the Premiers of NSW and Victoria to call an intercolonial meeting to discuss the issue. Delegates from all colonies, plus New Zealand, met in Melbourne to attend the Australasian Federation Conference. The Conference agreed that the time was right for federation, and it called for the creation of a national convention, which should be "empowered to consider and report upon an adequate scheme for a Federal Constitution".

The 1891 Federation Convention
The 1891 Federation Convention met in Sydney to write a constitution. There were delegates from each colony, plus New Zealand, all chosen by their parliaments. A draft constitution written by a Tasmanian delegate, Andrew Inglis Clark, was a useful starting point for the delegates, and after five weeks work a constitution draft was produced. The driving force behind the work of the Convention was the chair of the Drafting Committee, Sir Samuel Griffith of Queensland, and the final draft was said to have been marked by Griffith's "terse, clear style and force of expression". The main features of the draft were the creation of a federal system, a bicameral parliament, the upper house to be named the 'Senate', and of a superior court with power to declare acts of the Parliament unconstitutional - all of which were included in the final Australian Constitution.

The 1891 draft constitution was not implemented, due largely to opposition in New South Wales, but it later served as the starting point for the Convention of 1897-98.

Popular sentiment for federation
The federation push stalled after New South Wales' refusal to deal with the draft constitution. Over the next few years activity by ordinary Australians began to emerge, seeking to push the politicians back into action. Many 'federation leagues' were formed to influence public opinion, and the first leagues were formed along the New South Wales-Victoria border, where the tariff problem was felt particularly keenly. In Victoria, the Australian Natives' Association friendly society was important in publicising the federation cause. In 1893 some border leagues organised a federation conference at Corowa (NSW) which supported a call for a new federation convention to be held with direct election of delegates and ratification of any final constitution by referendum. The People's Federation Convention was another unofficial Federation conference, organised by the Bathurst Federation League in 1896. This meeting criticised the inadequacy of the Federal Council of Australasia, supported popular election for a Senate and suggested the 1891 draft Constitution as the basis for discussion.

This popular activity put pressure on the politicians. In 1895 the New South Wales Premier, George Reid, called a Premiers' Conference that was held in Hobart in an attempt to renew the movement to federation. The Premiers agreed with the main lines of the Corowa Conference, namely that a popularly-elected convention should be convened to write a new draft, which would then be ratified by referendum. Consequently, legislation for colonial participation in a Federation convention was passed in all colonies except Queensland.

1897-98 Federation Convention
Four years after the Corowa Conference, elections were held in four colonies for delegates to another federation convention. A Western Australian delegation was elected by the Western Australian Parliament. For Queensland, however, it seemed that the price of joining a federation would be the loss of its black (i.e. South Sea Islander) labour system, so the colony refused to take part in the 1897-98 Convention, or the referenda of 1898.

The first session of the 1897-98 Federation Convention was held in Adelaide during March and April 1897, with Edmund Barton (NSW) as leader of the Convention. The delegates used the 1891 draft Constitution as the basis of their work. After the Adelaide meeting all colonial parliaments, except Queensland's, considered the draft, and in September the Convention met in Sydney to consider the amendments proposed by the parliaments.

After the Sydney meeting of the Convention, the New South Wales Parliament increased from 50,000 to 80,000 the number of affirmative votes (of an enrolled figure of about 300,000) required in a referendum for that colony to join a federation. Premier Reid came in for harsh criticism from federalists for his support for this change, which seemed likely to defeat the constitution.

The final session of the Convention was held in Melbourne from January to March 1898. It was here that the Tasmanian Premier inserted the infamous 'Braddon Blot' designed to help the smaller colonies by limiting the amount of revenue from tariffs the Commonwealth could use for its own purposes. Tariff concessions to Western Australia were made to encourage that reluctant colony to join the federation.

The Convention eventually approved a Constitution Bill and agreed that it was to be put to the people in referenda in the various colonies in mid-1898. YES and NO campaigns were waged in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Western Australia stood apart due to concerns about the possible harmful impact of federation upon that colony. The strongest opposition seemed to be found in New South Wales, where Premier Reid criticised the draft Constitution, but said he would still vote for it in the referendum. He quickly became known as 'Yes-No' Reid. The New South Wales Attorney-General, Jack Want, fought fiercely to defeat the Constitution: "Get within the castiron clutch of this Constitution and you are sold body and soul to these other colonies … and New South Wales is gone forever".

Despite such vociferous opposition, YES majorities were secured in all four colonies, though the New South Wales total was below the required 80,000 votes, so the referendum failed in that colony. With this result it was pointless for the other colonies to proceed, for federation without the largest colony would fail.

Final success
In an effort to avoid another failure, a special Premiers' Conference was held to consider alterations to the Constitution Bill. Dubbed the 'secret' Premier's Conference due to its being closed to the media and the public, the changes it made largely met the objections of opponents in New South Wales. One change was the decision that the federal capital would be within the borders of New South Wales, but no closer than 100 miles (160.9 km) from Sydney.

A second round of referenda was now held in 1899 in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Western Australia still refused to participate. YES majorities were secured in all. Queensland attended the 'secret' Premiers' Conference, but announced that it would not conduct a referendum if New South Wales rejected the Constitution Bill a second time. Once the 1899 New South Wales results were known, Queensland moved to give its people the chance to have their say, and they indicated their support with a clear YES majority.


First vote (1898)

Second vote (1899, 1900)


New South Wales
South Australia
Western Australia

Source: Scott Bennett, Department of the Parliamentary Library.

An Australian delegation travelled to London to oversee the Constitution Bill's passage through the UK Parliament. During that time, when there were British attempts to introduce amendments, the Australian delegates strongly defended the Bill in the form that had been approved by the Australian people. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the UK Parliament on 5 July and received Royal Assent on 14 July 1900.

Delays in Western Australia, caused by the colonial Government's doubts, meant that Western Australian voters had not had a chance to vote in a referendum on the Constitution Bill before it was sent to the UK. Various local Western Australian bodies urged that a referendum be held, including a 'separation for federation' movement, based on Albany, which threatened to secede from Western Australia if the Government did not act. Western Australians eventually voted, a fortnight after the Constitution had become law in the UK. The majority came largely from votes cast on the eastern goldfields, many of which were cast by 'T'othersiders' who had come from other colonies.

The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed by Queen Victoria on 17 September 1900, and on 21 September the Earl of Hopetoun was appointed the first Governor-General. The Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated on 1 January 1901 in a ceremony in Centennial Park, Sydney, that included the singing of 'Advance Australia Fair' as well as 'God Save the Queen'. Governor-General Hopetoun was sworn in, followed by the first Commonwealth Government, led by Edmund Barton.

The first Commonwealth elections were held in March 1901, and on 9 May the Duke of York opened the first Commonwealth Parliament in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne.

Following a design competition that drew 32,823 entries, a flag for the new nation was flown for the first time in Melbourne on 3 September. It caused controversy, especially in New South Wales, due to its similarity to the Victorian flag. Many Australians in fact still regarded the Union Jack as the national flag.

Despite this, the patriots' cry of "One People, One Destiny" had been achieved.