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The federation of Australia was the process by which the six separate British self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia formed a federation. When the Constitution of Australia came into force, on 1 January 1901, the colonies collectively became states of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The efforts to bring about federation in the mid-19th century were dogged by the lack of popular support for the movement. A number of conventions were held during the 1890s to develop a constitution for the Commonwealth. Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, was instrumental in this process. Fiji and New Zealand were originally part of this process, but decided not to join the federation.

Sir Edmund Barton was the caretaker Prime Minister of Australia at the inaugural 1901 federal election at which he retained the Prime Ministership.


The Federal Idea


Federal Council

A serious movement for federation of the colonies arose in the late 1880s, a time when there was increasing nationalism amongst Australians, the great majority of whom were native born. The idea of being "Australian" began to be celebrated in songs and poems. This was fostered by improvements in transport and communications, such as the establishment of a telegraph between the colonies in 1872. The Australian colonies were also influenced by other federations which had emerged around the world, notably the United States, Canada and Switzerland.

Sir Henry Parkes, then the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, first proposed a Federal Council body in 1867. After it was rejected by the Secretary of the State for the Colonies, the Duke of Buckingham, Parkes brought up the issue again at a conference in 1880, this time as the Premier of New South Wales. At the conference, representatives from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia considered a number of issues including federation, communication, Chinese immigration, vine diseases and uniform tariff rates. Federation had the potential to ensure that throughout the continent, trade and commerce would be unaffected by protectionism and measurement and transport would be standardised.

The final and successful push for the Federal Council came at a conference in 1883, called to debate the strategies needed to counter the activities of the German and French in New Guinea and New Caledonia. Samuel Griffith, the Premier of Queensland, drafted a Bill to constitute the Federal Council. The conference successfully petitioned the Imperial Parliament to enact the bill as the Federal Council of Australasia Act 1885.[1]

As a result, a Federal Council of Australasia was formed, to represent the affairs of the colonies in their relations with the South Pacific islands. New South Wales and New Zealand did not join. The self-governing colonies of Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria, as well as the Crown Colonies of Western Australia and Fiji, became involved. South Australia was briefly a member between 1888 and 1890. The Federal Council had powers to legislate directly upon certain matters, such as in relation to extradition, regulation of fisheries and so on, but it did not have a permanent secretariat, executive powers or revenue of its own. Furthermore, the absence of the powerful colony of New South Wales weakened its representative value.

Nevertheless, it was the first major form of intercolonial cooperation. It provided an opportunity for federalists from around the country to meet and exchange ideas. The means by which the Council was established endorsed the continuing role that the Imperial Parliament would have in the development of Australia's constitutional landscape. In terms of the Federal Council of Australia Act, the Australian drafters established a number of powers dealing with their "common interest" which would later be replicated in the Australian Constitution, especially section 51.


The individual colonies were somewhat wary of federation. Smaller colonies in particular were wary of delegating power to a national government which they feared would be dominated by the more populous New South Wales and Victoria. Queensland feared the advent of national legislation (see White Australia Policy), which would restrict the importation of kanakas labourers and jeopardise its sugar cane industry.

Smaller colonies also worried about the abolition of tariffs, which would deprive them of a large proportion of their revenue, and leave their commerce at the mercy of the larger states. New South Wales wanted to be satisfied that the federation's tariff policy would not be protectionist. Victorian Premier James Service described fiscal union as "the lion in the way" of federation. A further fundamental issue was how to distribute the excess customs duties from the central government to the states. For the larger colonies there was the possibility that they could be required to subsidise the struggling economies of Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.

Furthermore, there was debate about the form of government that a federation would take. Experience of other federations was less than inspiring. In particular, the United States had experienced the traumatic American Civil War.

The nascent Australian labour movement was mixed in its support for federation. On the one hand, nationalist sentiment was strong within the labour movement and there was much support for the idea of White Australia. On the other hand labour representatives feared that federation would distract attention from the need of social and industrial reform, and further entrench the power of the conservative forces. The federal conventions included no representatives of organised labour. The proposed federal constitution was criticised by labour representatives as being too conservative. They wanted to see a federal government with more power to legislate on issues such as wages and prices. They also regarded the proposed Senate as much too powerful, potentially a reactive chamber that would block attempts at social and political reform, much as the colonial upper houses were at that time.

Early constitutional conventions

In the early 1890s two meetings established the need for federation and set the framework for this to occur. An informal meeting attended by official representatives from the Australasian colonies was held in 1890. This led to the first National Australasian Convention, meeting in Sydney in 1891. New Zealand was represented at both the conference and the Convention, although there was no great likelihood that it would want to enter into the proposed federation.

The 1890 conference

The 1890 conference was organised at the instigation of Sir Henry Parkes. The account of the calling of the 1890 conference usually begins with Lord Carrington, the Governor of New South Wales, goading the ageing Henry Parkes at a luncheon on 15 June 1889. Parkes reportedly boasted that he "could confederate these colonies in twelve months". Carrington retorted, "Then why don't you do it? It would be a glorious finish to your life."[2] Parkes the next day wrote to the Victorian Premier, Duncan Gillies offering to advance the cause of federation. Gillies's response was predictably cool given the reluctance of Parkes to bring New South Wales into the Federal Council. In October Parkes travelled north to Brisbane and met with Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Thomas McIlwraith. On the return journey, he stopped just south of the colonial border and delivered the historic Tenterfield Oration on 24 October 1889, stating that the time had come for the colonies to consider Australian federation.

Through the latter part of 1889 the premiers and governors corresponded and agreed for an informal meeting to be called. The membership was: New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes (Premier) and William McMillan (Colonial Treasurer); Victoria, Duncan Gillies (Premier) and Alfred Deakin (Chief Secretary); Queensland, Sir Samuel Griffith (Leader of the Opposition) and John Murtagh Macrossan (Colonial Secretary); South Australia, Dr John Cockburn (Premier) and Thomas Playford (Leader of the Opposition); Tasmania, Andrew Inglis Clark (Attorney-General) and Bolton Bird (Treasurer); Western Australia, Sir James George Lee Steere (Speaker); New Zealand, Captain William Russell (Colonial Secretary) and Sir John Hall.

When the conference met at the Victorian Parliament in Melbourne on 6 February, the delegates were confronted with a scorching summer temperature of 39.7°C in the shade. The Conference debated whether or not the time was ripe to proceed with federation. Whilst some delegates agreed it was, the smaller states were not as enthusiastic. Thomas Playford from South Australia indicated the tariff question and lack of popular support as hurdles. Similarly, Sir James Lee Steere from Western Australia and the New Zealand delegates suggested there was lukewarm support for federation in their respective colonies.

A basic question at this early assembly was how to structure the federation within the Westminster tradition of government. The British North America Act 1867, which had confederated the Canadian provinces, provided a model with respect to the relations between the federation and the Crown. There was less enthusiasm, however, for the centralism of the Canadian Constitution, especially from the smaller states. From the 1890 conference the Canadian federal model was no longer considered appropriate for the Australian situation.[3]

Although the Swiss Federal Constitution provided another example, it was inevitable that the delegates should look to the Constitution of the United States as the other major model of a federation within the English-speaking world. It gave just a few powers to the federal government and left the majority of matters within the legislative competence of the States. It also provided that the Senate should consist of an equal number of members from each State while the Lower House should reflect the national distribution. Andrew Inglis Clark, a long-time admirer of American federal institutions, introduced the United States Constitution as an example of the protection of States' rights. He presented it as an alternative to the Canadian model, arguing that Canada was "an instance of amalgamation rather than federation."[4] The introduction by Deakin of James Bryce's The American Commonwealth also had far-reaching influence.[5]

The Melbourne conference ended with an agreement by the delegates that the time for federation had arrived.

Clark's Draft Constitution

Andrew Clark circa 1907

Andrew Inglis Clark had given considerable thought towards a suitable Constitution for Australia.[6] In May 1890, he travelled to London in order to conduct an appeal on behalf of the Tasmanian government before the Privy Council. During the trip he began writing a draft constitution, taking the main provisions of the British North America Act and supplements up to 1890, the US Constitution as at 1890, the Federal Council of Australia Act and various Australian colonial constitutions. Clark returned from London by way of Boston where he held discussions about the Draft with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Moncure Conway amongst others.[7]

Clark's Draft introduced the nomenclature and form which was subsequently adopted:

  • The Australian federation is described as the Commonwealth of Australia
  • There are three separate and equal branches - the Parliament, the Executive and the Judicature.
  • The Legislature consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate
  • It specified the Separation of powers and the Division of powers between the Federal and State governments.

On his return to Hobart in early November 1890, with the technical aide of W. O. Wise the Tasmanian Parliamentary Draftsman, Clark completed the final form of the Draft Constitution and had a number of copies printed.[8] In February 1891, Inglis Clark circulated copies of his Draft to Parkes, Barton and probably Playford as well.[9] The Draft was always intended to be a private working document and was never published.[10]

The importance of the 1891 draft Constitution was recognised by La Nauze when he declared that "The draft of 1891 is the Constitution of 1900, not its father or grandfather."[11] In fact 86 Sections (out of a total of 128) of the final Australian Constitution are recognisable in Clark's Draft.[12]

The 1891 convention

The Parliament proposed at the 1891 Convention was to adopt the nomenclature of the United States Congress. This proposal provided the broad outline of federal government. The lower House was to be elected by districts drawn up on the basis of population, while in the Senate there was to be equal representation for each "province". This American model was mixed with the Westminster system by which the Prime Minister and other Ministers would be appointed by the representative of the Crown from among the members of the political party holding a majority in the lower House.

Sir Samuel Griffith identified with great clarity at the Sydney Convention perhaps the greatest problem of all: how to structure the relationship between the lower and upper houses within the federal Parliament. The main division of opinion centred on the contention of Alfred Deakin, that the Lower House must be supreme, as against the views of Edmund Barton, John Cockburn and others, that a strong Senate with co-ordinate powers was essential. Griffith himself recommended that the doctrine of responsible government should be left open, or substantially modified to accord with the federal structure.

Over Easter in 1891, Griffith edited Clark's Draft aboard the Queensland government steam yacht Lucinda. (Clark was not present. He was ill with influenza in Sydney). Griffith's Draft Constitution was submitted to colonial parliaments but lapsed in New South Wales, after which the other colonies were unwilling to proceed.

Later constitutional conventions

The revival of the federal movement stemmed from the growth of federal leagues and nationalist organisations that were committed to federation, like the Australian Natives Association. There were two so-called People's Conventions held in Corowa and Bathurst.

In 1895 a proposal was accepted by the premiers of the Australian colonies to establish a new Convention by popular vote, with the resulting draft of the constitution being submitted to the electors of each colony in a referendum. The Convention held meetings over the course of a year, beginning first in Adelaide in 1897, later meeting in Sydney and culminating in Melbourne in March 1898. After the Adelaide meeting, the colonial Parliaments took the opportunity to debate the emerging Bill and to suggest changes. The basic principles discussed in 1891 were adopted, with the addition of the principle of responsible government. There was also a consensus for more democracy in the constitutional structure. It was agreed that the Senate should be chosen by popular vote with the voters in each State acting as one electorate.

A draft bill was drawn up in 1898 and sent to each colony to be ratified by the electorate. Referendums were held in four colonies in June 1898. There were majorities in all four, however it failed because the Yes vote of 80,000 was not reached in New South Wales. In June 1899 the referendum was held again in all the colonies except Western Australia, where the vote was not held until the following year. The vote was yes in all the colonies.

referendum NSW Qld SA Tas Vic WA total
1898 yes 71,595 35,800 11,797 100,520 219,712
no 66,228 17,320 2,716 22,099 108,363
1899 yes 107,420 38,488 65,900 13,437 152,653 377,898
no 82,741 30,996 17,953 791 9,805 142,286
1900 yes 44,800 44,800
no 19,691 19,691

The Bill as accepted by the colonies went to Britain for ratification by the British Parliament.

The Federal Constitution

One of the many arches made to celebrate Federation, the Citizens Arch - National Museum, Canberra
The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne is the site of the first sitting of Federal parliament.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) was passed on 5 July 1900 and given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900. On 1 January 1901 the Proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia was held in Centennial Park, Sydney. Sir Edmund Barton was sworn in as the interim Prime Minister, leading an interim Federal ministry of nine members.

The new constitution established a bicameral Parliament, containing a Senate and a House of Representatives. The office of Governor-General was established as the Queen's representative; initially, this person was considered a representative of the British government. The Constitution also established a High Court, and divided the powers of government between the states and the new Commonwealth government.

The site of a federal capital was disputed heavily between the two arch-rivals Sydney and Melbourne; the compromise was that a separate territory (the Australian Capital Territory) would be established within New South Wales to hold a new capital, while Parliament would sit in Melbourne until the new city was constructed. The site eventually chosen for the city became Canberra.

Federation is still taught in both primary and secondary schools throughout the country as an important event in Australian history.

Landmarks named for Federation

The significance of Federation for Australia is such that a number of landmarks, natural and man-made, have been named for it. These include:

See also


  1. ^ note 2, at 18-21.
  2. ^ Martin, Henry Parkes, at 383.
  3. ^ Williams J, "'With Eyes Open': Andrew Inglis Clark and our Republican Tradition" (1995) 23(2) Federal Law Review 149 at 165.
  4. ^ Debates of the Australian Federation Conference, at 25.
  5. ^ La Nauze, J. A.. The Making of the Australian Constitution. p. 273. ISBN 0522840167. 
  6. ^ As early as 1874, he published a comparitive study of the American, Canadian and Swiss constitutions.
  7. ^ Clark, Conway and Holmes were all Unitarians. Clark had met Conway, when he travelled to Hobart as part of a speaking tour in 1883. Conway subsequently introduced Clark to Holmes.
  8. ^ Letter from W. O. Wise to A. P. Canaway dated 1921-06-29. Cover page to First draft of Australian Constitution. Mitchell Library MS, Q342.901
  9. ^ Neasey, F. M.; Neasey, L. J. (2001). Andrew Inglis Clark. University of Tasmania Law Press. ISBN 0859019640. 
  10. ^ La Nauze, page 24
  11. ^ La Nauze, note 11 at 78.
  12. ^ Botsman, Peter (2000). The Great Constitutional Swindle. Pluto Press Australia. p. 19. ISBN 1864030623. 


  • La Nauze J, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1972).
  • McGrath F, The Framers of the Australian Constitution (Brighton-le-Sands: Frank McGrath, 2003).
  • Neasey, F. M.; Neasey, L. J. Andrew Inglis Clark. (University of Tasmania Law Press, 2001)

Further reading

  • Hunt, Lyall (editor) (2000)Towards Federation: Why Western Australia joined the Australian Federation in 1901 Nedlands, W.A. Royal Western Australian Historical Society ISBN 0909845034

External links

Simple English

The federation of Australia was the way that the six separate British colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia joined together to become one country. When the Constitution of Australia came into force, on 1 January 1901, the colonies became states of the Commonwealth of Australia.

People had been trying to get the colonies to join together in a federation of Australia during the 1850s and 1860s. In the 1890's a number of big meetings, called conventions, were held to write a constitution for Australia. Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, was the main person supporting this idea. Fiji and New Zealand were going to be part of it, but decided not to join the federation.

As soon as the Federation happened, Sir Edmund Barton was put in charge as Prime Minister of Australia until the first Australian elections were held. Barton won the election and continued to be the Prime Minister.


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