Road to Federation
What were the issues that had to be resolved before the colonies could federate?
Resource Sheet 4
Where would the capital of the Commonwealth of Australia be located?
Resource Sheet 6
Additional activities and exercises to explore in the classroom.
Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, delivered a speech at Tenterfield in 1889, calling for the six Australian colonies to unite and form one national government.
The population of the colonies was increasingly composed of Australian-born people. Unlike their parents and grandparents who had come as migrants, those born in Australia saw themselves as Australian, not British. They began to consider the colonies’ divisions as unnecessary, separating people who shared the same language, culture and values. Colonial separation was also an inconvenience for trade and travel, and could be disastrous for defence in times of war.
Imagining one nation without colonial divisions was one thing. In fact, a united Australia was already celebrated in the poems and songs of the day, and a combined Australian cricket team was playing test cricket against England. However, actually bringing the colonies together was quite another proposition. In 1890, Henry Parkes again urged the colonies to unite, and they agreed to explore this at a Constitutional Convention in Sydney the following year. The Convention was attended by seven delegates from each colonial parliament, and by three delegates from New Zealand. Andrew Inglis Clark, a member of the Tasmanian delegation, had researched the constitutions of the United States, Canada and Switzerland. All of those countries were federations, a model that a united Australia would adopt.
At the 1891 Convention, the delegates approved a draft Australian Constitution, drawn up by one of the Queensland delegates, Samuel Griffith. The Convention had proposed a national Parliament made up of two houses, a Senate and a House of Representatives. The colonies would become States in the Federation and a High Court would safeguard the Constitution.
Ensuring that the people were involved was a crucial part of making Federation a successful democratic process. In 1893, at a federal conference held in Corowa, New South Wales, John Quick from Victoria devised a scheme that would involve people electing delegates to a Constitutional Convention, and then voting on the proposed Constitution at referendums. When the Australasian Federal Conventions were held in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in 1897–98, their members were elected, and the draft Australian Constitution was again considered and amended. The Constitution Bill was put to the people in all of the colonies for acceptance.
The first referendums were held in 1898 in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. When New South Wales fell short of the 80,000 ‘yes’ votes required, the Premiers of the colonies met again to settle their differences, and make it more likely that the Constitution Bill would be accepted at future referendums. In 1899, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland held successful referendums. The draft Constitution was then escorted to London in 1900 by prominent delegates from the Convention to obtain assent from the Imperial Parliament and Queen Victoria. Once it was likely that Federation would proceed, Western Australia also held a referendum. When the Western Australians voted ‘yes’ to the proposed Constitution, it was then certain that there would be a ‘nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation’.