Investigation 3

Who were some of the prominent figures on the road to Federation?

Inspired by John Quick’s Corowa plan, George Reid, the Premier of New South Wales, presented a similar proposal at the Premiers’ Conference in January 1895. The Premiers agreed that their parliaments would pass bills to allow Convention delegates, elected by the people of their colonies, to draw up a draft Australian Constitution. It would then be put to the people at referendums for them to approve or reject. Even though all the Premiers agreed, the colonial parliaments were slow to implement Reid’s proposal.

When the 1897–98 Australasian Federal Conventions were held, 10 elected delegates from Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania were present. The Western Australian and Queensland Parliaments failed to pass bills to enable the election of delegates. The Western Australian Parliament sent 10 of its own members, but Queensland was unrepresented. In March 1897, the prominent politicians from each colony, all men, met in Adelaide for the first of three sessions. Among them were Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin. These politicians were determined to reach agreement on a draft Australian Constitution so that the people of the Australian colonies could vote in referendums on the Constitution Bill and demonstrate their support for Federation.

Your Task

Examine the biographies of some influential people who contributed toward Federation.


  1. As a class, brainstorm what you think takes place at a Constitutional Convention. You might want to compare it to your understanding of the proceedings of parliament.
  2. Create a class list outlining the skills, values, characteristics and kinds of knowledge that you think delegates to a convention should have.
  3. In groups of four, explore a biography each of one of the representatives at the 1897–98 Australasian Federal Conventions. As you read about your person’s life and accomplishments, write a list of the skills, values, characteristics and kinds of knowledge that you think they might have needed to be elected to represent the people of their colony.
  4. Decorate your lists with your person’s name, colony and a portrait or caricature. Display them in the classroom, grouping the same people together.
  5. Catherine Helen Spence stood, but failed, in her attempt for election to the Convention for South Australia, the only colony where women had the vote and were allowed to stand for parliament. In pairs, examine her biography. Compare her skills, values, characteristics and knowledge to that of the other representatives.
  6. Write a letter, dated March 1897, to the editor of a South Australian newspaper detailing the ways in which you think Catherine Helen Spence would have been able to make an important contribution as a delegate to the Convention.