Investigation 4

What were the issues that had to be resolved before the colonies could federate?

Fifty delegates from the colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia met at the first session of the Australasian Federal Convention in Adelaide in March 1897. They met again in Sydney in September, and for a final time in Melbourne in January 1898. Using the draft Australian Constitution from the 1891 Federal Convention as a starting point, the delegates debated and carefully considered proposals and objections to shape a new Constitution. Edmund Barton and Richard O’Connor from New South Wales, and John Downer from South Australia had responsibility for writing it.

The Constitution had to be democratic and allow for majority rule, but also be fair and protect the smaller States. The House of Representatives would have to be balanced by a Senate, in which each State had the same number of representatives. The delegates had to decide who would have the vote, what powers the new parliament would have, and how money would be divided among the States.

On 16 March 1898, the work of the Convention was done. It was now up to the people to vote for the Constitution Bill at referendums. Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania held the referendum on 3 June 1898, and South Australia on 4 June.

Your Task

Investigate the issues that were debated during the writing of the australian Constitution.


  1. In small groups, take responsibility for one of the issues debated during the drafting of the Australian Constitution, including the right to vote; States’ rights and democracy; or free trade versus protectionism.
  2. Read the source material together. Discuss or use a dictionary for any words you don’t understand. Take care to:
    • identify the kind of documents you are examining;
    • establish when and where they were published or used; and
    • describe the purpose of each document.
  3. Combine with the groups that have examined the same issue. Discuss the historical material together. Create a presentation for the rest of the class explaining how you think the Convention delegates might have approached your issue. The extract from the draft Constitution shows how the issue was resolved at the 1897–98 Convention.
  4. Does your group agree with the way the delegates resolved the issue, given the evidence in the historical material? Include your analysis in your presentation.