Investigation 5

What role did national identity have in influencing Federation?

The referendums held in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia were successful, with majorities approving the Constitution Bill. A majority was also achieved in New South Wales, but the number of ‘yes’ votes did not meet the threshold of 80,000 votes stipulated by the New South Wales Parliament.

In January 1899, the Premier of New South Wales, George Reid, organised a ‘secret’ conference of Premiers in Melbourne. Here, it was agreed that slight alterations would be made to the draft Australian Constitution so that it would be more acceptable to the larger colonies. It was also agreed that the capital of the new Commonwealth would be in New South Wales.

A second round of referendums was held in 1899 in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. They were successful. Queensland also held a successful referendum in September 1899. Western Australia waited until the Constitution was passed by the British Government before it held a referendum in July 1900.

The success of the referendums depended on the abilities of leaders and supporters of Federation to help sway opinion. Much of the persuasion was based on arguing about the details of the proposed Constitution, but emotional appeals to the people of the colonies as ‘Australians’ were also important.

Your Task

Discover how appeals to national identity influenced people of the Australian colonies.


  1. In pairs, select and examine one Federation campaign item. Establish and record the following:
    • the purpose it was written for and the audience it was addressed to; and
    • the use of feeling, sentiment or emotion to persuade the audience.
  2. Form a group with students who examined the other items. Discuss the following questions together.
    • Which items are making positive appeals to Australian identity? Identify the ways in which they do this.
    • Which items are appealing to negative emotions? Identify the ways in which they do this.
    • What did being Australian mean in the Australian colonies in the 1890s?
  3. 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.
  4. In your groups, examine the results for the referendums on the draft Australian Constitution. Do the following tasks.
    • For each table, calculate the total number of votes.
    • Calculate the percentage of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes.
    • Compare the results of the 1899 and the WA 1900 referendums to the results of the 1898 referendum.
    • Make a list of the most significant differences in the results.
  5. Create a group presentation of an ‘Australian’ in the 1890s. Ensure that your presentation refers to place, values, fears, hopes and loyalties. Explain also how you think your ‘1890s Australian’ would fit into the Australia of today.
  6. As a class, consider the referendum results tables. Using your knowledge of Federation, discuss or debate the proposition: ‘Federation was inevitable because the people of the colonies felt “Australian”’.