Road to Federation

Investigation 1

What were the issues as the people of New South Wales considered whether or not to support Federation?
Resource Sheet 1

Investigation 2

Why did the proposed structure of the Federal Parliament cause concern for New South Wales?
Resource Sheet 2

Investigation 3

How did the views of Premier George Reid influence the people of New South Wales?
Resource Sheet 3

Investigation 4

What happened in New South Wales at the first referendum on Federation?
Resource Sheet 4

Investigation 5

When did New South Wales decide in favour of Federation, and what contributed to the positive result?
Resource Sheet 5

Investigation 6

If you had been a New South Wales voter, would you have been in favour of Federation or against it?
Resource Sheet 6

What are you thinking now?

Additional activities and exercises to explore in the classroom.


New South Wales has a special significance in Australia’s colonial history because it was the first colony. It continued to play a leading role as other colonies were established in the 1800s. New South Wales had the longest history of self-government, the greatest experience of having an elected parliament, and the power to make laws and establish systems of transport, trade and defence.

New South Wales had much in common with other parts of Australia. Many people in the oldest colony believed that the colonies should unite to form a Commonwealth of Australia. New South Wales’ politicians, especially Henry Parkes, argued that Federation would make each colony and the country as a whole stronger.

Many political and social issues were debated during the 1890s, but the over-arching challenge for the pro-Federation movement was to develop an Australian Constitution defining how a Federal Parliament would operate. This Parliament would represent all colonies and make laws that would apply to the whole nation, so it was important to get it right.

There were a number of issues involved, including immigration, the economy and voting rights. Parkes also emphasised the need for Australia to have a strong defence force. In the 1890s, women in some parts of Australia were granted voting rights, and there was a growing movement to achieve the same rights for women across the country. Because of the 1890s economic crisis, the issue of non-European immigrants aroused strong feelings as many believed that the cheap labour they offered threatened the jobs of white workers. This led to the adoption of the ‘White Australia’ policy, which influenced legislation that intentionally restricted non-white immigration into Australia after Federation.

Premiers and other delegates from all colonies came together in special meetings, called conventions, to discuss and draft the Australian Constitution. Once they reached agreement, they presented the Constitution Bill to the people of each colony so they could vote in a referendum.

However, reaching agreement on the Constitution and Federation was not a simple matter. Each colony had its own special interests and wanted to be sure that these would be protected and respected under a federal system. New South Wales wanted to be sure that it was not giving up power to the smaller and younger colonies.

In the mid-1890s, New South Wales Premier, George Reid had doubts about the proposed Constitution. He was a supporter of Federation in principle, but disagreed with some of the proposed details. His doubts were well-known when New South Wales had its first referendum on Federation, in 1898. When the referendum failed, Reid negotiated with other Premiers to make changes to the draft Constitution.

A second referendum was held in New South Wales in 1899, and this time it passed because a large enough majority voted ‘yes’. In the same year, voters in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland voted in favour of Federation, and a successful referendum in Western Australia followed in 1900.

In 1901, more than 10 years after Henry Parkes declared his vision of a ‘great national government’ that would deal with ‘all great questions ... in a broad light and with a view to the interests of the whole country’, all six colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.