Investigation 2

what were the attitudes of Queensland workers to Federation?

In the early 1890s, Queensland, along with the other eastern Australian colonies, experienced an economic depression. Work was scarce, unemployment was high and working conditions were poor. Workers had banded together in unions in order to improve their conditions, but their strikes had been defeated. They wanted more political power, and to be able to stand for Parliament.

Federation was an issue that divided workers and their representatives in the Queensland Parliament. If Queensland joined the other colonies it might lead to job losses when intercolonial tariffs were removed. On the other hand, the promised ‘White Australia’ federal immigration laws would result in banning South Pacific Islander and Chinese workers, which would please those seeking employment in the north.

At the height of the Federation movement in the late 1890s, workers were represented in the Queensland Parliament by the Labor Party. They had their own newspapers, most notably The Worker, which publicised their concerns and perspectives on issues that affected them.

Your Task

Discover why Queensland workers were divided on the subject of Federation.


  1. In the 19th century, people often built arches for public celebrations. In pairs, examine ‘The workers’ design for a triumphal arch’ cartoon.
    • Read the words that are part of the illustration. Identify the five characters shown.
    • What are the workers doing? Describe their situation.
    • Is the cartoon’s title sarcastic or not? Give reasons for your answer.
    Sketch your idea of a ‘workers’ triumphal arch’.
  2. In pairs, read the two speech extracts aloud. Both are discussing the impact that Federation could have on workers in different parts of Queensland. Discuss the following questions.
    • What is Mr McDonnell concerned about? Why is he arguing against Federation?
    • What is Mr Dawson concerned about? Why is he arguing for Federation?
    Imagine you have the opportunity to respond to Mr McDonnell and Mr Dawson’s arguments for and against Federation. Write what you would say, and present it to the class.
  3. Examine the cartoon from The Bulletin, which appeared after Federation, in October 1901. The South Pacific Islander workers were generally known as ‘kanakas’. Edmund Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister, is shown dressed as a woman. There are four distinct parts to the illustration. Circle them. In groups of four, discuss what you think each part is showing, allowing each member in your group to explain a section. Then, discuss the following questions as a whole class.
    • What impression of South Pacific Islanders is the cartoonist trying to create?
    • Why do you think the cartoonist is concerned about the ‘kanakas’?
    • How is Queensland represented in the cartoon?
    • What does Prime Minister Barton want to do? Why?
    • What would a ‘White Australia’ mean for the South Pacific workers and the owners of sugar plantations?
    • Do you think that the solution the cartoonist proposes would help Queensland workers? Why or why not?
  4. Create a slogan or a banner that sums up the choice before workers in the colony of Queensland in the Federation referendum in 1899.