Road to Federation

Investigation 1

What were the issues surrounding Federation for South Australians?
Resource Sheet 1

Investigation 2

What resolutions passed at the first Australasian Federal Convention addressed the issues that concerned South Australians?
Resource Sheet 2

Investigation 3

Would the proposed representation for the new Federal Parliament be fair for South Australia?
Resource Sheet 3

Investigation 4

What were the arguments for and against Federation that were put to South Australians?
Resource Sheet 4

Investigation 5

What were the results of the referendums on Federation?
Resource Sheet 5

What are you thinking now?

Additional activities and exercises to explore in the classroom.


Between 1891 and 1894, there were 17 different governments in power across the six Australian colonies. From 1894 to 1899, there was relative stability with five out of six colonial governments maintaining power; all of which were in favour of Federation. South Australia had a succession of Premiers during that period, including Playford, Holder, Downer and Kingston. All were committed to having a united Australia.

In the years before Federation, many people felt that there were aspects of society that needed to be changed or strengthened. The ability of Australia to defend itself – and help defend Britain – was of particular concern. South Australia felt that it was especially vulnerable to threats due to the fractured nature of Australia’s rail system. Then, in 1886, South Australia entered an economic recession, which meant many businesses and families struggled to make ends meet. The issue of trade came to a head as people wanted the freedom to trade between the colonies without paying intercolonial tariffs. Places such as Broken Hill in New South Wales, conducted nearly all of their trade with South Australia. The tariffs were often referred to as the ‘lion’ in the way of Federation. South Australia was also responsible for the administration of the Northern Territory, having taken over this task from New South Wales in 1863. This presented South Australia with a debt of £350,000 by 1895.

For their part, the people of the Northern Territory felt that their needs were being overlooked and they longed for a railway system to be built that would connect them to the rest of Australia.

South Australians had their first opportunity to decide whether their colony would federate in 1898. Voting was not compulsory and many people did not vote in the referendum. The majority of those who did vote, however, voted ‘yes’. Referendums in Victoria and Tasmania were also successful, but the referendum failed to achieve the required number of votes in New South Wales. A second round of referendums were held in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland in 1899. 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’, which 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.