Road to Federation

Investigation 1

What were the issues as Victorians considered whether or not to support Federation?
Resource Sheet 1

Investigation 2

How would the system of Federal Parliament affect Victorians?
Resource Sheet 2

Investigation 3

What arguments for and against Federation were presented to Victorian voters?
Resource Sheet 3

Investigation 4

What were the results of the referendums in Victoria?
Resource Sheet 4

Investigation 5

If you had been a Victorian voter, would you have been in favour of Federation?
Resource Sheet 5

What are you thinking now?

Additional activities and exercises to explore in the classroom.


Although the people of Australia shared a common culture, language and political systems, they were also separate and independent of one another, with their own governments. They cooperated on matters such as defence and immigration, but each parliament jealously guarded the right to make laws for the people of its colony.

Those who proposed Federation were seeking to overcome the barriers between the colonies, and to have the people united as one nation under a common government. They believed a united Australia could improve the defence of the colonies. The fact that the railroad tracks differed from one colony to another made the movement of troops, as well as transportation in general, difficult and inefficient. There were also concerns about migrants. The gold rushes had attracted people from all over the world, and there was a lot of hostility to Chinese diggers. Australia’s population was mostly of British descent and the vast majority of people wanted it to stay that way. A federal government would be able to control immigration through a ‘White Australia’ policy.

But, would the barriers prove too strong to tear down? The colonies disagreed on the subject of trade, as well as on sharing resources. Victoria had protectionist policies to safeguard its agriculture and manufacturing industries. It placed intercolonial tariffs (taxes) on goods purchased in other colonies and from overseas to encourage Victorians to buy locally. This tempted some people to smuggle goods across the border into Victoria to avoid paying the tariffs. It also imposed a ‘stock tax’ on livestock brought across the border to graze on Victoria’s rich grasslands. Issues regarding navigation and access to water for irrigation also caused tensions between Victoria and the colonies of New South Wales and South Australia.

The colonies also disagreed on whether or not women should have the right to vote. Each colony had made its own laws about who could vote in elections. Women in South Australia and Western Australia had gained the right to vote in 1894 and 1899, respectively. Men in the Victorian Legislative Council, however, blocked every attempt to allow Victorian women the same right.

In the 1890s, the people of Victoria were regarded as being mostly in favour of Federation. However, organisations such as the Australian Natives Association and the Federal League still had the difficult task of countering the arguments of Federation’s opponents. They encountered stiff opposition from the labour movement and others who thought the Australian Constitution being proposed for the new Commonwealth would not be democratic. The concern was that it would give too much power to States with smaller populations.

The people of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia had their first opportunity to vote on Federation in a referendum on the Constitution Bill in 1898. The referendum was an important opportunity to find out the level of support for Federation. Despite its importance, voting was not compulsory and many people did not vote. The necessary quota of ‘yes’ votes was not reached in New South Wales, so the referendum failed. A second referendum was held in 1899, and this time it passed. When a successful referendum was held in Western Australia in 1900, the six colonies were able to unite and form the Commonwealth of Australia.