Road to Federation

Investigation 1

What issues led some Western Australians to oppose or doubt Federation?
Resource Sheet 1

Investigation 2

What concerns about Federation were important to the communities of Western Australia’s goldfields?
Resource Sheet 2

Investigation 3

What if Western Australia had decided not to join in Federation?
Resource Sheet 3

Investigation 4

Should the people of Western Australia have had a say in the colony’s decision about Federation?
Resource Sheet 4

Investigation 5

How was Federation promoted, and what were the results of the Western Australian referendum?
Resource Sheet 5

What are you thinking now?

Additional activities and exercises to explore in the classroom.


In the late 1800s, Western Australia experienced many significant changes. One major milestone was reached in 1890, when Britain granted Western Australia the right to have its own elected government and Constitution. Over the following years, the colony was still establishing this new system of self-government. Yet there was also a possibility that more political change might occur soon because the colonies of Australia were all beginning to explore the road to Federation.

Western Australia’s leaders were not convinced that their colony should federate. However, they knew that it was important to participate in the Conventions held in the 1890s to draft an Australian Constitution, and plan how a Federal Parliament would work. The Western Australian Premier, John Forrest believed that being involved in negotiations and planning would help protect his colony’s interests and reach the best possible decision.

There were a number of reasons for Western Australia’s leaders to be uncertain about Federation. The discovery of gold in the early 1890s led to rapid growth in the colony’s population and wealth. Farming, the timber industry and shipping were also strong. This provided money to support its development. Conversely, the other colonies were experiencing an economic depression, which concerned some Western Australians who thought their colony’s economic and political power would be weakened if it accepted Federation. For example, local goods and produce would face competition from the east. There were also concerns about the colony’s isolation, especially because there was no railway linking Western Australia to the east. Would communication and transport over long distances be improved if there was a federal system of government? If not, how could Western Australia be sure that it would share equally with the eastern colonies in the benefits of Federation?

Because of such concerns, Western Australia’s Government put off a decision about Federation, hoping that it could negotiate a good deal for the colony before making any commitment. But, there were many people in Western Australia whose views did not match those of the politicians. In communities around the eastern goldfields and the port of Albany, many people were strongly in favour of Federation and believed that their rights and interests would be better protected under a federal system. Pro-Federation organisations such as the Australian Natives Association and, later, the Federal League, had a lot of support in these parts of the colony. In Western Australia, there were increasing tensions because of the different opinions and political indecision.

In the end, the voters in Western Australia would be the ones to decide in a referendum. The government did not allow the referendum to take place until July 1900. The other five colonies had all held referendums and voted ‘yes’ to Federation by 1899.

Just 10 years after achieving self-government and only a few months before Australia’s federal system began, Western Australians decided that their colony would become a State in the new nation.