Federation: Australia and New south Wales Essay

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6.11 Federation
By 1880, the six British colonies were getting closer to merging as one nation. For the next 20 years, the issue of Federation dominated political discussion between the colonies until, on 1 January 1901, the
Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed.

Source 1

This 1891 newspaper cartoon (with colour added) summed up the way many people saw the colonies at the time.
The ‘stone walls’ were more than just custom duties, though. There were many other factors separating the colonies.

Between 1855 and 1860 all colonies except Western Australia had their own governments. However, they governed independently of each other. For instance, laws concerning trade and tariffs, postal services, railway line widths, internal telegraph systems and defence forces differed from colony to colony. These differences caused many frustrations, especially for those conducting business. Mindful of this, politicians began debating the pros and cons of having a government for the whole country that had some common functions and laws, while allowing certain powers to remain with the colonies.

Why federate?
National defence
By the 1880s, three security issues worried the colonial governments in Australia.
1. The French had been interested in the country from the 1770s, and had a colonial presence in New
Caledonia. This was close enough to the Australian east coast for French warships to create problems if relations between Britain and France ever worsened.
2. Germany had established colonial outposts in Northern
New Guinea and Samoa, posing a potential threat to colonial sea routes.
3. Russia’s Pacific Fleet was especially a potential threat after the Crimean War. Fortifications had been built to protect many Australian ports and harbours.

Common railway gauges

Immigration concerns

Countdown to Federation

There was growing suspicion about the large number of non-Europeans coming into the country. The experience of the gold rushes had made many wary of the Chinese.
When South Sea Islanders were brought into Queensland
(as virtual slave labour), many colonists feared this meant they would lose jobs or have reduced wages. (These forced immigrants worked for much less than colonist workers.)
This unrest allowed politicians to argue for a national policy enforcing Australia as a white British outpost.

History Alive 9 for the Australian Curriculum

The width of railway lines differed between colonies. This meant people had to change trains and goods had to be transferred from one train to another at the borders. Also, it was argued that a common railway gauge would be vital in any military crisis.

Reliable communications
As the population grew, the demand for reliable, coordinated postal and telegraph services strengthened.
Only a national government could guarantee this.





The Federal Council of Australasia was set up, and a meeting attended by delegates from all six colonies, and from New Zealand and Fiji.


The main purpose of the meeting was to agree to ask
Britain to guarantee it would defend the colonies if they were ever threatened.






Sir Henry Parkes (1815–1896), an outspoken and controversial politician, was a prominent supporter of Federation.


He was premier of New South
Wales five times.


In August 1889, en route to
Sydney from Brisbane by train, he stopped in Tenterfield. He spoke to a hall full of locals at a function, challenging them (and all colonists) to think ‘national’.



From this convention (attended by representatives from colonies chosen by the people), a draft constitution was taken back to the five colonial governments. The draft plan saw a two-house federal parliament with an upper house of review that would represent states equally and protect rights.


Delegates re-assembled in Sydney in September (and again in January 1898 in Melbourne) to consider amendments from the colonial parliaments.