It's hard to imagine in contemporary Australia, but prior to Federation each of the Australian colonies was more like its own country with customs houses, railway gauges and even their own military. It was neither natural nor inevitable that Australia would be federated, in fact it wasn't even a very popular idea. Only through the dedication and hard work of a small group of people did the colonies eventually come together to form a nation.
Colonial politicians like Alfred Deakin, Henry Parkes and Edmund Barton waged a long campaign to turn the six colonies of 3.7 million people into a country in its own right.
The Father of Federation
Henry Parkes. Image courtesy of Government Printing Office Collection, State Library of New South Wales.
Henry Parkes (1815–1896) is often called the 'Father of Federation' for his role as a long-time agitator for the cause.
Parkes was five times the Premier of NSW and one of the most prominent men in colonial politics. In October 1889, in what became known as the 'Tenterfield Address' he called for the colonies to 'unite and create a great national government for all Australia'. His speech had an enormous effect on the movement toward Federation.
After a life at the forefront of the Federation movement Henry Parkes died in 1896 without ever seeing his dream realised.
The movement gathers momentum
The movement had begun to gather real momentum after Henry Parkes wrote to the other premiers in 1889 and proposed a meeting to devise a Federal constitution. The following year a meeting was held in Melbourne, with a full 'National' convention in Sydney in 1891 at which a complete draft of the Australian Constitution was written and adopted.
The first draft of the constitution is usually attributed to Sir Samuel Griffith, written aboard the Lucinda as it cruised down the Hawkesbury in 1891. Others have disputed this however, arguing that Griffith merely rewrote Andrew Inglis Clarke's 1891 draft constitution and, even then, made a mess of it.
Whoever wrote it, the result was the same; a fairly dry but functional document which inspired few people to take an interest in it when it was put to a referendum in June 1898 in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia, with only a small minority of eligible voters participating in the vote. It was a document inspired by a more narrow vision than that which produced the US Bill of Rights.
In 1890, speaking at the Australasian Federation Conference, Alfred Deakin proclaimed that 'in this country, we are separated only by imaginary lines ... we are a people one in blood, race, religion and aspiration'.
'Race' was a key factor in the ambition for Federation, with the dream of a 'white nation' uppermost in the minds of the federalists. Critics have pointed out that on Federation, Indigenous people were excluded from voting, as were most women, the poor and people of Chinese or Indian descent. Of those who could vote, very few bothered. Peter Botsman has gone so far as to refer to Federation as a 'great constitutional swindle' and a 'pact with the devil'.
The first Referendum
In 1898, a referendum was held so that people in the colonies could vote on the constitution. Queensland and Western Australia did not take part, and in New South Wales it did not get approved. The premiers met in 1899 to find ways of meeting the concerns of those three colonies.
Debate over a new national capital
When the constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia was being negotiated between the colonies, a point of contention was the location of the national capital, with both Melbourne and Sydney claiming the right to be the capital. A compromise was reached whereby a separate capital city would be created in New South Wales, provided it was no closer than 100 miles (160km) to Sydney. Until such time as the new city was established, it was agreed that Melbourne was to be the temporary capital of Australia, which it was from the time of federation. The decision for the Yass–Canberra option was made in 1908 by the Commonwealth Parliament and shortly afterwards the Commonwealth surveyor, Charles Scrivener, was dispatched to choose a site.
Second Referendum and the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia
Commonwealth Arch, Park Street, Sydney. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
When the amended Constitution was put to a second round of referendums in 1899 there was great public interest, and pro- and anti-Federation organisations formed in all the colonies. This time the referendums were successful.
The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901 in Centennial Park, Sydney by Lord Hopetoun, the first Governor General. By this time the Australian people had embraced the idea and turned out in their thousands for celebrations all over the new nation. This included the opening of 'Federation Arches' in each state, such as the Commonwealth Arch, Park Street, Sydney (pictured left).
The colonies became states, and a Federal Parliament was formed according to the Constitution. Edmund Barton became the first Prime Minister of Australia.
The Centenary of Federation
These original celebrations were echoed one hundred years later with Federation's centenary – it was a year of debate, reflection and celebration. Throughout 2001, Australians everywhere participated in thousands of events, projects and community activities to celebrate the Centenary of Federation:
It was an inclusive year of commemorations, reaching out to all people, of all ages, whether in the cities or the bush.
Tens of thousands attended the major events and celebrations. In addition, the year touched Australians far and wide by way of extensive media coverage, community level festivities, special activities in schools, and through commemorative publications and memorabilia. During the twelve-month program, few people would not have been reached in one way or another by the diversity of Centenary projects and celebrations.
Tony Eggleton, Chief Executive Officer of the National Council for the Centenary of Federation, Centenary of Federation 2001 - The Year In Review.
Peter Tully Wrapped Australian brooch: Gift of the artist, 1982.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.
Federation – Australian Art and Society 1901–2001
The National Gallery of Australia's 'Federation' exhibition, which toured to major cities between December 2000 and July 2002 to mark the Centenary of Federation, was:
... the most comprehensive survey of Australian art since the Bicentennial exhibitions of 1988. It juxtaposes familiar icons of Australian art alongside unusual and little-known works to chart the growth of a distinctively Australian culture. It features landscapes and people, wars and celebrations, natural disasters and favourite pastimes.
Federation – Australian Art and Society 1901–2001
The exhibition website provides access to information relating to the works exhibited. As was the case for the exhibition, works can be viewed within seven themes: Beginnings, The Land, Cities and Suburbs, Boom and Bust, Patriotic Duty, At Ease and Encounters. These themes offer a convenient format for browsing; the website also provides a search tool for exploring the works in a more focused manner. There are detailed records for all of the works in the exhibition with 217 available with images.
Last updated: 4 June 2015