Australia became an independent nation on 1 January 1901, when the British Parliament passed legislation enabling the six Australian colonies to collectively govern in their own right as the Commonwealth of Australia.
It was a remarkable political accomplishment that had taken many years and several referenda to achieve.
The Children’s Newspaper, 1899:
Tuesday June 20 was a red-letter day in Australian history. It was the day on which the people of New South Wales – the best and wealthiest of the Australian Colonies – had to decide whether they were willing to accept the Federation Bill … A very large vote was recorded all over the colony, and a majority of … electors decided that Federation under the Bill was desirable. Enormous crowds thronged the Sydney streets on Tuesday evening to get the earliest news of the voting, and as the returns came in there was loud and long continued cheering.
Lead-up to Federation
Australia in the late 19th century consisted of six self-governing British colonies, subject to the British Parliament. Each colony had its own, often quite distinct, laws, railway gauge, postage stamps and tariffs. Problems caused by these differences led to discussions about the benefits of uniting as a nation, under a federal system of governance.
In addition, matters of defence, foreign policy, immigration, trade, transport and national pride were growing in importance among the colonies.
In 1880 the Australian Natives’ Association, made up of men born in Australia, committed itself to Federation. This provided most of the organisational and financial base for the Australian Federation Leagues to work for a united Australia.
The Federal Council of Australasia was formed in 1885 to resolve intercolonial issues including customs duties and defence. As New South Wales, New Zealand, and for a time, South Australia, did not join the Council, it dissolved in 1889.
Parkes and the 'Tenterfield address'
In 1889, Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of the Colony of NSW, called for a national government in a speech in northern NSW. The ‘Tenterfield address’ highlighted the need for united armed forces for the country's defence and called for a Parliamentary Convention of Australia, in which the colonies would decide on a constitution framing a federal government and a federal parliament:
The opportunity has arisen for the consideration of this great subject and I believe that the time is at hand … when this thing will be done. Indeed, this great thing will have to be done, and to put it off will only tend to make the difficulties which stand in the way greater.
With Parkes as its president, the National Australasian Convention took place in Sydney in 1891. Delegates from each colony, and from New Zealand, decided on the name the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’.
Samuel Griffiths, the former Premier of Queensland, is credited with writing the draft constitution but it has also been suggested that he re-wrote what Tasmanian politician, Andrew Clarke, had already written. Clarke's draft was influenced by the United States’ Constitution and several British Acts, which formed the basis of Australia’s hybrid system of government known as ‘Washminster’ (Washington and Westminster).
Delegates were in a position to present a draft Constitution Bill to their respective parliaments. However, the process of federation was stalled by the economic depression of the 1890s with its high levels of unemployment and strikes.
The NSW town of Corowa held a Federation League Rally in 1893 where it was suggested that the Australian people themselves would vote for Federation.
The second Constitutional Convention (1897–8) was held in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. NSW parliamentarian Edmund Barton became leader of the federation campaign following the death of Parkes in 1896. With Barton as leader, the basic principles of federation — such as the idea of responsible government and a greater sense of democracy — were agreed upon and a Constitution Bill drafted in 1898.
This draft Bill was sent to New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria to be ratified by the electorate with referenda to be held in June 1898. There were majority votes in all four colonies. However, the enabling legislation in New South Wales required the support of at least 80,000 voters for its passage. This number was not reached.
A second round of referenda were held in 1899 and the 'yes' majority secured in all the participating colonies of New South Wales, (this time New South Wales required only a majority of 'yes' votes), Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. Western Australia voted ‘yes’ in 1900.
As the colonies were under British rule, federation would only come about if the British Parliament passed the necessary legislation. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK), based on the Constitution Bill as accepted by the colonies, was passed on 5 July 1900. Queen Victoria gave the legislation royal assent and declared that it would take effect on 1 January 1901.
Appointment of Governor-General and Prime Minister
The English-born Earl of Hopetoun was appointed as Australia's first Governor-General. On 31 December 1900, he swore in the first federal ministry, with Edmund Barton as caretaker Prime Minister. The following day, 1 January 1901, Hopetown proclaimed the Commonwealth of Australia at a ceremony at Centennial Park, Sydney.
The first federal election took place on 29–30 March 1901, confirming Barton as Prime Minister. The first federal Parliament was opened by the Duke of York in the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building on 9 May 1901. One of the first things it did was to enshrine the White Australia policy in law.
Western Australia joined the Commonwealth after the federal government promised, as part of the Federation agreement, it would commission the construction of a transcontinental railway line.
The Constitution established a bicameral Parliament, comprising the Senate as an Upper House of Review, and the House of Representatives or Lower House, formulating legislation, that could make laws on behalf of the new Australian nation.
The office of Governor-General was established as the Queen's representative. Initially, this person was considered a representative of the British government. The Constitution also established a High Court.
The site for a federal capital was a source of much dispute between Sydney and Melbourne, both cities wanting the honour. The compromise was that a separate territory (the Australian Capital Territory) would be established within New South Wales to hold a new capital, while Parliament would sit in Melbourne until the new city was built. The site eventually chosen for the city became Canberra.
The Constitution divides power between the federal government and the governments of the former colonies, which were renamed 'states'.
Specific areas of legislative power were given to the federal government, but not for the first ten years or so, so that the states could retain revenues a while longer, including taxation, defence, foreign affairs, migration, naturalisation and aliens, and postal and telecommunications services. The federal government also has power to make laws for Australia's territories. It did not have any powers relating to Indigenous people.
States retained power over all other matters within their borders including police, hospitals, education and public transport.
Federation as a Defining Moment
Federation was a remarkable political achievement. Colonies had jostled to protect their interests — New South Wales rivalling Victoria; and the smaller colonies fearing the larger colonies’ combined political power. But consensus had been reached.
The British monarch remained the head of state but Australia was now self-governing and independent, though it retained close ties to Britain and its empire. Australians remained British citizens for many decades to come. The six states felt that they belonged together because they shared not only a continent but also a British background. Federation achieved an independence of sorts for Australia but the desire for independence does not seem to have driven the movement; more a desire for unification.
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