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Why Australia Became A Federation Essay

Most Australians, however, preferred an Australian Federation to an Imperial one. The Bulletin, for example, believed that an Imperial Federation would disadvantage Australia commercially. Others pointed out that to be part of such a Federation, Australia would firstly need a national government. To overcome the dilemma of how to be nationalist and pro-Empire at the same time, proponents of Australian Federation used the concept of the 'crimson thread of kinship' quoted by Henry Parkes, past Premier of NSW. (Irving, p. 29; Hirst, p. 243; de Garis, 1980, p. 250). Australians could be both patriotic and British, because Australians were 'Britons'. Obviously, this concept was strongly influenced by ideas of racial 'purity' and of maintaining Australia as a society of Britons. One of the manifestations of this sentiment was an aggressive imperialism that envisaged Australia as 'the seat of a mighty [Australian] empire under the banner of the Anglo-Saxon race'. (Hancock, 1930, pp. 65-66).

Apart from ideas of kinship with the British Empire, there were other ideologies developing in Australia in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, which would influence the Constitution of the new nation. By the 1890s, Sydney and Melbourne had become centres of radical thought embracing the ideas of feminists, single taxers, socialists, anarchists and republicans. In an era when the works of Karl Marx were little known in the Australian colonies, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was by far the most popular exposition of socialism. Bellamy's ideas pervaded many ideologies of the era. (Scates, 1997, p. 170). Although the various groups and individuals who met and discussed such works as Bellamy's differed greatly in their ideas and methods, they found common ground in the 'social problem' of inequality. Why, they asked, 'in an era of unprecedented human achievement, was there suffering and want?' The answer to these questions was commonly held to be that labour alone created the wealth and that the rich maintained their wealth 'through the power of monopoly, their exclusive ownership of the means of production forcing the poor and landless to toil for them'. (Scates, pp. 136-158). It was out of many different ideas, and groups, but with a common outrage against the injustices done to the poor, that the ALP formed in 1891, with branches (initially known as Political Labor Leagues) in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia (McMullin, 1991, pp. 6-7).

During the next decade, factory acts were passed in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, with the Victorian one being the most comprehensive. The Victorian Parliament set a minimum wage, prohibited children under 13 years from working, and granted a maximum working week of 48 hours to boys under 16 years and women. In the late 1890s, numerous Acts were legislated to regulate industry, including the Employers' Liability and Workers' Compensation Acts of 1897, and various mining regulation Acts (Gollan, 1976, pp. 79, 158-159). During this time also, campaigns to grant the vote to women were successful in South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899). Consequently, pre-Federation debates included much on representation. There were arguments about how the States would be fairly represented, and whether the more populous States should have more influence than 'smaller' States. Other discussion centred upon equal representation in areas such as the role of women, both as voters and as Parliamentarians, the place of unions and the development of an arbitration system to facilitate smooth industrial relations. The inclusion of powers was not always seen as progressive. The Western Australian Church News, for example, complained that the inclusion among federal powers of jurisdiction over marriage and divorce would expose Western Australia to the more 'liberal' laws of the eastern colonies. The Brisbane Worker 'argued that pensions and arbitration powers were "really matters of domestic concern", that had been redefined as federal powers to curb the tendencies of progressive states' (Irving, p. 95).

In 1897 and '98, the Tocsin - a weekly newspaper published by the Left Wing of the Victorian Political Labor League (PLL) - warned that Federation was not inclusive of workers' interests. The Tocsin reflected views which Curtin, as a young man, adopted and developed in his own writing. The paper published the PLL platform, which was based on the Chartists' demands of one vote, one value, payment of Members of Parliament, and annual parliaments. To these the PLL added provision of the old age pension; the reform and ultimate abolition of Legislative Councils; an eight-hour working day; a universal minimum wage; the abolition of Sunday labour, and mining law reform. The paper advocated that a Federal Constitution be drawn up by 'a Convention elected directly by the People of all the States' and then be 'submitted to the people by means of a referendum' (Tocsin, 9 October 1897, p. 6).

The paper also pledged itself to maintain 'a watchful attitude towards Federation'. In an article criticising the power of the United States' Constitution, the Tocsin (21 October 1897) asserted that in the US it was 'not the living people who governed but the long dead men who wrote the Constitution'. Australia, therefore, would be wise to avoid setting up a Senate 'in which a minority of the people shall be able to dominate the majority'. In preference to a political federation, in fact, the Tocsin called for the establishment of a Trades Federation to enforce an 8-hour working day in every State and strengthen trades unionism.


During the 1850s, the seemingly radical idea of uniting Australia's colonies to form a single nation was conceived. The idea, however, lacked popularity and was consequently abandoned. At that time, the colonies were more concerned with putting the interests of their own people first and the technology to ensure communication between the colonies had not yet been developed. It was not until the 1880s, that people began to give serious consideration to the possible advantages of uniting the colonies under a federal government which could make uniform laws.

Defence and foreign policy

One of the key reasons for Federation was to achieve a united defence force which could better protect Australia. Around the 1880s, the Australian colonies had become increasingly concerned over the close proximity of foreign powers. A Russian presence in the Pacific, Germany occupying parts of New Guinea and France having colonised New Caledonia, left the colonies in fear that attempts may be made to invade Australia.

At this time, each of the colonies had their own separate defence forces (army and navy) which were without any overarching structure to unite them if a part of the country was under threat. Initially, the colonial navies operated one or two warships. It was soon realised, however, that they did not have the size or the strength to protect the vast Australian coastline and so the colonies employed the services of the British Navy to patrol Australian waters. The colonial armies were just as vulnerable to attack. Despite each army having a military unit in nearly every town, a report, made in 1889 by the British Army's Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards, indicated that the colonies did not possess enough men, arms or even ammunition to provide adequate defence.

There were also suggestions that a unified nation would be better equipped to deal with matters of foreign policy. This notion was particularly reinforced when Germany claimed ownership of New Guinea. Many people in Australia believed that New Guinea should have, and could have, belonged to them if the six colonies had been able to unify to annex it themselves.


Aside from a fear of coming under foreign attack, concern over being invaded by non-white immigrants was another major factor which encouraged people to support Federation. Despite the fact that several colonies already had implemented laws which restricted immigrants from certain countries, all of the colonies were keen to strengthen their immigration policies by uniting to keep non-whites out of Australia.

At that time, there were particular prejudices against the Chinese and Pacific Islanders. The Chinese immigrated in large numbers during the gold rush period which began in the 1850s. From 1863, Pacific Islanders (derogatively known as 'Kanakas') were also brought to Australia to work in the hot conditions in the sugarcane fields. People believed that these foreign workers took jobs away from them and caused their wages and working conditions to be lowered since the foreigners accepted substandard arrangements. See image 1

Transport, trade and taxes

A significant argument in favour of Federation was the need for a uniform rail system. Despite developments in the railway system which allowed even many remote areas to be reached by rail by the late 1800s, progress was ultimately restricted by each colony having a different rail gauge (width of the track). When the rail system in each colony was being built, the colonies were operating independently of one another. Connecting the tracks between them was not considered and therefore never discussed. As a result, Victoria had a gauge of 1.6 metres, while in New South Wales it was 1.43 metres and in Queensland it was 1.07 metres.

Without a uniform gauge, trains could not cross colonial borders. At a time when trains were the main means of long-distance land transport, having to change trains at the border of each colony was a great inconvenience for people travelling. Those involved in inter-colonial trade were also hindered by the rail system, having to unload and reload goods and produce at each border. See image 2

The need for free trade between the colonies and an overarching government to ensure that it was fair was another reason behind support for Federation. During the 1860s the Victorian government realised that goods from overseas and from other colonies were being produced at a cost which their own industries could not equal. It responded with a policy of protectionism which involved imposing customs duties (government taxes or tariffs) on incoming goods, which made them more expensive to consumers than local goods. This encouraged consumers to buy items produced inside the colony, therefore 'protecting' employment and industries. See animation

These taxes, however, created substantial tension between the colonies. The New South Wales government was particularly opposed to tariffs. It believed in free trade as the best philosophy for the most efficient use of scarce resources. A number of people were also concerned that import taxes may even jeopardise foreign relations by discouraging overseas companies from trading with Australia altogether.

Growing national pride

The growth in national pride towards the end of the 19th century served as a considerable factor in securing Federation in Australia. It was not until the 1870s when the percentage of the non-Indigenous population born in Australia began to exceed the number born in the British Isles, that people in the colonies began to consider themselves as something other than British. Unlike their ancestors, they were no longer as interested in wearing the British fashion and composing artworks, poems and songs about Britain.

Even before the colonies were united and Australia had become a nation, national pride had begun to form. The nation's current national anthem ('Advance Australia Fair') was first performed in 1878, despite being more than two decades before Australia officially even existed as a nation. Cricket also instilled a feeling of national pride in Australians when, prior to the colonies being federated, the best cricketers from each colony went on to play in a Test match in London in 1882 where they defeated England by seven runs. See image 3

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