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Federation: A colonial view

Federation gave Australia a national government that speaks and acts for the country as a whole. First mooted in the 1840s, about forty years were to pass before the individual colonies took the first serious steps towards unification. In a theatre of intense colonial rivalry the moves towards federation were stalled and slow.

The first rumblings of nationhood developed under the repressive and militant sovereignty of a penal colony. Colonial liberals of the 1840s argued that the State – while under military rule and still receiving convicts – would continue to be seen as a gaol, discouraging both free emigrants and self-government. Political and social thought was in the process of evolving:

In short, the brutality and human degradation of the convict system destroyed the legitimacy of the old order and made new structures of government a precognition for independence. And, perhaps more importantly, this experience focused all attention on political reform and the benefits of a reformed – but still strong – state. (Najman and Western, 1993:31).

The first recorded idea of unification appeared in 1847 when Earl Grey, Britain’s colonial secretary, suggested a national assembly to regulate the common interests of the Australian colonies. In the 1850s John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish cleric in New South Wales, founded the Australian League which too called for, and campaigned for, a united Australia. The colonial governments, by the 1860s themselves in support of unification, began the first of many inter-colonial conferences to propose the role of a central government. However, because the participating colonies were also economic rivals, the movement towards federation was to be marred with hesitancy. As separate entities, the colonies were in conflict:

Each colony had its own customs and immigration laws, postal service and defence forces, and there was considerable mistrust between them. Increasingly free-trade New South Wales and protectionist Victoria feared each other’s motives, South Australia, free from the ‘convict taint’, looked down on the others, and Western Australia was suspicious of the faraway east. (Alomes and Jones, 1991:105).

Nonetheless, the Federal Council formed in 1885 and consisting of colonial representatives took the first steps towards federation by at least conferring on the prospects and advantages of a unified Australia. New South Wales premier, Henry Parkes, during his Tenterfield Oration in 1889 gave perhaps the first public announcement that the colonies did indeed view the prospect of federation seriously. The Australian Federation Conference in 1890 agreed to frame a constitution – the enabling factor in the system of government – for the Commonwealth of Australia, and subsequent conventions throughout the 1890s made considerable progress towards a constitution draft. In June 1900 the final draft was accepted by all the colonies, and in July of that year the Constitution Bill was passed by British Parliament. The Commonwealth of Australia came into existence on January 1, 1901.

Prior to federation the colonies were considered to be the real power of Australian politics. In framing the Constitution it was agreed that whilst the new central government “would have the authority to legislate on matters of common concern, [it] was not to interfere unduly with the legislative autonomy of the colonies.” (Crowley, 1980, p 146). The Constitution’s ‘Founding Fathers’ were thus concerned about keeping the existing colonial governments intact, and ensuring that the Commonwealth government’s powers were limited.

The federal Constitution reflected both British and American practices – that is, parliamentary government, with cabinets responsible to a bicameral legislature, was established, but only specifically delegated powers were given to the government. The new House of Representatives, like the British House of Commons, was based on popular representation, but the Senate, like its American counterpart, preserved the representation of the colonies, which now became states. (Powell, 1997).

The exclusive powers allocated to the central government included defence; trade and commerce with other countries and among the states; immigration; customs and excise, issuing of currency; interstate industrial arbitration; and postal and other communications. In essence it addressed the differences and rivalries that existed between the individual colonies, any of which can be a suitable argument as to why the colonies federated. Of the number of reasons that drove us towards federation, the three that I consider the most important (for the colonists) were:

  1. To facilitate intercolonial trade;
  2. The need for a united defence force;
  3. And – through immigration policies – to maintain and consolidate a ‘White Australia.’


One of the reasons that the move towards federation was marred with hesitancy was due to the economic rivalry and competing tariff systems between the colonies. The recognition of a uniform tariff policy – high on the agenda during the Federation Conferences – did not receive the cooperation of the ‘self-interested’ colonies. Acting independently the colonies had their own economic policies, and freedom of trade between these ‘economic rivals’ was stifled. Accentuating colonial differences was the manner in which the colonies controlled their own affairs. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, for example, levied their own customs duties to raise revenue. Another element was the major economic differences between those colonies who could compete in export markets – such as New South Wales with its coal or Queensland with sugar – promoted ‘free trade’, and those such as Victoria which promoted ‘protection.’ Victoria, as a consequence of the gold rushes; the subsequent need to find unemployed miners work; and in an effort to improve working conditions had adopted a protective tariff in 1863. This policy also fostered land manufacturing industries. New South Wales on the other hand favoured free trade because of the importance of, and its strong base in, pastoral exports.

There was never any doubt among the Constitution makers that trade and commerce between the colonies could be absolutely free through uniform tariffs. The abolition of each individual colony’s customs and duties would have the effect of protecting the industries of one colony against the other. Under free trade the products of one colony – using Queensland in this example with sugar, rice, fruit and cattle – would have free entrance into the other colonies. The products of the other colonies would also have free entrance into Queensland.

As a commercial opportunity, “the form of the federation, and especially of its industrial and tariff powers … favoured more free market/low tariff policies.” (Najman and Western, 1993, p 36). The consequences, it is suggested, could have been chilling:

Without ‘state intervention’ Australia would be destined to develop rather as a poor Third World comprador economy, entirely dependent on cash crops and with a State designed only to maintain whatever measure of repression its foreign sponsors would demand. (Najman and Western, 1993, pp 34-35).


The issue of defence was simply a logical need for a “uniting voice on defending Australia.” (Forell, 1994:8). In 1885 – spurred on by perceived threats to their security – the colonies created the aforementioned Federal Council formally to manage such questions as defence co-operation. A brief summary of the preceding twenty five years provides the precursor for this agenda.

In 1860 the colony’s defence depended on some remaining British garrisons, and on the Royal Navy. By 1870 the last of the British garrisons had been withdrawn, leaving the colonies to build and deploy their own armies or navies. In the 1880s the prospect of European – as distinct from British – colonisation of the Pacific triggered fears of Australia’s subsequent lack of defence. Although Britain’s annexation of Fiji in 1874 was seen as steps of a stronger (and reassuring) British presence in the South Pacific, there was growing anxiety about the French penal colony in New Caledonia and their interest in the New Hebrides, and about German designs on New Guinea. Queensland, anticipating German moves, claimed Papua on New Guinea in 1883 on behalf of Britain – as a prod for Britain to further increase their role in the Pacific – however the British government rejected Queensland’s actions. Concerned that they might not be able to direct British policy in their interests and aware of the emergence of new powers in Europe, by 1885 the colonies – worried that Britain was insufficiently attentive to their fears – felt that their own security remained uncertain.

By 1889 however, the Federal Council – due to lack of co-operation between the colonies – had failed to deliver a unified defence program. In October of that year, Henry Parkes, in his Tenterfield Oration to mark the completion of the Sydney to Brisbane railway, appealed that having a national defence force under one central control was one of the incentives for federation. He endorsed comments from the British Imperial General, Major-General Sir Bevan Edwards as the conscience for this cause. Edwards had inspected the colonial forces and had been compelled to question the effectiveness of an “army without a central executive to guide its movements.” (Crowley, 1980:281). It was fuel for Parkes’ pro-federation speech, and driven by wild applause he further pushed Edwards’ message:

Believing as he did that it was essential to preserve the integrity and security of these colonies that the whole of their forces should be amalgamated into one great federal army, feeling this, and seeing no other means of attaining the end, it seemed to him that the time was close at hand when they ought to set about creating this great national government for all Australia. [Parkes appropriately added that, with the completed Brisbane to Sydney railway]: They had now, from South Australia to Queensland, a stretch of about 2000 miles of railway, and if the four colonies could only combine to adopt a uniform gauge, it would be an immense advantage in the movement of troops. (Crowley, 1980:281).

A ‘White Australia’

To parallel the colonies’ fear of invasion was the “fear and loathing of other races.” (Alomes and Jones, 1991:125). Henningham summarises both:

Australia’s geography – further from the colonist’s ‘home’ than almost any place on earth, and separated by only a narrow sea passage from the ‘teeming millions’ of Asia – resulted in the development of a xenophobic, isolationist world view, in which psychological barriers were erected against near neighbours. (Henningham, 1995, p 2).

Fuelled by the concept of Social Darwinism, the colonists were also anxious to maintain white purity which was under threat of ‘decay’ from the Indigenous population, and more predominantly, from the ‘invasion’ of Chinese who had arrived as diggers on the goldfields some decades earlier. “Anti-Chinese paranoia” (Kingston, 1993:137) however, extended beyond the arguments of Social Darwinism. Fostered as anti-Christian by the popular press, and with government enquiries into their alleged gambling habits and drug use, the Chinese were seen as the mental and moral corrupters of society. The anti-Chinese sentiment was also extended to an anxiety about economic competition given that in a variety of lowly occupations the Chinese were seen as a threat to wages and conditions, due to their acceptance of both at a level below the standards of the white worker. Such sentiments were also directed towards the Kanakas: the Pacific Islanders employed in large numbers in the Queensland sugar industry.

Adopting their own measures the individual colonies passed legislations limiting Chinese immigration. The colonists, being mainly Britannic Australians and intolerant of all races except the Anglo-Saxon, wanted it kept that way. Uniform immigration policies under the guise of federation would endorse this sentiment – without interference from the racially tolerant British.

This draws two conclusions: that one of the foundations of Australia is racism; and that Federation was the rationale to maintain white superiority. Subsequently, the first act of the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act which gave Australia national immigration policies such as the White Australia Policy. ‘White Australia,’ was designed to keep out Asian migrants and serve as “an ideological function in reinforcing the concept of an all-white nation.” (McGrath, 1995:365).

The most “basic flaw in Australian nationalism was its view of race.” (Alomes, 1988:30). Perhaps then, national identity was enshrined in the White Australia policy:

Upon the very isolation of this vast island continent … a unique human experiment might be attempted. As with nowhere else upon the globe, here a distinct biological community might be established, maintained and nurtured within a single geographic entity. If the indigenous peoples continued their perceived decline towards extinction and other migrant races were excluded or expelled, a ‘pure race’ could logically result. From such a vision, the idea of a ‘White Australia’ was born – a society where national boundaries conformed to racial ones – and by the time of Federation, this was no longer so much a matter of debate as a nation-wide article of faith. (Cited in Evans et al, 1997, p 26).


Note: For a more comprehensive discussion on ‘White Australia’ refer to the article linked directly below:

Nationhood and the ‘Pure’ Race (part 1)



Akmeemana, S; and Dusseldorp, T. (1995). ‘Race discrimination; where to from here?’ in Alternative law journal, Volume 20, Number 5, pp 207-211.

Alomes. S. (1988). A nation at last. Angus and Robertson, North Ryde.

Alomes, S; and Jones, C. (1991). Australian nationalism: a documentary history, Angus and Robertson, North Ryde.

Crowley, F. (1980). A documentary history of Australia volume 3: colonial Australia 1875-1900, Nelson, West Melbourne.

Evans, R; Moore, C; Saunders, K; and Jamison, B. (1997). Editors 1901 our future’s past: documenting Australia’s federation, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

Forell, C. (1994). How we are governed, 11th edition, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Henningham, J. (1995). Editor Institutions in Australian society, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kociumbas, J. (1992). The Oxford history of Australia volume 2: possessions 1770-1860. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kingston, B. (1993). The Oxford history of Australia: glad, confident morning 1860-1900, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Lovell, D; McAllister, I; Maley, W; and Kukathas, C. (1995), The Australian political system, Longmans, Melbourne.

McGrath, A. (1995). Editor Contested ground, Allen and Unwin, St. Leonards.

Najman, J; and Western J. (1993). Editors A sociology of Australian society: introductory readings, MacMillan, South Melbourne.

Powell, J. (1997). Australia in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 1993-1996, Microsoft Corporation, CD Rom.


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  1. Roswell

    I didn’t know anything about trade being one of the drivers towards federation. Makes sense.

  2. New England Cocky

    An interesting article that misses the historical point about racism against Aborigines.

    The chief advocate AGAINST Aborigines having the vote and hence citizenship was Isaac Isaacs, a Jewish lawyer from Beechworth Victoria. Isaacs was reported in the Proceedings as propounding the view that ”Aborigines were less than chimpanzees”, so would die out and did not deserve to be considered Australian citizens. This view was contained in the final Proceedings and consequently written into the final draft of the Australian Constitution.

    Conveniently, Isaacs ignored the fact that South Australia had granted Aborigines the vote in 1892 along with white women. However, NSW only granted women the vote from 1901 Federation. Naturally Aborigines were disenfranchised by the 1901 Constitution.

    An appeal against this decision was made by a South Australian Aboriginal Man and it was heard before Isaac Isaacs CJ in the High Court of Australia. Naturally this racist follower of social Darwinism found against the plaintiff. So began the state sponsored genocidal policies of state and Federal governments that lasted to the 1967 Referendum that changed the status to Aborigines from ”flora & fauna” to Australian citizens.

    Roll on to 1938 and the policies of the German National Socialist misgovernment. The only support given to Jewish people suffering under government rule came from an Aboriginal Leader. This historic irony is not lost on scholars.

  3. Michael Taylor

    NEC, I deliberately left out the Aboriginal factor as I had written about that recently and didn’t want to repeat what I’d written earlier. Instead, I put a link to it at the bottom of the article. Although I do see that it has come up as a related post.

    My thoughts on the treatment of the First Nations People are fairly well known.

  4. Michael Taylor

    PS: Isaacs was born in Yackandandah, a little town near Beechworth. I drive through Yackandandah regularly, and feel like vomiting when I see the sign “Birthplace of Isaac Isaacs”. It spoils what is otherwise a beautiful little place in the world.

  5. Terence Mills

    Fun fact !

    The original federation of Australia was to include the British colonies of Fiji and New Zealand but ultimately they decided not to join.

    So it was left to the six separate British self-governing colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia to unite although WA was touch and go for a while.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Terry, WA came on board later. I don’t know how much later, but it wasn’t too long.

    But I didn’t know that about Fiji and NZ. Very interesting.

  7. Andrew James Smith

    Interesting on trade, it’s similar to why the EEC or now EU was formed to make trade and now movement of people easier; but many still don’t like it, even in Oz (?!), and we still cop different train gauges or state laws that are contradictory.

    Further, now it’s unclear whether colonialism, race and eugenics, used along with Anglo libertarian economics i.e. now ‘Kochonomics’, are stand alone or not the inspiration for the latter? The muse was James Buchanan described as a ‘segregation economist’, while Bright in ByLine Times has written that it masks deep seated eugenics to excuse segregation (‘The Dark Heart of Trussonomics: The Mainstreaming of Libertarian Theories of Social Darwinism and Apartheid’, Nafeez Ahmed 10 October 2022).

    On NEC’s comment, ‘Roll on to 1938 and the policies of the German National Socialist misgovernment. The only support given to Jewish people suffering under government rule came from an Aboriginal Leader. This historic irony is not lost on scholars’

    that was William Cooper who some years earlier had a fish shop in Yarrawonga, on the Murray, downstream from home of Federation, Corowa.

  8. wam

    The leaders of society in every state were english, the legal system was english the public service was english the lack of respect for language was english the fear of asian numbers and breeding habits was/is english, the state education system was english the rabbits were english the foxes were english. perhaps the best exemplar englishman was churchill who called gandhi a half naked seditious fakir and ‘hated people with slit eyes and pigtails’. At our level. I have relatives who use terms like slopes and ‘nignongs’ and we have chinese friends. Terry dance, not too sure about ‘unite’ being used in a federation? But I think it would be advantageous if we had an Australian education system

  9. B Sullivan

    “My thoughts on the treatment of the First Nations People are fairly well known.”

    Here are my thoughts.

    The First Nations People lived and died thousands of years before the colonisation of Australia by Europeans. Modern Australians are encouraged to believe they still exist but of course they don’t. They lived at least 60,000 years ago, possibly 120,000 years ago, and because they left no surviving historical record, they have been forgotten by those who came later. We only know of their existence because of archeology, a science that is treated with contempt, like most sciences come to think of it, by modern Australians. A science that only just recently revealed evidence that people were still arriving on the east coast of Australia in sea-faring canoes just 6000 years ago. Long after the land bridges used by earlier immigrants had disappeared under rising sea levels. And some of the Polynesian sea-farers who discovered and settled in New Zealand only 800 years ago must surely have found their way to Australia, as well as the Melanesians and Micronesians… It appears that boat people have been coming to Australia more or less continuously for millennia.

    There is archeological evidence of people who lived in Australia 40,000 years ago who had a completely different culture than the celebrated oldest continuous traditional modern Aboriginal culture. Maybe they were the real First Nations People. How have they been treated? With complete neglect and no respect for the fact that they ever existed.

  10. Terence Mills


    Historical legend has it that New Zealand declined the offer to join the Australian federation because they would have had to adopt English as their national language, apart from which they thought that the ‘convict stain’ might spread to them.

    Fiji resisted our approaches as they thought we just wanted them as a state so that we could beat New Zealand at Rugby from time to time.

  11. Michael Taylor

    B Sullivan,

    There is a lot more to what you say than you may think.

    The archaeological record does indeed tell us that there were two distinct groups of “races”. The skeletal remains of the people who lived around the Lake Mungo area (from 40,000 years ago until 15,000 years ago, when the lakes dried up) tell us that these people were ‘gracile’ (like Asians) whereas elsewhere the skeletal remains show us these people were ‘robust’ (like the present-day people of central Australia).

    The oldest archaeological record, btw, dates back 63,000 years – at a rock shelter in Queensland.

    Was there an earlier civilisation here? The answer to that could be “yes”. When asked about rock carvings in the Kimberley area, the local people – who have lived there for 40,000 years – replied that they are from a people who were there long before them. Interesting, yes?

    The dingo, btw, is a fairly recent arrival to Australia, possibly 6,000 years, which suggests that people were still coming here in different waves. The closest relative of the dingo is an Indian wild dog (I don’t know its proper name).

    As for the Māoris, they arrived in New Zealand about 1,400 years ago, coming from Hawaii. They ‘knew’ of New Zealand because they were able to ‘read’ the tides, ie, the tides suggested that there was a land mass to the west: New Zealand.

  12. Terence Mills

    On Cape York, Joseph Banks talks of ‘wild dogs’ and of sighting an ‘indian’ with a bow and arrow.

    We know that there had been traditional Trepang (sea cucumber) harvesting in these Northern waters by Malaccan and others who visited our shores. If you visit many of the Aboriginal communities on Cape York you will find that the people have Malay/Indonesian features rather than the melanesian features more evident elsewhere and in the Torres Strait Islands.

    The reference to the ‘bow and arrow’ is particularly interesting as that technology had spread throughout the world , from China to the Americas and throughout Africa and Europe and was evidently introduced into Northern Australia but not generally adopted elsewhere on this continent.

  13. Max Gross

    Everyone comes from somewhere

  14. New England Cocky

    @ Michael Taylor: Re Maoris coming from the west.

    This hypothesis tends to support the Heyerdahl (sp?) idea that South Seas populations originated in South America, as shown by his (Ra?) expedition across the Pacific to Rarotonga. The usually accepted hypothesis is Asian migration south, with which I disagree.

    @ Terence Mills: The ”bow & arrow” observation fits with my heretical hypothesis that human migration from Central Eastern Africa in the Southern Hemisphere did NOT go via Saudi Arabia & India but rather south through South Africa, across a now lost land bridge to Antarctica to Tasmania and via the known land bridge into Terra Del Fuego South America.

    I support this hypothesis with the observation that the least technically ”evolved” societies occur on that track. The pygmies with bow & arrows, the Tasmanian Aborigines with little technology and the facial similarity of Terra Del Fuego ”natives” in South America to Tasmanian Aborigines in 19th century illustrations seen in 19th century books about that area.

    However, for Joseph Banks’ single report (?) of a bow & arrow on Cape York could suggest all sorts of possibilities.

  15. New England Cocky

    @ Terence Mills: Re Federation & WA

    I understand that a referendum was held and it was the power of the miners vote in Kalgoorlie that won the day for WA to join the Australian Federation. There have been at least two (2) attempts to exploit the ”escape clause” but these were simply ignored by the other states before quietly dying.

    Today’s Indian Pacific Railway line was built to ”connect” WA with the eastern states in 1916-1917. Federal Treasurer King O’Malley financed the project during WWI by printing a fresh series of bank notes that were only issued on the Railway project and immediately re-called the notes to the Commonwealth Bank upon return to any bank as a normal part of commercial business.

  16. Michael Taylor

    NEC, one Māori legend is that the world rests on 4 large pillars which sit on a very large turtle. Oddly, the Navaho (I think it’s the Navaho) have the same belief.

    We had exchange students from NZ and the USA at our uni for a year undertaking Indigenous Studies. The surprised look on the lass’s faces when they discovered that their people shared a similar creation story.

    Regarding migrations; here’s a puzzler. It is thought that North America was populated by people crossing the Bering Strait, as the archaeological record shows the oldest to youngest from north to south. The further north, the older the archaeological evidence, and the age decreases the further south one travels, until you reach the bottom of the USA where human occupation is dated at only 2,000 years.

    Then something strange happens: the occupation of the northern part of South America is dated at 40,000 years. It doesn’t fit the pattern.

  17. Michael Taylor

    NEC, a coincidence?

    The First Nations People who trapped eels in south eastern Victoria thousands of years ago stored and preserved their catch the very same was as the Indigenous people of Norway.

    Archaeologists were stumped at what these earth containers were… until… they discovered that it was a Norwegian practice.

    Who taught who?

  18. New England Cocky

    An Egyptian friend was surprised to discover a collection of Australian Aboriginal boomerangs in a corner of the Cairo Museum.

    Then near Gosford NSW there is some Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into the stone cliff as reported by the Newcastle Herald and seen firsthand by my eldest son. It would be interesting to date these hieroglyphs as the style changed over time & there is an expert available in the British Museum who could do it given reasonable pics

  19. Michael Taylor

    NEC, I think some old Egyptian coins were also found on a beach in Queensland many, many years ago.

  20. Michael Taylor


    Bad pun alert!

    Those boomerangs in the Cairo Museum should come back to us. 😁

  21. Terence Mills

    What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back ?………………………a stick !

  22. Canguro

    re. ‘Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into the stone cliff near Gosford’, what’s not to say they were carved circa the 1960s-70s, or earlier or later, by some hippies tripping on acid and having a moonlight rave while grokking on the mysteries of the pharaohs? Seems slightly more feasible than the suggestion that we were possibly visited by the good folk of the upper Nile some thousands of years ago.

  23. leefe


    ” … legend is that the world rests on 4 large pillars which sit on a very large turtle.”

    Get it right. The Discworld rests on four enormous elephants which stand on a very large (spacefaring) turtle.


    The style of the hieroglyphs is irrelevant as a modern creator could have chosen any given style. There are methods of dating rock carvings through chemical analysis and weathering, which is going to give you a reasoonably accurate date..

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