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:
- To facilitate intercolonial trade;
- The need for a united defence force;
- 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:
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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