Australia's federation

In 1901 the 6 British colonies united to become a new nation—the Commonwealth of Australia. This fact sheet examines the path to federation, the creation of the territories, the opening of the Australian Parliament and Australia's federal system of government.

The path to federation

For at least 50 000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on these lands and practiced traditional cultures and languages. From the late 1700s, British colonies were established. By the late 1800s, these colonies had their own parliaments but were still subject to the law-making power of the British Parliament.

Each colony had its own government and laws, including its own railway system, postage stamps and tariffs—taxes. This caused many problems and people began to think about the benefits of uniting as one nation, under a federal system of governance.

During the 1890s each colony sent representatives to conventions—meetings—to try to agree about how to form a new federation. Eventually the representatives decided on the rules for a federal system and a draft constitution. The people of the colonies voted in a series of referendums to accept this new Australian Constitution. It was then passed by the British Parliament as the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, which came into effect on 1 January 1901. The Constitution established a federal—national—Parliament which would make laws on behalf of the new Australian nation.

The colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania united and became states of Australia, known as the Commonwealth of Australia. Western Australia was not part of the initial agreement but agreed to join the federation before 1 January 1901.

The territories

In 1901 the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory (NT) did not exist. The Constitution provided for the establishment of a national capital, to be located in New South Wales but at least 100 miles from Sydney. In 1911 the Australian Government created the ACT for this purpose. In the same year, the NT was also created. This area had previously been part of South Australia.

Although part of the Commonwealth, the territories do not have the same legal status as states.

A new nation and a new Parliament

When the Commonwealth of Australia was declared on 1 January 1901, a ceremony was held in Centennial Park in Sydney. The first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, was sworn in and the first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, and federal ministers took the oath of office. Many Australians celebrated their nationhood, participating in parades, processions, sporting events and school pageants.

The first federal elections for the new Parliament were held on 29 and 30 March 1901. The first Parliament was held in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. It was officially opened by the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V). The opening ceremony was large and elaborate and further celebrations were held.

Australia's federal system

Under the Australian Constitution, the new states united within the Commonwealth. Power was to be shared between the federal Parliament and state parliaments. The federal Parliament would make laws about national matters, such as defence, immigration, trade and foreign affairs.

The power to make and manage federal law would be divided between the Parliament (who would make the law), the Executive (who would put the law into action) and the Judiciary (who would make judgements about the law).

The federal Parliament would be made up of the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. Laws could only be passed or changed if agreed to by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Australian federal system took some of its features from the British Parliament and some from the United States system of governance.

Children celebrating federation, Melbourne 1901.

Black and white photo showing 2 rows of children wearing costumes in Melbourne in 1901. They are holding flags and banners.

National Library of Australia, an13117280-22


This black and white photo is of a group of older children in 1901. They are dressed in elaborate costumes to celebrate Australia's federation. The costumes highlight Australia's British heritage. A large Union Jack is being held by one of the group.