Australia's federation

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

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. They argued a national government would:

  • Increase trade and strengthen the economies of each colony by removing internal tariffs and borders.
  • Create a national defence force to protect the continent in case of invasion.
  • Better control of immigration from non-British countries.
  • Create a more democratic system of government in which women could vote.

The process for federation took a long time. Some of the major events were:

1889

Tenterfield oration
Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, gave a speech calling for ‘a great national government for all Australians’. This helped spark the federation movement.

1890

Australasian Federation Conference
Representatives from each of the colonies and New Zealand met, and decided the colonies should unite to become a nation.

1891

First National Australasian Convention
A draft constitution for the new nation was written.

1897-98

Second National Australasian Convention
Representatives from each of the colonies (except Queensland and New Zealand, who had pulled out of the process) agreed to changes to the draft constitution.

1898

First referendum
Voters in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were asked to approve a constitution for the new nation.

1899

Secret premiers’ conference
In order to win the support of the New South Wales and Queensland premiers, changes were agreed to the draft constitution, including the location of the new national capital.

1899

Second referendum
All the colonies except Western Australia held referendums to approve to the proposed constitution and all the colonies agreed.

1900

Western Australia holds referendum

1901

On 1 January 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia united and became the states of Australia, known as the Commonwealth of Australia.

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.

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

Description

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.