Australia Federation Essay


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

The idea of a federation of the six Australian colonies was occasionally debated among Australian politicians, officials and others from about 1850 onwards. There was support for the idea in official circles in Britain, especially after the Canadian colonies federated in 1867. The first practical step towards federation was the creation of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1885. It met several times between 1886 and 1899, but it had no executive powers, New South Wales remained aloof, and it was generally ineffective.

In October 1889, in a speech at Tenterfield, the veteran New South Wales politician Sir Henry Parkes called for federation, with a strong executive controlled by the Australian people, to ensure that the colonies were properly defended. Following an informal conference in Melbourne in 1890, all the Australian colonies and also New Zealand sent delegates to a convention in Sydney in March 1891. It was chaired by Parkes. A sub-committee comprising Sir Samuel Griffith, Charles Kingston, Edmund Barton and Andrew Inglis Clark drafted a Constitution Bill. However, the colonial legislatures were slow to adopt it and, in particular, there was strong opposition in New South Wales. In 1893 popular support for federation began to grow, with the formation of federation leagues in most colonies and a conference of leagues in Corowa in New South Wales.

In 1895 the premiers agreed that another convention should be held, with the delegates directly chosen by the electors. The Federal Convention met in Adelaide in March 1897 and was reconvened in Sydney in September 1897 and Melbourne in January 1898. There were 50 delegates and only Queensland was not represented. A Drafting Committee consisting of Barton, Sir John Downer and Richard O’Connor drafted a Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill which, with amendments, was adopted by the Convention. The Bill was then submitted to referenda in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. There were majorities in each colony, but only a slim one in New South Wales, where leading politicians such as George Reid remained half-hearted. In January 1899 the premiers made some amendments, mainly at the instigation of New South Wales, and new referenda were held in every colony apart from Western Australia.

In 1900 delegates from the six colonies met Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in London. The negotiations resulted in a few slight amendments and the Constitution Bill was then passed by the British Parliament. Queen Victoria gave her assent on 9 July 1900. In the same month a referendum was held in Western Australia and the federationists were victorious. A proclamation was signed by the Queen on 17 September 1900 declaring that on 1 January 1901 the six colonies would be united under the name of Commonwealth of Australia. Lord Hopetoun was appointed Governor General and on 31 December 1900 he commissioned the first Commonwealth Ministry, headed by Edmund Barton. The first Commonwealth Parliament was opened by the Duke of York in Melbourne on 9 May 1901.


The National Library owes its existence to Federation and from the beginning it set out to document the Federation movement. In 1903 it announced that it was seeking complete records of Federation from every possible source. The first substantial manuscript collection acquired by the Library was the archives of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales, purchased from Edward Dowling in 1912. The Federation papers of Sir Edmund Barton were donated by his family in 1928, while the papers of Alfred Deakin were presented by his daughter in 1965.



The National Library holds the most comprehensive collection of original records of the Federation movement. They range from official correspondence and working papers of the Federal Conventions and committees to private letters, diaries, and an assortment of printed ephemera associated with the Conventions and the Commonwealth celebrations in 1901. The following are the principal collections held by the Library.

MS 47

Records of Australasian Federation League of New South Wales retained by its secretary, Edward Dowling. They comprise correspondence (1890-1910), letterbooks, minutebooks (1893-1911), financial records, subject files, reports, handbills, pamphlets and a manuscript by Dowling.

MS 51

Papers of Sir Edmund Barton, New South Wales parliamentarian and delegate to the Federal Conventions, 1891, 1897-98. The papers include correspondence with political leaders in Australia and Britain, speeches, many drafts of the Commonwealth Constitution Bill, and newspaper cuttings.

MS 129

Papers of Sir William Lyne, New South Wales Premier and parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. They consist of letters and telegrams concerning his unsuccessful attempt to form the first Commonwealth Government in December 1900.

MS 277

Papers of Sir John Kirwan, Western Australian journalist and later parliamentarian. The papers include letters on the Federal campaign, including agitation in favour of Federation on the Western Australian goldfields.

MS 296

Papers (copies) of Sir Walter James, West Australian parliamentarian and delegate to the Federal Convention, 1897-98. They include letters of Deakin, Barton, Wise and other leaders of the Federal campaign.

MS 297

Papers of Sir Henry Turner, Victorian Premier and parliamentarian and delegate to the Federal Convention, 1897-98. They consist largely of printed ephemera such as programs, menus, invitations, tickets and speeches, mostly in relation to the Commonwealth celebrations in 1901.

MS 304

Papers of J.D. Holmes, lawyer, judge and bibliographer. The papers include a bibliography of Federation, 1841-1901.

MS 479

Papers of Lord Tennyson, Governor of South Australia in 1899-1902. The papers include many letters of Lady Tennyson referring to Federation.

MS 743

Papers (copies) of Christopher Crisp, Victorian journalist. The papers consist of correspondence with Deakin and other leaders of the Federal movement.

MS 1057

Papers of H.B. Higgins, Victorian parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. The papers include correspondence and newspaper cuttings of the Federation period.

MS 1540

Papers of Alfred Deakin, Victorian parliamentarian and delegate to all the Federal conferences and Conventions, 1890-98. They include an extensive correspondence, diaries, notebooks, notes for speeches, drafts of the Commonwealth Constitution Bill, printed ephemera relating to the federal Conventions, newspaper cuttings and the manuscript of The Federal Story.

MS 1708

Papers of B.R. Wise, New South Wales parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. They comprise notes and letters of Andrew Inglis Clark.

MS 1736

Papers of Sir Josiah Symon, South Australian parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Convention. Among the papers are correspondence with political leaders, Convention documents and newspaper cuttings.

MS 2001

Papers of Sir Robert Garran, private secretary to George Reid and secretary to the Drafting Committee at the 1897 Convention. They include notes and speeches on the federal campaign and a volume of documents relating to the 1897-98 Convention.

MS 2268

Papers of Sir Frederick Holder, South Australian Premier and parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. They consist of menus, invitations and other printed ephemera.

MS 2755

Papers of Sir Isaac Isaacs, Victorian parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. They include annotated drafts of the Commonwealth Constitution Bill.

MS 4653

Papers of Patrick McMahon Glynn, South Australian parliamentarian and delegate to the 1897-98 Convention. They include diaries, notebooks, speeches and cutting books.

MS 5243

Papers of L.F. Crisp, political scientist and author of Federation fathers (1990). They include correspondence and the manuscripts of his Federation monographs (1979-84).

MS 5248

Papers of J.A. La Nauze, historian and author of Alfred Deakin (1965) and The making of the Australian Constitution (1972). They include correspondence, copies of documents and research material on Deakin and the Federal movement.

MS 7691

Papers of R.B. Joyce, historian and author of Samuel Walker Griffith (1984). They include correspondence, copies of original documents, research material and drafts on Sir William Griffith.

MS 8577

Papers of F.K. Crowley, historian and author of Big John Forrest 1847-1918 (2000). They include an unpublished typescript, ‘Forrest the politician, 1891-1918’.


The Australian Joint Copying Project microfilmed Colonial Office records documenting the British response to the Federation movement, including the negotiations between the Australian delegates and the British Government in 1900. In addition, it filmed personal papers of several ministers and governors who took an interest in Federation.

mfm M 412 Papers of Sir Anthony Musgrave, Governor of Queensland, 1885-88

mfm M 867-68 Papers of Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1895-1903 (Birmingham University Library)

mfm M 936-37 Papers of John Hope, 7th Earl Hopetoun, Governor of Victoria in 1889-95 and Governor-General in 1901-2

mfm M 1698-1703 Records of Royal Commonwealth Society (Cambridge University Library)

mfm M 1840 Papers of Sir William Onslow, 4th Earl of Onslow, Governor of New Zealand, 1889-92 (Surrey Record Office)

mfm M 1904 Papers of Edward Stanhope, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1886-87 (Kent Archives Office)

mfm M 1969-72 Papers of Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1882-85 (Liverpool City Library)

mfm M 2290 Papers of Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1878-80 (Gloucestershire Record Office)

mfm PRO 2127 Australia: Acts: Federal Council, 1886-97 (C.O. 12/1)

mfm G 7446 Confidential prints: Draft Federal Council Bill, 1884 (C.O. 881/6)

mfm G 7451 Confidential prints: Federation of Australian colonies, 1897-99 (C.O. 881/10)


The Library holds the music scores of a substantial number of patriotic songs which were written in support of Federation and to celebrate the inauguration of the Commonwealth. The following are some examples.

Adney, Marcus L., Rise! Australia: Australian national anthem, 1899

Burn, John C., The star of Australia: a Federation song, 1899

Chanter, Arthur, Australians all: national song and anthem, 1898

De Giorgio, V., Australian Commonwealth triumphal march, c. 1900

Gillott, Joseph, Australia’s cherished dream: a song of the Commonwealth, c. 1901

Heuzenroeder, M., Australia, c. 1900

Landseer, Laura, Federation waltz, 1895-1900

McBurney, S., The flag of union: a Federation song, c. 1901

McCormick, P.D., Advance Australia fair, c. 1879

Nicholson, John H., Sons of Britannia: a Federation song, n.d.

Ricketts, Thomas A., Federation polka, c. 1900

Taylor, Toso, United Australia: national song and chorus, c. 1898

Wood, Hampton, Australia’s emblem waltz, 1891-92

Paintings, drawings and prints

The Library holds a small group of paintings, drawings, cartoons and prints of prominent figures in the Federation movement. The following are some examples:

Banks, Harry G., Portrait of B.R. Wise (photograph), 1898

Chinner, J.H., Portrait of Alfred Deakin (ink and wash), c. 1910

Chinner, J.H., Portrait of Edmund Barton (pen and wash), n.d.

Chinner, J.H., Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes (watercolour), 1893

Cotton, H., Federated Australia (pen and ink), 1900

Cotton, H., Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes (pen and ink), 1900

Cotton, H., Toby or not to be? that is the question (ink cartoon), 1900

W.H. Gocher, Portrait of William Lyne (oil), c. 1900

Talma & Co,Portrait of Sir Samuel Griffith (photograph), n.d.

Hopkins, Livingston, The Federal child (pen and ink cartoon), n.d.

Readett, C.W., The Federal Works (watercolour cartoon), c. 1898


The Library holds photographs of most of the figures in the Federation movement. In the case of leading figures, such as Barton, Deakin, Griffith, Kingston, Isaacs and Parkes, there are many photographs, often ranging from childhood to old age. There are also photographs of the delegates attending the 1890 Conference and the 1891 and 1897-98 Conventions, including some of the committees.

There are an extraordinary number of photographs of the celebrations surrounding the inauguration of the Commonwealth on 1 January 1901 and the opening of the Federal Parliament in Melbourne in May 1901. In addition to loose photographs, there are 24 albums documenting the decorations, parades and other celebrations, and the tour by the Duke and Duchess of York, in various parts of Australia. Some of the albums contain not only photographs but also memorabilia and newspaper cuttings.


Primary accounts

Clark, Andrew Inglis, Studies in Australian constitutional law, 1901

Deakin, Alfred, The federal story; the inner history of the federal cause, edited by Herbert Brookes, 1944 [later editions edited by J.A. La Nauze (1963) and Stuart Macintyre (1995)]

Federal Council of Australasia, Official records of debates, 8 vols, 1886-99

Garran, Robert, Prosper the Commonwealth, 1958

Higgins, H.B., Essays and addresses on the Australian Commonwealth Bill, 1900

Moore, William Harrison, The Constitution of the Commonwealthof Australia, 1902

Official record of the proceedings and debates of the National Australasian Convention, 1891

Official record of the debates of the Australasian Federal Convention, 4 vols, 1897-98

Parkes, Henry, Fifty years in the making of Australian history, 1892

Quick, John, Sir John Quick’s notebook, edited by L.E. Fredman, 1965

Quick, John and Robert Randolph Garran, The annotated constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901

Reid, George H., My reminiscences, 1917

Wise, B.R., The making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900; a stage in the growth of the Empire, 1913

Biographies and other studies

Bennett, Scott, ed., Federation, 1975

Bennett, Scott, ed., The making of the Commonwealth, 1971

Bolton, Geoffrey, Edmund Barton, 2000

Cowen, Zelman, Isaac Isaacs, 1967

Crisp, L.F., Federation fathers, 1990

Crowley, F.K., Big John Forrest 1847-1918: a founding father of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2000

Glass, Margaret, Charles Cameron Kingston: federation father, 1997

Gunnar, Peter M., Good Iron Mac: the life of Australian federation father Sir William McMillan, KCMG, 1995

Haward, Marcus and James Warden, eds, An Australian democrat; the life, work and consequences of Andrew Inglis Clark, 1995

Howell, P.A., South Australia and federation, 2002

Irving, Helen, ed., The Centenary companion to Australian federation, 1999

Irving, Helen, To constitute a nation; a cultural history of Australia’s constitution,1997

Joyce, R.B., Samuel Walker Griffith, 1984

La Nauze, J.A., Alfred Deakin, 2 vols, 1965

La Nauze, J.A., The making of the Australian Constitution, 1972

McMinn, W.G., George Reid, 1989

Martin, A.W., ed., Essays in Australian federation, 1969

Martin, A.W., Henry Parkes, 1980

Norris, Ronald, The emergent Commonwealth: Australian federation, expectations and fulfilment, 1889-1910, 1975

O’Collins, Gerald, Patrick McMahon Glynn: a founder of Australian federation, 1965

Rickard, John, H.B. Higgins, the rebel as judge, 1984

Russell, Roslyn and Philip Chubb, One destiny! The federation story, how Australia became a nation, 1998

Williams, John M., The Australian Constitution, a documentary history, 2005


The records of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales and the papers of various figures in the Federation movement are held in the Manuscripts Collection. In most cases, there are finding-aids which describe the papers in some detail and which usually include indexes of correspondence. Most of the finding-aids are accessible on the Library’s Website, as well as in paper form in the Manuscripts Reading Room. The papers of Sir Edmund Barton and many of the papers of Alfred Deakin have been digitised and can be found at and

The microfilms are available in the Newspaper and Microcopy Reading Room. Descriptions of the papers of Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Hopetoun can be found in Part 8 of the Australian Joint Copying Project Handbook.

The paintings, drawings, prints and photographs are held in the Pictures Collection at various locations. They have been catalogued individually. The photograph albums are numbered 322-44 and 379. Many of the individual photographs are filed under the heading Australia: Federation.

The songs and marches are held in the Music Collection, while the publications are in the Australian Collection. They have all been catalogued individually.

Related collections

The papers of Sir Henry Parkes, which form an extremely large archive, are held in the Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales. The papers of Sir Samuel Griffith are in the Dixson Library in the State Library of New South Wales. The papers of Andrew Inglis Clark are held in the University of Tasmania Archives.


Foster, S.G., Susan Marsden and Roslyn Russell, compilers, Federation: the guide to the records, Canberra, Australian Archives, 1998

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