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The Australian Nation

Nation making

The six Australian colonies developed separately from each other. In the 1880s and 1890s more links were growing between them. Their railway systems joined at the borders. People travelled more to other colonies to look for work and do business. Some companies operated in two or three of the colonies. BHP, which was run from Melbourne, had its mines at Broken Hill in New South Wales, which got its supplies from Adelaide. Churches, trade unions and professional people formed Australia-wide organisations.
National links

The colonies belonged to the one empire, but in some things they treated each other as foreign states. When you crossed the River Murray from New South Wales to Victoria you passed a building with the notice ‘Her Majesty’s Customs’. At the other end of the bridge was another building and its notice read ‘Her Majesty’s Customs’. At the second building, you had to stop to have your bags searched. If you were a drover, the customs officer counted your sheep, on which you had to pay a duty.

As trade between the colonies grew, the customs houses on the borders became more annoying. But it was going to be difficult to do away with them. Victoria had adopted a policy of high duties to protect its industries from overseas competition. New South Wales had adopted a policy of low duties to promote trade and keep the costs of goods as low as possible. The pros and cons of protection and free trade was the great issue of colonial politics. It divided New South Wales and Victoria, the two large colonies, already very jealous of each other. They might agree that it would be better if the colonies were united and goods flowed freely between them, but they could not agree on the policy to be followed by the new nation in regard to goods from overseas. Would it be protection or free trade?
Protection and free trade

If ever there should be a union, Victoria looked well placed to impose its policy on the nation. By the late nineteenth century, the smaller colonies of South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia had adopted its policy of protection, though they did not levy duties as high as in Victoria. This made New South Wales very suspicious of union, especially if it was proposed by Victoria. Since New South Wales was the foundation colony, some of its inhabitants couldn’t get over thinking that it was Australia. If the other colonies wanted union, let them rejoin New South Wales.

The advantages of an Australian union were obvious. Each colony had its own tiny army. Much better, if the continent were to be defended, that there be one army. The telegraph systems of each colony were joined together. Much better if the telegraph and the postal service were run as one system. Lighthouses which protected everyone’s shipping should be a common responsibility. Criminals and bankrupts and deserting husbands who skipped across the colonial borders could be controlled if there was a national government. All the colonies had laws to keep out coloured immigrants, but a White Australia policy would only be secure when it was enforced as a national policy.
Advantages of union

Advantages, advantages. Things can always be done better, but what would compel them to be done better? What would make six colonies agree to give up some of their powers and agree on the terms of their union? Getting rid of the border customs was the big advantage of union, but that presented the greatest difficulties. Some necessity or some passion was going to be needed to make the nation.

At first it looked like it would be necessity. An external threat had led the colonies in North America to combine in the 1770s to protect their liberty. The threat posed by the United States had pushed Canada into union in the 1860s. In the early 1880s suddenly Australia faced an external threat. France and Germany were eyeing off territories in the south Pacific in what Australians considered their back yard. Germany had designs on New Guinea and France on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Australians urged Britain to make these territories British.
External threats

In 1883 the Premier of Victoria organised a conference of the colonies to plan joint action. The Victorians hoped that this would be the spur to create a federal union. A combined Australia could bring more pressure to bear on Britain and organise to cover the costs of British rule in the threatened territories. New South Wales did not want union, especially not with Victoria in the lead. The conference agreed only to the creation of a very weak body, a Federal Council, a coordinating committee rather than a national government. New South Wales refused to join it.
Federal Council

If the outside threat had continued, something more might have eventuated but, as a result of colonial lobbying, Britain did become more active in the south Pacific. After Germany claimed northern New Guinea, Britain took the southern portion, Papua, closest to the Australian coast. The French were pressed to accept joint control with Britain of the New Hebrides.

In 1889 Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, announced that the time had come to form a proper national parliament and government. The leaders of the other colonies thought this was a stunt, designed to boost Parkes but not to advance the federal cause. If New South Wales was now truly interested in federation, let it join the Federal Council which by degrees could grow into a stronger union. Everyone knew the difficulties in the way, particularly the free trade or protection dispute. To go immediately for union was to risk failure.
Sir Henry Parkes

Parkes had to hurry. He wanted the glory of founding the nation, but he was 74 years old, though still very active. He had just married for the second time and his wife was pregnant. His commitment to federation was announced in a speech at Tenterfield in northern New South Wales near the Queensland border. When that was received coldly, he responded with a great series of speeches, more impressive than the original. He brushed aside all the doubters and the advice to proceed cautiously. The nation in essence already existed, he said. ‘The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all.’ We are all British; we are one in sympathy and hope. We want to be a nation; let us be a nation. As to the dispute about trade policy, he was happy to leave that to be resolved by the first national parliament. To the great dismay of his own free-trade followers in New South Wales, he said free trade was a trifle compared to the grandeur of Australia stepping into full nationhood. Here was the passion.

Parkes was tapping a strong popular sentiment, that Australia was destined to be a nation. God seemed to will it in setting British people on a continent of their own without the frontiers which divided peoples elsewhere and over which wars were fought. ‘Advance Australia Fair’, written in 1878, picks up this idea in ‘our home is girt by sea’. In this special place a new nation free of old-world ills could be born.
Australia’s destiny

The Australians who most wanted the nation were those born in the country, who by the late nineteenth century were a majority. Doubts were often cast on their worth because they were not British-born. If they could belong to a nation, they would stand much higher. They would no longer be colonials but partners in a great progressive enterprise, joining the wider world of nations and acknowledged as a nation by them.
The native-born

One of the largest organisations in the country, the Australian Natives Association, had these aims. To the great annoyance of the pioneers from Britain, it was open only to men born in Australia. It began as a friendly society, one of the many which in return for a small subscription, paid medical expenses and sick pay and, if these failed, a funeral benefit. It grew into a debating society and then a nationalist organisation committed to federation. Strongest in Victoria where it was founded, it had a presence in the other colonies. Its most notable member was Alfred Deakin, a young Victorian politician, a great orator and the leader of the federal movement in his colony. Everywhere the ‘natives’ were at the forefront of the federal campaign. In Sydney in 1889 they organised a meeting where Parkes gave one of his great federation speeches.
Australian Natives Association

The strength of the sentiment for union registered its first victory when Parkes got his way. Whatever the leading politicians in the other colonies said, they could not diminish his vision. They met with him in Melbourne in 1890 and agreed to call a convention in 1891 to write a federal constitution. They also accepted his strategy of appealing to national sentiment and leaving the difficult question of trade policy to be settled by the first federal parliament.
The 1891 convention and constitution

The convention met in Sydney with Parkes in the chair. There were seven delegates from each colony elected by their parliaments. It drew up a constitution drafted by Sir Samuel Griffith of Queensland which formed the basis of the constitution eventually adopted. The constitution was referred to the parliaments of the colonies for approval.

The whole movement now came unstuck. Parkes was attacked by his own free traders over the details of the constitution and for putting free trade in danger. The charge was led by George Reid, who wanted Parkes’s job as leader of the free-trade party and premier. Parkes’s position became worse after the 1891 election because he became reliant on the support of the new Labor members who were interested in working conditions and wages and not at all in federation. To survive as premier, he could no longer treat federation as the top priority. Since the New South Wales parliament was in no hurry to consider the constitution, there was little point in the other colonies proceeding.
Parkes defeated

Soon after Parkes was defeated in parliament and left the premiership for the last time. He handed over the leadership of the federal movement to Edmund Barton, a much younger man, born in Sydney, a great patriot who was to become Australia’s first prime minister. Barton, making little headway in the parliament, encouraged the formation of federation leagues in the towns along the River Murray where the border duties were a great nuisance. He established a central league in Sydney to coordinate the movement.

The leagues along the Murray organised a federation conference in 1893 at Corowa, a river town on the border. It was attended by politicians from New South Wales and Victoria, business representatives from Melbourne and a large contingent from the Victorian branches of the Australian Natives Association. It was designed to put pressure on the parliaments to take up consideration of the 1891 constitution. It produced a surprise. One of the ‘natives’, John Quick, a Bendigo lawyer, suggested that the whole process should start again from scratch with the people in charge. They should elect delegates to a new convention and the constitution they drew up should be referred not to the parliaments, but to the people for their judgement at referendum.
The Corowa conference

The scheme was accepted with great enthusiasm by the conference. It was a very un-British proposal. In Britain sovereignty, ultimate power, lay with the parliament. Quick’s proposal gave sovereignty to the people. So had the Americans, but they had not involved the people so directly in constitution making. The delegates to their constitutional convention were elected by the State legislatures and the constitution was approved by specially elected State conventions.
The people put in charge

Quick took his scheme to Sydney where it was taken up by George Reid. Since Reid had taken over from Parkes as leader of the free traders, he was now less hostile to federation. He thought a better constitution could be produced than the 1891 version and that support for free trade was growing so that it had a chance of becoming the policy of the new nation. Reid was himself a convinced democrat and thought constitution making would be more likely to succeed if it rested on popular involvement.

Reid organised a special meeting of premiers at Hobart in 1895 which accepted Quick’s scheme. It was finally adopted by the parliaments of four colonies: New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. It was criticised in the parliaments for throwing away the work of 1891 and for handing constitution making over to the people, but if this was the method which New South Wales wanted to follow, it had to be accepted if federation was to be secured. So conservative upper houses in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia accepted this ultra-democratic scheme. The Western Australian parliament did not accept it and instead itself elected delegates to the new convention. Queensland could not agree on how the delegates were to be elected and was not represented at the new convention.

The elections for delegates were held in March 1897. As Reid had expected, the leading politicians in each colony were the successful candidates. They behaved very differently in the convention from in their parliaments. There was little point-scoring and no personal attacks. The standard of debate was high. This was not a forum divided into two sides, but a negotiating body where compromise was essential for success. Barton was the leader of the convention, in charge of getting approval for the constitution line by line, sometimes word by word.
The 1897 convention

When their work was done, it went to the people for their judgement. The people in four colonies – New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania – voted twice. The first time all four colonies voted Yes, but in New South Wales the Yes votes did not reach the minimum number parliament had set for acceptance. The constitution was then amended by the premiers to please New South Wales and the vote taken again. The Yes votes were higher and high enough in New South Wales for acceptance. This amended constitution was put to the voters of Western Australia and Queensland and accepted.
The people vote Yes

The campaigning was very like an ordinary election campaign – there was plenty of hype, lies, and scaremongering. The highest and the lowest motives were appealed to. But voters had solid information to help them make a decision. Governments sent each of them a copy of the constitution and newspapers printed special federation supplements with cases for and against. The sovereignty of the people was taken seriously.

Citizens vote at referendum
Nation making Australian-style: citizens vote at referendum to accept or reject the constitution, North Brisbane, 1899.

Queenslander, 9/7/1899
Collection: John Oxley Library, Brisbane

It is hard to establish why people voted as they did. Many factors had to be considered: how the constitution would work, how it would affect the colony and the local area. In areas which would benefit from intercolonial free trade the Yes vote tended to be higher; in areas which would be damaged by it, the No vote tended to be stronger. But these considerations will not explain all the voting. The opponents of federation complained that there was one factor always working against them – the sentiment for union. They had no answer to the flag-waving and the patriotic songs.

The British government did not believe in the sovereignty of the people. When the constitution reached London, the government proposed some amendments before they presented it to parliament. The chief concern was to allow more matters to go on appeal from Australian courts to the Privy Council in London. The Australian delegates who had accompanied the constitution were outraged: nothing could be changed because it all had the authority of the people. They fought furiously against the British government and kept the changes to a minimum. They were not resentful at having to have their constitution enacted by the British parliament, quite the reverse, but they were determined to have the maximum of self-government within the Empire.
British objections resisted

So the Australian constitution takes the form of a British act of parliament, but since the Statute of Westminster (1931) it is an act which the British will never interfere with. It can now only be altered within Australia. In its opening passage it still says that it is enacted by the Queen, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but before that it announces that Australians had agreed to federate. In the 1891 draft the words had been the ‘colonies’ had agreed. At the 1897–8 convention John Quick, who had been responsible for the Corowa plan, had this changed to ‘the people’.
The people’s constitution

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