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Making a Nation

Teacher notes

Nations are made, and unmade, in various ways. ‘Making a Nation’ is about the process of Australian Federation and the tools, a constitution and a system of government, needed as its foundation. To provide a contrast, the unit also explores two instances of secession. The final section on the prospect of Australia becoming a republic provides an opportunity to review the material in preceding sections as well as looking at present and future possibilities for the direction of the nation. While the primary focus is on Australia, there are significant comparisons with comparable events in the United States of America.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Other resources | Links to other units | Notes

About the unit

  • Processes of federation: rebellion and peaceful change
  • Constitutions as a basis for national government: the balance of power between state and federal governments
  • The dissolution of federations
  • The republic debate in Australia

Contexts: the American War of Independence, federation of the colonies in Australia, the American and Australian Constitutions, the American Civil War, the secession movement in Western Australia, the republic debate

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

  • compare similarities and differences in the establishment of Australia and the United States of America as nations
  • describe the nature of Australia’s federal political system
  • justify a position on a particular constitutional change in Australia.

Background notes

Countries like Australia, the United States of America and Malaysia with state level governments as well as national parliaments are called ‘federations’. In a federation, responsibilities of government are divided between the central parliament and regional or state level parliaments.

Both Australia and the United States developed from British colonies into independent federations of states. The political systems they set out in their federal constitutions have things in common, such as the structure of the two Houses, and major differences, such as the location of the executive government.

But the roads the two nations took to their constitutions are fundamentally different. The American road is marked by an armed revolution at a time when Britain dominated its colonies and, seventy years later, by a bloody Civil War to maintain the union.

Australia's road was peaceful. The colonies achieved their own parliamentary self-rule and during the 1890s decided on a process to achieve a federal union: to create a nation. Peacefully and deliberately the Australian people chose to be a nation and chose a form of government.

The Federation of 1901 remained within the British Empire and retained an English parliamentary and legal system. Australia’s experience made the Constitution writers less suspicious of the power of governments; their trust in parliament was such that they saw it as an institution that was sufficient in itself to protect civil rights - hence the creation of a constitution without a Bill of Rights.

Focus question 1

Focus question 1 examines how and why these British colonies became two independent nations. In order to minimise the amount of new historical knowledge students will need, two significant events that formed the American nation have been chosen: the War of Independence marked by the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1789. The Declaration of Independence sets out the reasons why the American colonists felt impelled to go to war. Although each colony had its own representative house, the British monarch George III ignored them, overrode them, raised taxes without consulting them and used Native American and foreign armies against them.

In July 1900 the British Parliament passed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. On 17 September 1900 Queen Victoria signed the proclamation which declared that on and after 1 January 1901 the people of the Australian colonies would be united in a Federal Commonwealth. Henceforth, the Constitution determined the way the people of this new nation governed themselves.

Focus question 2

Focus question 2 compares the structures and powers of the two federations: Australia’s and that of the United States.

Focus question 3

Federations change over time. Sometimes they dissolve. This is the concern of Focus question 3. The nation which used to be known as Yugoslavia is a recent example of a federation that dissolved. In America the greatest threat to the federation was the Civil War between the North and South. It was a rebellion by 11 Southern States against the domination of the North. Different views about protectionism and slavery led to the outbreak of this bloody war in 1861 which lasted until 1865.

Western Australia was the colony most reluctant to join the Federation. In 1906 both Houses of Parliament in Western Australia passed a motion which said that the Federation was detrimental to the interests of the State and that the people should be asked whether they wanted to leave it. The referendum was not held until 1933 but it was an overwhelming victory for the secessionists. The Western Australian Government asked the British Parliament to separate them from the Federation but Britain was unwilling to interfere in Australia’s affairs. The Commonwealth put a lot of effort into reassuring Western Australia of the value of remaining in the Federation.

Focus question 4

Focus question 4 looks to the future of the system of government we have had since 1901. Should Australia become a republic?

Discovering Democracy resources

Stories of Democracy CD ROM

One Destiny! CD ROM ('Ideas and Models' section)

Parliament at Work CD ROM

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website:

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, pages 205-6.

Other resources

Federation: Colonies to Commonwealth (video) in Parliament Pack 2
Burns, K 1991, The Civil War (video) Time-Life Australia
Other civil war references, including several Internet sites, can be found in the further teacher reference material in Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, pages 205-6.

Links to other units

  • Human Rights (middle secondary) deals with the issue of how rights are protected in Australia through the Constitution, Acts of Parliament and court rulings, and with the debate about whether Australia should have a Bill of Rights. It also deals with Aboriginal rights and the Constitution of 1901, changes made to it in 1967 and other ways Indigenous rights have been secured since the 1950s.
  • Parties Control Parliament (middle secondary) deals with the forming of government and the place of parties within that process.
  • Getting Things Done (middle secondary) deals with Federal-State relations and the resolution of disputes between States and the Commonwealth through a case study of the Franklin dam dispute. ‘Law’ deals with the Constitution and the High Court.
  • What Sort of Nation (middle secondary) deals with Australian identity, changes in public policy in relation to protectionism, population, trade and the British element in the population, all issues important in debates about federation.
  • Democratic Struggles(lower secondary) deals with Aboriginal and women’s suffrage following Federation.


The purpose of the introductory activity is to make a connection between students’ current knowledge and the process of federation. Some of the factors involved include the following: resisting external threat; relative strength of the new entity (in the case of the sporting competitions, setting up new teams where their sport has been weak); responding to contemporary circumstances and challenges (relative ease of travel and communication, new revenue from television and changed practices in spectating). Some of the comparisons may be difficult, but the idea of federation as something which happens from time to time should not be. The correct names of the competitions are: Australian Football League, National Rugby League, National Basketball League, National Netball League, Women’s National Basketball League and Ericsson Cup A League.

Back to 'Making a Nation - At a glance'

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