Federation of Australia Proclaimed c 1901

Prior to Federation, Australia consisted of a group of six separate British Colonies – each with their own rules, regulations, taxes, parliamentary representatives & systems, defence forces, infrastructure, etc.

On the 1st of January 1901, Federation united the six Colonies of:  Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

Australia’s Federation Timeline – in Brief . . .


Earl Grey was the first to propose the self-government of the colonies of Australia:

” . . . in addition to the Legislatures established in the various colonies, the Governor-General should have power to convene a body to be called the General Assembly of Australia.  It was to consist of a single House, named the House of Delegates, whose members were to be elected, not by the people but by the Parliaments; and it was to have certain powers entrusted to it affecting the common interests of all Australia.  It was to take charge of customs and excise, postal business, roads and railways, lighthouses, weights and measures; it was to set up a general Supreme Court to act as a court of appeal from colonial courts; and it was to have power to make laws on any other subject which might be referred to it by the Parliaments of all the colonies.  Not a word was said about defence; that was to remain an Imperial concern . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – A Short History of Australia – by Ernest Scott (Professor of History – Melbourne University) – published 1916


The proposal was rejected by the House of Lords in 1850 . . .

Though the proposed policy was not adopted, the idea of Federation did begin to germinate.  At the time, and to some extent, the Governor of New South Wales had, in fact, been constituted as a form of Federal Executive residing over the whole of Australia.  The clumsy appointment was never called upon.

The division of the continent of Australia seemed without merit, especially considering other nations had recently united and that the majority of the populace came from the same British origins, spoke the same language, maintained similar cultural life-styles & beliefs, etc.  The divided colonies bred and incubated heated jealousies, rivalries, prejudices, etc.  Not even the infrastructure across the continent was uniform – for example, travellers had to carry with them identification when passing between the colonies – train lines were of various sizes and gauges meaning that trains could only travel within their respective colonies, free trade between the colonies could not exist, and so forth.


The Constitutions of 1850 (13 and 14 Vic. c. 59) disappointed the colonists.  The push for a new Constitution began which included a recommendation for a General Assembly:

” . . . Wentworth’s Constitutional Committee – In New South Wales, a Select Committee of the Legislative Council was appointed in 1853, on Wentworth’s motion, to prepare a new Constitution.  On 29th July it brought up its report with a draft Constitution Bill annexed.  The Bill itself contained no federal provision ; but the report concluded with the following recommendation :-

“One of the more prominent legislative measures required by this colony, and the colonies of the Australian group generally, is the establishment at once of a General Assembly, to make laws in relation to the intercolonial questions that have arisen, or may hererafter arise, among them.  The questions which would claim the exercise of such a jurisdiction appear to be as follows :-

  1. 1.  Intercolonial tariffs, and coasting trade.
  2. 2.  Railways, roads, canals, &c., running through any two of the colonies.
  3. 3.  Beacons and lighthouses on the coast.
  4. 4.  Intercolonial penal settlements.
  5. 5.  Intercolonial gold regulations.
  6. 6.  Postage between the said colonies.
  7. 7.  A general Court of Appeal from the courts of such colonies.
  8. 8.  A power to legislate on all other subjects which may be submitted to them by addresses from the Legislative Councils and Assemblies of the other colonies ; and to appropriate to any of the above objects the necessary sums of money, to be raised by a percentage on the revenues of all colonies interested.

As it might excite jealousy if a jurisdiction of this importance were to be incorporated in the Act of Parliament, which has unavoidably become a necessary part of the measures for conferring a Constitution on this colony, in consequence of the defective powers given by Parliament to the Legislative Council, your Committee confine themselves to the suggestion that the establishment of such a body has become indispensable, and ought no longer to be delayed ; and to the expression of a hope that the Minister for the Colonies will at once see the expediency of introducing into Parliament, with as little delay as possible, a Bill for this express object.” . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth – by John Quick LL.D. & Robert Randolp Garran M.A. – published 1901


Sir Henry Parkes

Until the year of 1883, matters concerning the colonies of Australia as a whole, were dealt with by the convening of inter-colonial conferences.  Hence, the issue of managing these matters was inefficient, unlegislated and disorganised.   The idea of a federal managing body of sorts arose again and again.  Sir Henry Parkes proposed to create a Federal Council – the proposal being formalised by Samuel Griffith which would:

” . . . give power to the six Australian colonies, as well as New Zealand and Fiji, to pass Acts enabling the colonies to send two representatives each . . . 

Source:  Excerpt – A Short History of Australia – by Ernest Scott (Professor of History – Melbourne University) – published 1916


Federal Council of Australasia Act, 1885

An Act to constitute a Federal Council of Australasia was commenced on the 1st January 1885.

The Bill to authorise the establishment of a Federal Council was passed by the Imperial Parliament in 1885.  A despatch from the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies to His Excellency the Governor with reference to the Federal Council of Australasia Act 1885, dated 14th August 1885, opens by stating:

” . . . You will have learnt by telegraph that the Act for constituting a Federal Council of Australasia has heen passed by both Houses of Parliament, and has received the Queen’s Assent.  This measure had passed the House of Lords and was awaiting its second reading in the House of Commons when Her Majesty’s present advisers assumed office, and they lost no time in considering its provisions and the various suggestions which had heen made for its amendment.  I have had the advantage of frequent and full communication with the Agents-General, who clearly explained to me the views and wishes of their respective governments . . . “

To view the document in its entirety – click here

To view ‘An Act to bring into operation in respect of the Colony of Victoria an Act of the Imperial Parliament instituted “An Act to Constitute a Federal Council of Australasia” dated 9th December 1885 – click here


The first meeting of the Federal Council was held where Australia’s colonies attended:

” . . . Fiji sent her representatives to the first meeting of the Federal Council, held in 1886, but afterwards dropped out.  New Zealand never participated . . . 

Source:  Excerpt – A Short History of Australia – by Ernest Scott (Professor of History – Melbourne University) – published 1916

A despatch to the Premier of New Zealand as published in the Argus (Melbourne, Vic) on the 28th May 1885 demonstrates the evolution of the Federal Council.

Meeting every alternate year, the limited powers of the Federal Council meant the council could only deal with matters of Australian interest such as quarantine, the influx of criminals, etc., however, remained powerless in matters of taxation, revenue raising, legislating the constabulary, defence of colonies, etc.

24th October 1889

Sir Henry Parkes, who notably is often referred to as the ‘Father of Federation’, conducted a speech at Tenterfield, New South Wales on the 24th October 1889, during which he called for a strong, central Federal Parliament for Australia:

” . . . Sir Henry Parkes (“Father of Federation”) said in the Tenterfield School of Arts 65 years ago next Sunday: 

“The great question which we now have to consider is whether the time has now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian Parliament.” . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Inverell Times (NSW) – published 20th October 1954

6th – 14th February 1890

A conference of ministers was convened by Sir Henry Parkes to consider the preparation of a Constitution Bill for Australia.  Unrest and wars occurring across the Globe at the time raised the question of national security and the inability of Australia’s separate colonies to defend its borders without a united front – a large draw card to support the concept of unity of the colonies.  The conference was held in Melbourne during the February of 1890, in which time Sir Henry Parkes’ proposals were considered, and it was agreed:

” . . . the interest and prosperity of the Australian colonies would be served by an early union under the crown . . . “

 . . . and, to call a Federal Convention to draft a constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia in the following year.

August 1893

Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic) – 16 Aug 1950

The ‘Corowa Convention’ was held on the 31st July to the 1st August 1893.  The following article best describes the sentiment of the populace at the time:

” . . . A Federation Convention – any assemblage of the class of professionals know as politicians is now known as a convention – is now being held at Corowa.  The public are not at all excited on the subject, contenting themselves generally with speculating what sum the expenses of the various delegates will amount to : it is, of course, a foregone conclusion that the expenses will be borne by the suffering colonies represented.  As included in the delegates are sixty-five Victorian politicians, it is certain the little colony will have a big bill which it can ill afford to pay.  The Convention must be resultless, for there is universal recognition of the fact that at present the only colony particularly desirous of Inter-colonial Federation is Victoria, a manufacturing colony, which is retrogressing, because, under existing tariffs it cannot extend its markets.  It is pure humbug to discuss the outlines of a federal constitution while there is a border customs officer in Australia.  Absolutely the first step in Federation must be free trade in natural products and goods of Australian manufacture, and we fail to see how there can be union until the tariffs on foreign articles are assimilated.  But what immediate probabilities are there of Inter-colonial Freetrade being adopted ?  So far as Queensland is concerned, absolutely none.  The protected farmers of the Downs, and the manufacturers of Brisbane and Maryborough are thorough-going perfectionists, and strong as the present Government is, it would be hurled from office were it to propose to join the other colonies in abolishing imposts which retard trade and are an ever constant source of friction.  Victoria led the way in regarding the sister colonies as foreign countries, and has found apt pupils in her neighbours.  Some people imagine a complete Federation should be involved by one measure, but until each colony paves the way to union by abandoning the policy of self, discussion of Federation is but idle talk.  The Corowa convention, however, has provided many needy men with a pleasant excursion and high-class refreshment at someone else’s expense, so that there are at least a hundred who will urge that the gathering has not been in vain . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – North Queensland Register (Townsville, Qld) – Article ‘The Corowa Convention’ – published 9th August 1893

How surprised the writer of the above article would have been to look into the future to find that the Federation of Australia would, in fact, be achieved within 7 short years . . .

1895 to 1898

The Introductory Note of the Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia 1898 explains:

” . . . Between December, 1895, and October, 1896, Enabling Acts were passed by the Parliaments of the five colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, to enable those colonies to take part in the framing, acceptance, and enactment of a Federal Constitution for Australiasia.

In accordance with those Acts, each of the colonies elected ten representatives to a Convention charged with the duty of framing a Federal Constitution for Australiasia.  The Convention sat in Adelaide from the 22nd March to the 5th May, 1897, and framed a draft Constitution, which was then submitted for consideration to each House of Parliament in each of the five colonies.  The Convention sat again in Sydney from the 2nd September to the 24th September, 1897, and in Melbourne from the 20th January to 17th March, 1898, and reconsidered the draft Constitution, together with the amendments suggested by the various Legislatures.  The Convention finally adopted A Federal Constitution of the 16th March, 1898.

Under the Enabling Acts, the Constitution is now to be submitted to the electors of the five colonies for acceptance or rejection by direct vote.  If three or more colonies accept the Constitution, the Houses of Parliament of those Colonies may adopt addresses to the Queen, praying that the Constitution may be passed into law by the Imperial Parliament.

If the Constitution is rejected in any colony, no further action is to be taken in that colony under the Enabling Act.

The majority of votes is to decide the question ; but in New South Wales the Constitution is to be taken to be rejected if there are less than 80,000 affirmative votes ; in Victoria, if there are less than 50,000 affirmative votes ; in Western Australia and in Tasmania, if there are less than 6,000 affirmative votes.

The Constitution is framed in the form of a Bill to be passed by the Imperial Parliament, and in this Bill the Constitution itself is preceded by nine “covering clauses,” which provide for all the steps necessary to bring the Constitution into force . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia – by Robert Randolph Garran, B.A. – published 1898

16th March 1898

The Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia was adopted by the Australasian Federal Convention held in Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria, on the 16th of March 1898.

3rd June 1898

The vote of the people of Australia regarding the ‘Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia’ was conducted on the 3rd June 1898.

” . . . The Federal Constitution Bill was finally adopted by the Federal Convention at Melbourne on 16th March.  The anniversary of the A.N.A. of Bendigo in March was rendered notable by several important speeches on the constitution, one by Mr. A. Deakin, strongly in favor of its adoption by the electors, kindling great enthusiasm, not only in Bendigo, but throughout Victoria.  The vote on the proposed constitution was taken on 3rd June in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, and subsequently in South Australia.  The voting in these States was as follows: —

 . . . The New South Wales Parliament had decided that 80,000 votes must be recorded in the affirmative in New South Wales, and as the number who voted “yes” was only 71,595, it was held that New South Wales had not endorsed the constitution.  This caused a delay, and the negotiations which followed did not reach finality till the following year . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Bendigo Advertiser (Vic) – Article ‘1898’ – published 18th December 1914

Though the majority of Australians voted in favour of Federation, New South Wales did not achieve the minimum 80,000 votes required – hence the bill was not passed by this referendum.  Western Australia did not participate in this vote.

Displaying the Federation Referendum Results of 1899


Following the unsuccessful bid to pass the ‘Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia’, a conference to revise and amend the Constitution was convened comprising of the Prime Ministers of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia.  The conference was held in Melbourne spanning the dates of:  the 28th, 30th and 31st January, and, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd February, 1899.

The issue was again put to the people of Australia during the months of June and July of 1899, however, this time New South Wales required only majority votes.  Queensland opted to join the process, whilst Western Australia refrained.  Clear majorities were achieved in all colonies that voted.  The results:


Though Western Australia had refrained from voting at both referendums, the Constitution was presented to the British Parliament seeking their approval for the colonies of Australia to federate and therefore unite as a nation.

Delegates from the six colonies of Australia went to London to met Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies.  A number of amendments to the Bill were made including the right to appeal decisions of the State Supreme Courts and the Federal High Court in Britain’s Privy Council (the final law court of appeal for Commonwealth countries), etc.

The British Parliament passed the Bill.

On the 9th July 1900 Queen Victoria approved the Bill by adding her signature to the Royal Commission of Assent.  The Bill then became the ‘Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900’.

Included in Section 9 of the Act, the Constitution stated that on, or after, the 1st of January 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania would be united to become known as the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’.  Provision was also made for Western Australia to join the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’.

31st July 1900

The people of Western Australia held a referendum regarding Federation on the 31st July 1900.  Interestingly, the referendum was held two weeks after the Act had been passed by Britain.  The results:

A proclamation was signed by the Queen on the 17th September 1900 declaring that on the 1st January 1901, the six colonies would be united under the name of the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’.

Lord Hopetoun was appointed Governor General and on the 31st December 1900.  He commissioned the first Commonwealth Ministry, headed by Edmund Barton.

Extract – Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia – 1898


Interestingly, it has been in excess of 40 years since Australia held a Referendum – obviously there have been no changes to Australia’s Constitution in that time ? . . .

Defining the Voters of Australia

Though Aborigines had inhabited the continent of Australia for some 40,000 to 60,000 years, the Constitution actually denied them the right to vote !!!

Extract – Draft Bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia – 1898


Further analysis of the results of the Referendums reveals that the votes counted did not represent any where near the majority of the population at the time which was estimated at 3,196,368 at the end of 1897 (excluding Aborigines of course).  Hence the counted votes of the Referendums held in:

  1898 represented only an estimated 10% of the population

  1899 represented only an estimated 16% of the population

  1899 + 1900 combined represented only an estimated 18% of the population

Voting was not compulsory at the time, nor were many people considered ‘eligible’.  Some examples of ineligibility and variances amongst the colonies included:

  Aborigines were not eligible to vote across the nation

  South Australia & Western Australia:  Women could vote in the referendums

  Queensland & Western Australia:  Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were not allowed to vote unless they owned property

  In a number of colonies poor people receiving public assistance could not vote

  Tasmania:  Voters required certain property qualifications


Hence, on the 1st of January 1901, the six Colonies of Britain were united to become the States of the Commonwealth of Australia (the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory did not exist until later).  

Australia became a united nation – as best described in an article written at the time:

” . . . For us the crowning event and achievement of 1901 must always be the consummation of federal union. It is true that what has happened during the twelve month now ending was but the formal and legal calling into effective being of a Government already long previously summoned to exist by the growth of national sentiment and the prevision of national needs and dangers.  But we are not permitted to fix our eyes upon so distant and imperceptible an event : the landing of the Governor-General at Sydney, the march of that splendid pageant through our streets, the solemn swearing-in to office in the new Commonwealth of our Government, and the series of celebrations that worthily enshrined those dignified events suffice to fix for all time in the memory of those who witnessed them the arrival of the federation.  Since those days early in January many other steps equally important though less striking to the general eye have carried on the progress of that Government.  In March the States selected their senators and representatives to compose the first Australian Parliament.  In May they met at Melbourne, and in the Exhibition Building the Prince of Wales, then Duke of York, in the name and on behalf of the King, and with the felicitations of the British people, opened Parliament for business.  Since that date the legislation and the administration of the Commonwealth have gone on, not without differences of opinion and conflicts of authority and interest, but on the whole with the patience, the industry, and the capacity of a national Legislature.

Commission signed by Edward VII empowering the Duke of Cornwall & York (later King George V) to open the 1st Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne – dated 3 Feb 1901 – noting that the earlier commission was null & void due to the death of Queen Victoria on the 22 Jan 1901

None of those who were capable of foreseeing the difficulties of federal union ever disguised from themselves that in the working out harmoniously and wisely of an Australian Government the best men of the States would find a task set them that would require their best powers.  The events of the year have demonstrated that both the foreseen and the unforeseen perplexities and obstacles were not minimised ; but it is just because the federal union was so complex a task that it was not sooner undertaken.  We are not free from doubts about the wisdom of many steps that have been taken by the Commonwealth Government, and we could wish that in some respects the history of the past six months in Parliament had been different ; but in common with all fair minded critics it is our duty to allow for the difficulties before the Government, to admit its honest desire to do well for the Commonwealth, and to expect that as time goes by the position will improve, and that in consideration of the great and permanent benefits we shall reap the drawbacks of the present time will seem temporary and trifling . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) – Article ‘1901’ – published 31st December 1901

The first Commonwealth Parliament was opened by the Duke of York in Melbourne, on the 9th May 1901.


View other important events in Australia’s History . . .

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