3. Federation

Today, Australia is one country which is divided into six separate states and two territories. Australia's political system is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that whilst our official head of state is the British monarch, we have our own elected officials responsible for governing and creating laws. This system was officially introduced in 1901, when the Australian Constitution was ratified and the Australian colonies became a Federation.

Before Federation, Australia's six states were separate colonies and considered to be part of Britain. Each colony operated independently and had its own army, trade, postal network and railway system. 

Sir Henry Parks
How Federation began
During the 19th century the colonies began to strengthen trade relations with each other. As telegraph lines and railway networks spread closer to the borders, communication and travel between colonies became easier and more common.
The gold rush attracted many people to Australia who brought with them new ideas and stories of change taking place throughout the world. Some immigrants inspired discussions about democracy and national identify in the Australian colonies. One theme discussed was the idea of federation, the act of joining the colonies together to form a single nation. 

Sir Henry Parkes was a New South Wales politician and the premier of the NSW colony. He used his influence to generate support for federation. Other premiers supported him, as did some newspapers. 

Arguments against Federation
  • Some felt it would be expensive to federate and the new federal parliament would also be costly to run, which would lead to higher taxes.
  • Some people had patriotic feelings towards their own colony, and negative feelings towards other colonies.
  • People in smaller colonies were concerned that the federated nation would be dominated by the wealthy and more powerful colonies (NSW and VIC). 
  • People in more wealthy and powerful colonies felt they would be financially disadvantaged by the smaller colonies. 
  • Some NSW colonists worried the federal government would have relaxed immigration laws.
  • NSW colonists were concerned Melbourne in VIC would become the federations capital city. 
Arguments for Federation
  • A federal government could make uniform immigration laws.
  • A single nation could have one large defence force to better protect the continent, rather then six small ones.
  • A federal government could standardise postal and rail services, making communication and travel more efficient.
  • Colonists would not have to pay tariffs (extra payments on items purchased, previously these were paid to border guards whenever a person crossed a state boundary.
  • A strong central government could be more effective in helping the Australian colonies overcome a recent drought and economic depression.
  • To enshrine some independence from British rule. 
How Federation came into being
Throughout the 1890s a number of events were held at which people discussed federation. They worked out details about how the new nation and its government would work and what it would be called. They drafted and re-drafted a constitution for a federal government.

In the last few years of the 19th century, voters were given a say in the matter. Referendums were held in each of the colonies and voters - which by this time included women and Aboriginal men in some places - voted for or against federation.

By 1900 it was clear that most people in the colonies were enthusiastic about federation. The British government agreed to it that year. The new nation, the Commonwealth of Australia, came into being on 1 January 1901.
Subpages (1): The Constitution