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Expanding Colonization, Movement Toward Federation

Henry Parkes, Australian League, White Australia Policy, sheep shearers, united Australia

Federation of the Australian colonies came later than similar movements elsewhere. The idea of unification appeared as early as 1847 in proposals by Earl Grey, Britain’s colonial secretary. In the 1850s John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish Presbyterian cleric in New South Wales, formed the Australian League to campaign for a united Australia. Conferences among colonial governments in the 1860s also considered closer cooperation and unification. With the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, British officials began to expect a similar effort among Australians. No plan, however, received serious attention, due to the intense rivalries among the colonies.

In the 1880s the prospect of European—as distinct from British—colonization of the Pacific triggered fears of Australia’s lack of defense. Queensland, anticipating German moves, claimed Papua on New Guinea in 1883 but, unable to support this claim, had to urge Britain to rule the territory and to claim other islands. Concerned that they might not be able to direct British policy in their interests and aware of the emergence of new powers in Europe, the Australian colonies created a Federal Council in 1885, but it was merely a consultative body, with no legislative or executive powers. The refusal of New South Wales to participate in the council meetings doomed this effort at federalism.

Other developments during the 1880s, however, served to keep the idea of unification alive. As trade and communications between the colonies advanced, pressure mounted for the lowering of the customs barriers between them. Debate over the White Australia Policy demonstrated the need for uniform immigration rules. As more Australian workers unionized, trade unions became more centralized, suggesting the attractiveness of a single economic and political system. Unstable economic conditions and outright depression by 1892 contributed to the development of labor parties in each colony to represent worker interests.

In the early 1890s the long economic boom that had sustained the colonies’ progress since the 1860s came to an abrupt end. The crash hit Melbourne especially hard, and helped to shift the initiative in the federal movement from Victoria, where it had been strong during the 1880s, to New South Wales. In 1889 the premier of New South Wales, Henry Parkes, announced his support for a new form of federalism that was not based on the Federal Council model. In 1891 a convention of colonial delegates in Sydney began drafting a federal constitution, but political and regional rivalries slowed the process. It was 1897 before the policymakers agreed upon a draft constitution and 1899 before the Australian people finally approved it. The Commonwealth of Australia was accordingly approved by the British Parliament in 1900 and became a reality on January 1, 1901.

The federal constitution reflected both British and American constitutional models. It incorporated the British principle of parliamentary government, with cabinets responsible to a bicameral legislature, but, as in the United States, delegated only specific, limited powers to the federal government. The new House of Representatives, like the British House of Commons, was based on popular representation, but the Senate, like its American counterpart, preserved the representation of the six colonies, which now became states. As neither Sydney nor Melbourne was an acceptable federal capital, in 1911 the Australian Capital Territory was established for a new capital, Canberra—again based on the Washington, D.C., model.

The trade unions led the way in developing Australia’s political party system. Some larger unions of miners and sheep shearers were already federal in structure before 1901. The Labor Party, founded by the combined unions through the Trades Hall Councils, moved to adopt a national program and required its parliamentary representatives to carry out the party’s program by voting as a bloc. The effectiveness of this model of disciplined class-based party organization was demonstrated when Labor gained office nationally in 1904. Other parties quickly followed Labor’s lead.

Meanwhile, women in Australia were securing more political rights. In 1894 the women of South Australia won the right to vote, making them the first women of a British colony after New Zealand to do so. In 1902 the new commonwealth government extended that right to all Australian women.

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