Closer Look – Federation [PDF 2.11Mb, 15 pages]

Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901 when six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania—united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. This process is known as federation.

Australia's federation came about through a process of deliberation, consultation and debate, unlike many other nations that unified as a result of war or conflict. Federation only went ahead with the approval of the people in a referendum (vote of the people).

Reasons for federation

Before 1901 Australia did not exist as a nation. It was a collection of six British colonies which were partly self-governing, but under the law-making power of the British Parliament. The colonies were almost like six separate countries; for example, each had its own government and laws, its own defence force, issued its own stamps and collected tariffs (taxes) on goods that crossed its borders. The colonies had even built railways using different gauges, which complicated the transport of goods across the continent.

By the 1880s the inefficiency of this system, a growing unity among colonists and a belief that a national government was needed to deal with issues such as trade, defence and immigration saw popular support for federation grow. Sir Robert Garran, who was active in the federation movement, later reflected that the colonies were united by a combination of 'fear, national sentiment and self-interest'.

Free trade

While tariffs provided the colonial governments with much revenue, they restricted trade and movement between the colonies. Tariffs increased the cost of goods and made it hard for manufacturers based outside a colony to compete with local producers.

Trade restrictions also inconvenienced travellers; the train journey between Melbourne and Sydney was delayed at the border in Albury while customs officials searched passengers' luggage. Free traders were among the most vocal supporters of federation, arguing that it would strengthen the economy by abolishing tariffs and creating a single market.



Asian immigration

This sketch from the Illustrated Australian News, 2 July 1877, reflects contemporary fears the Australian colonies would be 'over-run' by Asian immigration

National Library of Australia, an8870597

Prior to federation, the colonies were ill-equipped to defend themselves. Each colony had its own militia consisting of a small permanent force and volunteers, but they all relied on the British navy to periodically patrol the vast Australian coastline. Increasingly, people feared the Australian colonies could be vulnerable to attack from nations such as Germany, France and Russia who had already colonised parts of the Pacific.

Australia's position as a sparsely-populated continent close to Asia also gave rise to concerns that countries such as China and Japan, with their larger populations and greater military might, could overrun the colonies. Alfred Deakin, then Chief Secretary of Victoria, warned: 'The Asiatic wave which has threatened to engulf us is only suspended for a short time, but if the colonies do not federate our comparatively trifling white population will be swept before it like a feather'.

The argument that a united defence force could better protect Australia was strengthened by a report released in 1889 by British Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards. It found that the colonies did not have enough soldiers, arms or even ammunition to adequately defend themselves. The report recommended a federal or centralised defence force be established.


Today Australia is a multicultural nation; however, in the late 19th century many people wanted to maintain the British heritage of the colonies.

To some extent, this desire was prompted by concerns 'cheap' non-white labour would compete with colonists for jobs, leading to lower wages and a reduced standard of living. These anxieties stemmed partly from anti-Chinese sentiment dating back to the gold-fields of the 1850s. They also reflected resentment towards Pacific Islanders who worked for low pay in Queensland's sugar industry.

Racial conflict was seen as an inevitable consequence of a multicultural society. It was felt a national government would be in a better position than the colonies to restrict and control immigration.

National Pride

Colonists mostly shared a common language, culture and heritage, and increasingly began to identify as Australian rather than British. New South Wales Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, referred to this as 'the crimson thread of kinship that runs through us all'.

In fact, by the time of federation over three-quarters of the population were Australian-born. Many people moved between the colonies to find work and sporting teams had begun to represent Australia. In 1899 soldiers from the colonies who went to the Boer War in South Africa served together as Australians. The shift was apparent in contemporary songs and poems which celebrated Australia and Australians.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We'll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands
From Advance Australia Fair by Peter Dodds McCormick