A great national government for all Australians: the Federation Conventions

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

Convinced the colonies would be stronger if they united, Parkes gave a rousing address at Tenterfield in 1889 calling for 'a great national government for all Australians'. Parkes' call provided the momentum that led to Australia becoming a nation. Aware popular support was not enough, Parkes lobbied his fellow premiers to back federation.

On 6 February 1890 delegates from each of the colonial parliaments and the New Zealand Parliament met at the Australasian Federation Conference in Melbourne. The conference agreed 'the interests and prosperity of the Australian colonies would be served by an early union under the crown'. It called for a national convention (formal meeting) to draft a constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia.

1891 Federation Convention: drafting a constitution

Members of the Australasian Federation Conference, 1890

Members of the Australasian Federation Conference, 1890
Back row: Andrew Inglis Clark, Captain William Russell (New Zealand), Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Henry Parkes, Thomas Playford, Alfred Deakin, Bolton Stafford Bird, George Jenkins (Secretary to the Conference)
Seated: William McMillan, Sir John Hall (New Zealand), John Macrossan, Duncan Gillies, Dr John Cockburn, Sir James Lee Steere

National Library of Australia, an14292110

The first National Australasian Convention was held in Sydney in March and April 1891, and was attended by delegates from each of the colonies and the New Zealand Parliament. During the convention, Edmund Barton, who was to become Australia's first Prime Minister, made famous the catchcry 'a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation'.

The convention spent five weeks discussing and then composing a draft constitution, which became the basis for the constitution we have today. While Queensland Premier, Sir Samuel Griffith, is largely credited with drafting the constitution approved by the convention, it was based on a version circulated by Tasmanian delegate Andrew Inglis Clark. Clark was inspired by the federal model adopted by the United States (US), which, like Australia, faced the challenge of bringing together self-governing colonies as a nation.

Under the draft constitution the colonies would unite as separate states within the Commonwealth, with power shared between a federal Parliament and state parliaments. This would give Australia a federal system of government. The federal Parliament would have responsibility for areas which affected the whole nation, such as trade, defence, immigration, postal and telegraphic services, marriage and divorce. A High Court would interpret the constitution and resolve disputes between the federal and state governments.

Federal Parliament would comprise the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. The two houses would have similar law-making powers – laws could only be passed or changed with the approval of both houses.

The power to make and manage federal law was to be divided between the Parliament (who would make the law), the Executive (who would implement the law) and the Judiciary (who would interpret the law).

The House of Representatives was to be elected based on population (with members representing electorates made up of approximately the same amount of people) while the Senate would provide all states with equal representation. States with larger populations would have more electorates and greater representation in the House; the composition of the Senate was designed to ensure that these states did not dominate the Parliament.

The phrase 'Washminster' has been used to describe our system of government, as it blends features of the British Parliament and US federal model.

The delegates took the draft constitution back to their colonial parliaments for consideration and approval. Faced with an escalating economic depression, the parliaments lost enthusiasm for federation. Meanwhile, its greatest champion, Parkes, retired from politics and the succeeding New South Wales governments did not share his passion for federal union.

The people's conventions

Key people who were involved in federation and in drafting the Constitution.

Image of Andrew Inglis Clark

Andrew Inglis Clark

key author of the original draft of the Australian Constitution, introduced proportional representation to Tasmania.

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office. Creator: J W Beattie

Image of Samuel Griffith

Samuel Griffith

became the first chief justice of the High Court of Australia.

State Library of Queensland, Image no. 68307

Image of Alfred Deakin

Alfred Deakin

was part of the constitutional delegation to London and became the second Prime Minister of Australia (Protectionist Party) 1903–1904.


Image of John Quick

John Quick

wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became postmaster general.

Portia Geach, National Library of Australia, an2241658

Image of Sir Richard Baker

Sir Richard Baker

wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became first President of the Senate.

National Library of Australia, vn3582887

Image of Sir Robert Randolph Garran

Sir Robert Randolph Garran

wrote handbooks to assist delegates at the constitutional conventions and became the first solicitor-general of Australia.

National Library of Australia, an23435998

Image of Charles Kingston

Charles Kingston

was part of the constitutional delegation to London and became the first minister for trade and commerce.

National Library of Australia, an23379300

While the colonial parliaments put the issue of federation to one side, it had fired the public's imagination. Groups such as the Australian Federation League in New South Wales and the Australian Natives Association in Victoria continued to push for federation.

In 1893 a people's conference was held in Corowa, New South Wales, which agreed 'the best interests, present and future prosperity of the Australian colonies will be promoted by their early federation'. The Corowa Conference agreed to a proposal from Victorian delegate John Quick, that:

  • the colonial parliaments pass an act to allow the direct election of delegates to a new federation convention which would decide on a draft constitution
  • a referendum be held asking the people to ratify (approve) the draft constitution.

A special premiers' conference was held in Hobart in 1895 at which most of the colonies agreed to Quick's proposal. Queensland, fearing federation might mean the loss of its Pacific Islander labour force, decided not to take part. By this stage, New Zealand had also opted out of the federation process.

The following year the Bathurst Federation League, frustrated by the inaction of the colonial parliaments, held a second people's conference at which over 150 delegates renewed calls for a new federation convention. Finally, in March 1896 elections for convention delegates were held in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.

1897–98 Federation Convention

The second National Australasian Convention met three times during 1897 and 1898 in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and used the 1891 draft constitution as a starting point for deliberations. The convention comprised elected and appointed representatives from all the colonies except Queensland.

One of the most significant changes made to the draft constitution related to the Senate. Senators would be directly elected by the people of each state voting as one electorate, rather than, as originally proposed, being selected by the state parliaments. The new draft also established the size of the two houses, so that the House of Representatives would be roughly twice the size of the Senate; in other words, there would be two members of the House for every senator.

Given that the Senate and the House of Representatives would have almost identical law-making powers, the delegates realised a provision was needed to break deadlocks between the two houses. Under this provision, disagreements could be resolved by dissolving both houses of Parliament and calling an election. The newly-elected Parliament could then vote on the issue. If this failed to break the deadlock, it could be put to a vote in a joint sitting of both houses.

The convention also agreed to a clause proposed by the Tasmanian Premier, Sir Edward Braddon, to return to the states three-quarters of the revenue collected by the federal government through customs and excise. 'Braddon's Blot', as it was dubbed by its critics, was designed to appease the economically-smaller states which were worried they would be worse-off under federation.

On 16 March 1898 the convention agreed to the constitution in the form of a draft bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. After being endorsed by the colonial parliaments, the electors in each of the six colonies were then asked to approve the constitution in a referendum.

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