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

First referendum: 1898

In June 1898 referendums were held in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Australia was the first nation to take a proposed constitution to the people for approval (Switzerland had held a referendum to approve changes to its constitution in 1874).

Enthusiastic campaigns were waged urging people to vote either 'yes' or 'no'. Anti-federation groups argued federation would weaken the colonial parliaments, and interstate free trade would lead to lower wages and a loss of jobs. New South Wales Premier George Reid publicly criticised the proposed constitution, yet said he would vote for it in the referendum, earning him the nickname 'Yes-No Reid'.

The referendum was passed in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. However, while a majority of voters in New South Wales voted 'yes' to the referendum, it did not attract the 80 000 'yes' votes set by the New South Wales colonial parliament as the minimum needed for it to agree to federation. Queensland and Western Australia, concerned federation would give New South Wales and Victoria an advantage over the less-powerful states, did not hold referendums.

Australia was the first nation in history to take a proposed constitution to the people for approval

'Secret' premiers' conference

In January 1899 the colonial premiers met privately to find a way to bring about federation. Western Australian Premier John Forrest chose not to attend.

In order to win the support of the New South Wales and Queensland colonial parliaments, the premiers made some further changes to the draft constitution. Among these was the decision the Australian national capital would be established within New South Wales but at least 100 miles (160.9 km) from Sydney.

They also agreed the federal Parliament would only be required to return customs and excise revenue to the states for the first ten years of federation, rather than it being a permanent arrangement.

Second referendum: 1899

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900: Original Public Record Copy (1900)

Parliament House Art Collection, Art Services Parliament House

Between April and July 1899 referendums were again held in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania, with the result that all four colonies agreed to the proposed constitution. Western Australia still refused to take part.

The following September, Queenslanders endorsed the constitution by the narrowest of margins, with just over 54 per cent voting 'yes'. Queensland had waited to see whether New South Wales would federate before it held the referendum. The Brisbane Courier welcomed the result and urged all Queenslanders to now unite under 'The Coming Commonwealth':

Australia is born: The Australian nation is a fact. Now is accomplished the dream of a continent for a people and a people for a continent. No longer shall there exist those artificial barriers which have divided brother from brother. We are one people – with one destiny.

The Brisbane Courier, 4 September, 1899.

Constitution Act

The constitution had to be agreed to by the British Parliament before federation could proceed. In March 1900 a delegation, which included an observer from Western Australia and a representative from each of the other five colonies, travelled to London to present the constitution to the British Parliament.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the British Parliament on 5 July 1900. Queen Victoria signed the Act on 9 July 1900. It was one of the last acts of parliament made during Victoria's reign.