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Prior to Federation each of the Australian colonies was more like its own country with customs houses, railway gauges and even their own military. It was neither natural nor inevitable that Australia would be federated, in fact it wasn't even a very popular idea. Only through the dedication and hard work of a small group of people did the colonies eventually come together to form a nation.

Federation of the Australian colonies had been discussed as early as 1847, but it was not until the 1880s that the movement gained any serious momentum. First, the 'Federal Council of Australasia Act 1885' established the Australasian Federal Council (which New South Wales refused to join). On 24 October 1889 Henry Parkes - Federation's highest profile advocate - delivered a speech at Tenterfield, in northern New South Wales, where he declared that the time was ripe for a federal government.

The impetus for Federation focussed on the ideals of a new nation and the economic and military advantages likely to follow from a centralised system of government. Parkes' sentiments were strongly supported at the Australasian Federation Conference, held in Melbourne in February 1890 and then, more significantly, at the National Australasian Convention in Sydney just over a year later. Appropriately, Parkes presided over this convention, where debate centred around his resolutions, which set out the first principles of an Australian Constitution. At the Convention banquet, Parkes famously proposed a toast to 'One People, One Destiny'.

The move towards Federation received further boosts at numerous conferences: Corowa in 1893; Bathurst in 1896; and in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897-8 for the Australasian Federal Convention. In spite of many alterations, and altercations, this Convention adopted an amended Commonwealth Bill, paving the way for it to be put to the people of the colonies by referenda.

The third and fourth days of June 1898 were fixed as the dates on which four of the colonies would vote on the Bill. Queensland did not participate and Western Australia waited to see what the other colonies would do. All four colonies voted in favour, but the statutory vote of 80 000 required in New South Wales to pass the Bill was not reached. This failure to achieve the necessary minimum vote in the most influential state gave New South Wales Premier, George Reid, the opportunity to seek concessions from the other premiers.

The final step necessary to achieve Federation was to present the Australian Constitution Bill to the Imperial Parliament in London. The Bill had an almost uninterrupted passage through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Queen Victoria gave the Royal Assent on 9 July 1900. She issued the Royal Proclamation constituting the Commonwealth of Australia on 17 September 1900.

On 01 January 1901 the six Australian colonies formed a federation called the Commonwealth of Australia. This event was the culmination of over a decade of conventions, negotiations and deals. In agreeing to federate, Australian voters committed themselves to becoming, in the words of Henry Parkes, 'one people, with one destiny'. Federation had been in the air for 50 years. A strong argument in its favour was the need for a united approach to defence, and the desire to restrict the number of Chinese people entering the colonies. Others believed in federation as a means to achieve democratic independence. Organisations such as the Australasian Federation League and the Australian Natives Association (all white and all male) mounted vigorous campaigns in support. Some organisations were bitterly opposed - for example, sections of the labor movement. Others, such as women's suffrage societies, reserved judgement. Their support, or opposition, would depend on whether federation would benefit women in their fight for equal status.

When the outcome was put to the vote it was close run: New South Wales unenthusiastic, initially at least; Queensland confused; Western Australia tardy to commit. The residents of one New South Wales country town, Queanbeyan, voted against Federation by 770 to 623. Not all residents of the six colonies could vote in the referenda between 1898 and 1900. Voters included women in only two colonies - South Australia (including what is now the Northern Territory) and Western Australia - and few Indigenous people. In some states the people had to vote 'yes' twice, since the draft Constitution was amended in 1899, in part to resolve a dispute about where to site the capital.

Federation, achieved in 1901, had a tremendous impact on the powers and role of the Parliaments of the former colonies. The Parliaments resigned control over defence, customs and excise, coinage, postage, etc, under the new Australian Constitution, and power to legislate over those areas went to the Commonwealth Parliament. Some people at the time wondered if there was a real role left for the State Parliament, but in fact the powers retained were substantial and limited only by the specific exclusions made in the Federal Constitution.

World War II had delivered greatly increased powers to the Commonwealth government including a take over of income taxation ('as an emergency wartime measure'). The post-war national Labor Government had attempted to use its wartime powers to further increase Commonwealth leadership and expand socialist programs and nationalisation. With Labor's defeat nationally in 1949, Australian national politics of the 1950s and into the '60s were defined for the most part by the Liberal-Country Party coalition dominated by Prime Minister Robert Menzies until his retirement in 1966. The NSW Labor state government, and indeed the governments of all states, expressed increasing acrimony against Commonwealth decisions and control of the purse-strings which they felt undercut state programs. Nevertheless the Commonwealth which had taken responsibility for social services along with income tax powers, continued to use its financial domination to strongly influence more and more state areas of responsibility as universities and education, health and public works.

The retirement of Liberal Party Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1966 changed the political scene. His successors, Harold Holt (whose sudden death by drowning shocked the nation in 1967), John Gorton and William McMahon, faced increasing discontent and a reviving Labor Party under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. Whitlam won the 1972 election, instituting a program of reform which produced both radical change and reaction. The process of centralisation and relegation of State powers to Federal control also accelerated. After Whitlam's controversial dismissal in 1975 the new Federal Liberal-National Party government led by Malcolm Fraser only marginally reversed this trend. In 1983. Bob Hawke's Labor Government won power and despite policies 'consensus' and 'new Federalism' and economic deregulation, tensions and funding concerns between state and Commonwealth government continued.

The States were affected by Federal financial constraints and the financial relationship worsened in 1997 when a major source of state taxes was declared unconstitutional by the High Court. These were consequently to be collected by the Federal Government on their behalf, further reducing state independent action. The introduction of a national Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2000 has been welcomed by state governments as it promises to put an end to a long-running issue of inadequate state returns from Commonwealth revenues.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2012 18:12:54 ZULU