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1901-1945 Federation & Commonwealth

The Commonwealth of Australia was established on January 1, 1901. After approval of a draft constitution by Australian voters, the British Parliament had passed legislation in 1900 to enable the commonwealth to come into existence. The constitution gave the commonwealth, or federal government, certain defined powers; all residual powers were given to the governments of the six colonies, which were renamed states. In this respect and in its separate and independent judiciary, the political system resembled that of the United States. Executive authority was established on the British model, with a cabinet headed by a prime minister responsible to the lower house of the bicameral legislature.

One of the chief questions in the first decade of the twentieth century concerned the opening up of the country to development by means of immigration. There was great need of properly situated lands for immigrant farmers. It was a common subject of complaint that immigrants were compelled to go far into the interior for settlement, passing on the way fine lands which were not under production, being held by individuals for speculative purposes. The absentee landowners were severely blamed. The difficulty was enhanced by the unwillingness of the States to cooperate with the Federal government, or with one another. Australia's need, moreover, was for agricultural immigration, and the situation was complicated by the danger of an influx of artisans and clerks, for whom work could not be found. Australians themselves could not get land of account of the large unused private estates. It was argued that by immigration alone can the policy of a "White Australia" be maintained. the greatest difficulty lay in the locking up of land which was owned in large parcels by the descendants of original settlers. The landowners, especially the absentees, were not in sympathy with the policy of closer settlement, since the lands were held chiefly for cattle-raising and sheep-raising. The cutting up of land for closer settlement proceeded very slowly. There we're complaints that people who wanted land had to go into the back country, that the government was slow in making land available, that the lands were unsurveyed, and the cheaper tracts not yet ready.

Expansion of the Australian economy in the first decade of the twentieth century was followed by an increase in immigration, which totaled 200,000 from 1911 to 1913 (population growth at that time was slowest in Victoria and fastest in Western Australia). Wool production reached a new high level, although the numbers of sheep had not quite regained the peak of 1891 after the serious damage of drought years to the pastoral industry. Tariff protection on a national basis encouraged an increase in the number of factories, in manufacturing production, and in industrial employment. Most industry was small scale, much of it concerned with processing agricultural commodities. The Australian steel industry started in 1905 when a blast furnace was built in New South Wales.

As part of the British Empire, Australia joined forces with Britain in World War I. Australian forces during World War I-all volunteers-totaled 416,809, drawn from a population that did not reach 5 million until 1918. Nearly 330,000 served overseas in army, navy, and flying corps units. They incurred 226,000 casualties, including 60,000 killed. Australian forces took part in the naval and landing actions that eliminated the German presence in the South Pacific early in the war. Australian troops also participated in the campaigns in the Middle East that ended with Turkey's surrender. Australia's economy and politics were profoundly affected by the scope of the measures that the government took to support the country's war effort. The pattern of industry and employment changed, in part to provide substitutes for products unobtainable from Britain during the war. Despite the growth of manufacturing and industrial employment, unemployment was high-greater than 6 percent-and the Australian economy was not prosperous during the war years.

In World War II, the reaction was the same as that of 1914; Australia was automatically at war without further formality when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Again forces were sent to the Middle East. The Royal Australian Air Force was rapidly expanded, and some of its units took part in the Battle of Britain in 1940. In the difficult military campaigns that finally succeeded in eliminating or neutralizing Japanese military forces in the islands to the north and northeast of Australia, Australian army, navy, and air force units played a major role. Australia proper was not invaded but was subjected to 96 attacks by air, which included severe damage to Darwin. Some 691,400 men and women served in Australia's armed forces during six years of war. Casualties numbered about 71,000, of whom more than 29,000 were killed and almost 2,500 were missing; 30,000 were taken prisoner, of whom 8,000 died in captivity.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:10:28 ZULU