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Chronology of actions and events leading up to Federation

Matthews, B. Federation 1999



The Queensland government under Sir Thomas McIlwraith annexes New Guinea for the British Crown to pre-empt German seizure. The British reversal of this action emphasises the powerlessness of any one colony to act unilaterally. This situation, however, convinces McIlwraith of the virtues of colonial unity. The Victorian premier, James Service, endorses McIlwraith's views and cites French threats to annex New Hebrides as further proof of urgency. Ideas for a Federal Council grow out of these incidents.


Germany annexes north-eastern New Guinea following Britain's declaration of a protectorate over the south-east.


The Australasian Federal Council Act is passed by British Parliament. The Federal Council is designed to deal with external issues of the kind McIlwraith had encountered in the New Guinea affair–defence, Pacific relations, coastal surveillance and policy. Inaugural members include Fiji. South Australia joins late and withdraws in 1891. New South Wales never joins, prompting Parkes to deride the Council as 'half a loaf'.


The Federal Council of Australasia holds its inaugural meeting in Hobart on 26 January. In this same year, France annexes the New Hebrides.


An Intercolonial Conference is held in London to discuss matters of common interest to all colonies. Australian colonies, by acting co-operatively, extract from Britain an agreement to maintain a Pacific presence with specific reference to French activities in the region.


Second meeting of the Federal Council of Australasia in Hobart. Biannual meetings continue till 1899 but it is clear quite early that the Council has no teeth and that the absence of New South Wales is a crippling disadvantage.


The Edwards report on colonial defence capability recommends colonial unity for defence purposes: uniform military organisation, uniform railway gauge, coastal signalling, etc.

In May, the railway bridge over the Hawkesbury completes the link between Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane but highlights the futility of different gauges.

Having shown no interest in federal ideas and having frequently subverted federal initiatives (most noticeably the Federal Council), on 24 October Henry Parkes signals a volte face in his retrospectively famous Tenterfield oration. Calling upon colonial governments to 'unite and create a great National Government for all Australia', Parkes enters the federal ring with his customary panache and sense of history.


An Intercolonial Conference on Federation, organised by the Australian Natives Association (ANA), is held in Melbourne on 26-27 January.

Two weeks later, on 6-14 February, the Australasian Federation Conference is held, also in Melbourne. Parkes invites representative and influential 'public men' from the colonial governments and New Zealand. They follow the lead of their patriarchal convenor ('The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all') in acknowledging the work of the Federal Council and in recognising that major changes in the population, political maturity and wealth of the colonies now point to the need for a more concerted and substantial approach to colonial unity. A national convention to consider a federal constitution is planned.


The Australian Labor Party takes shape through Labor Electoral Leagues in New South Wales and the United Labor Party in South Australia. Other colonies follow on the initiative of trade union groups as it becomes apparent that the shearers' and maritime workers' strikes have failed. Resolutions are prepared for the constitutional convention detailing:

  • surrender by the colonies of specified powers to a federal government
  • customs duties and defence to be the preserve of the federal government
  • trade between colonies to be 'absolutely free'
  • the constitution to envisage a federal supreme court; a bicameral parliament comprising a lower house (Representatives) with members elected from each state on the basis of population; and an upper house (Senate) with equal numbers of representatives from each state.

In March and April the first constitutional convention is held in Sydney.

Seven delegates per colony and three from New Zealand adopt the nomenclature 'Commonwealth of Australia'. Parkes coins the slogan, 'One people with one destiny'. Griffith, Kingston, Barton and others draft the constitution on board the Lucinda but the constitution bill fails in the colonial parliaments as savage economic depression bites in all parts of the country except the west. In New South Wales, elections delay the bill's introduction. Federalism seems dead.


The Australasian Federation League (AFL) is formed. With the ANA, it helps to keep alive a feeble consciousness of federation, as banks close, businesses collapse, British investment slows and immigration is halted.

On 31 July and 1 August 1893, the Corowa conference takes place. Delegates from the AFL and the ANA support John Quick's initiative to have each parliament legislate for election of representatives to a constitutional convention. A referendum in each colony would then vote on the resultant constitutional document. Parkes and Deakin both support the Corowa conference and the Quick motion.


Reid agrees to a premiers' conference to consider the Quick plan.

Women are given the right to vote and to stand for parliament in South Australia.


On 29 January the Hobart premiers' conference endorses the Corowa plan and a majority of premiers agrees to introduce the enabling legislation that would elect convention delegates and allow for the subsequent referendum.

The Federal Council, meeting in Hobart at the same time, attacks the Corowa plan and opts for a return to the 1891 draft constitution.

1895 - 96

Passing of the Enabling Acts to allow for election of delegates to a constitutional convention:

South Australia: 20 December 1895

New South Wales: 23 December 1895

Tasmania: 10 January 1896

Victoria: 7 March 1896

Queensland: the bill is introduced 18 June 1896; not passed until 1899


An Intercolonial Conference, held in Sydney in March, extends restrictive immigration provisions to all coloured races.

27 April: death of Sir Henry Parkes

17-21 November: AFL's Bathurst People's Convention calls for a People's Federation Conference.


March: Elections to choose convention delegates held in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia (delegates elected by parliament).

22 March - 23 April: First session of the National Australasian Convention, held in Parliament House, Adelaide, attended by delegates from all colonies except Queensland.

Kingston elected president, Barton leader of the convention.

Barton sets out basic principles for drafting a constitution 'under the Crown' for enactment by the British parliament. The 1891 draft constitution is referred to but is not a template. Barton, Richard O'Connor from New South Wales and Sir John Downer from South Australia do the drafting with valuable assistance from Alfred Deakin, Richard Baker (South Australia) and Robert Garran.

Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations in June are disrupted by republican protests in Sydney.

2-24 September: Second session of the National Australasian Convention, Parliament House, Sydney. Significant discussions and agreement on constitution of the Senate, powers of the Senate with respect to money bills, and the machinery for breaking deadlock between houses.


20 January - 17 March: Third and final session of the National Australasian Convention. Draft constitution is agreed on; the convention bill is framed on 16 March. Electors in each colony will be asked to approve the constitution by referendum.

28 March: Reid delivers his 'Yes-No' speech, attacking the constitution which, however, he says he will vote for.


First and second referendums. The first referendum fails in New South Wales after which Reid sets out to repair the damage, using a Melbourne session of the now decrepit Federal Council as his forum. Subsequent referendums successfully secure the cause of federation. An Australian delegation consisting of Barton, Kingston, Deakin, Fysh and Dickson represent the bill at Westminster and after some tense moments, federation becomes official under the crown.

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