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Politicians and people in the move to Federation

Matthews, B. Federation 1999

excerpt one

If you concentrate only on the conventions of the early 1890s, you get a view of the federation movement which seems intensely stratified: that is, the politicians were going endlessly about their business while the ordinary people had neither opportunity nor inclination to be involved. John Bannon offers some mitigation of this view:

...our general lack of understanding [in the 1990s] of the federation process not only misrepresents it and interprets it with little reference to the attitudes of the times but also short-changes the skills and statesmanship of those involved, the difficulties they faced in making the nation. It was a revolutionary process, a unique experiment in participatory democracy which by-passed the established colonial parliaments...and ultimately relied on the voters of Australia to determine who should draw the constitution up and whether the result was acceptable. There were significant exclusions and the Convention delegates were a roll call of the political leaders of the day, an oligarchy, but one that was answerable to popular vote. It was in fact an advanced uniquely Australian process which resonated with our groundbreaking introduction of manhood suffrage and the secret ballot in earlier times.

One of several ways in which the people became influentially involved was through the remarkable Australian Natives Association (ANA)–a title which, as the Melbourne Punch noted, sounded more inclusive than it was. Established in Melbourne in 1871 as a friendly society to minister to its native-born members, the ANA was non-political and non-sectarian. It was, however, visionary: it foresaw a united Commonwealth of Australia and recognised the importance of an informed public to the health of government and parliaments. The ANA's mission was to promote in its members moral, social and intellectual improvement by helping them to attend to, discuss and grasp the significance of the great issues of the day. In its foundation state of Victoria it was especially influential and became very attractive to young people intent on understanding their role in the changing affairs of the colonies. Alfred Deakin, who was a member of the Prahran Branch of the ANA in Melbourne, remarked that the association 'stirred the languid pulse of public interest' long before federal issues began to creep quietly on to the colonial agenda. An ANA-sponsored gathering in Melbourne in 1890 resolved to call for the establishment of a federal legislature to deal with defence, customs, post office and railways. Whether or not this meeting had much direct influence, it undoubtedly raised interest in ideas of unity.

The ANA's influence persisted well into the 1890s though its momentum seems to have begun to wane for want of a clear program of action to build on the various convention initiatives. The association did however play a part in the formation of the Australasian Federation League (the first AFL!), in co-operation with Barton and Garran, at a time when the colonial parliaments seemed to have run out of steam or will in their attention to the 1891 draft constitution. So that, while federal momentum was flagging in New South Wales and elsewhere in 1893, initiatives and momentum were shifting, not disappearing.

The AFL called a conference at Corowa in 1893. This gathering was to attempt to enshrine and embody a popularly driven federation process, to find the structures and manoeuvres that would give the movement a genuinely popular thrust. John Quick, of the Bendigo branch of the ANA (he would become Sir John Quick in 1901) proposed at the AFL's conference at Corowa that the method of enshrining federation should be by each colonial legislature passing a bill to enable a popularly elected convention at which a federal constitution would be formally adopted; the convention's proposals would then be put to the people by way of referendum in each colony. Quick had always been keen on a popular dimension to the process. He had opposed the Federal Council bill in 1885 because he believed such a council might hinder the chances of federation. He had suggested instead a conference of delegates appointed by the people to frame a constitution.

It was agreed that the Corowa conference resolution should be put to a meeting of the premiers in Hobart in 1895 with a view to removing the federal issue from the exclusive influence of the politicians and placing it firmly in the hands of the people. Quick and Garran in particular emphasised the populist triumph at Corowa but later historians, among them Stuart MacIntyre, have suggested that the transfer of federalist initiative from politicians to people was illusory.

excerpt two

The virtues of what was celebrated in 1901 were not difficult to understand or to be conscious of when life settled back to normal. Unified Australia really was a different place and the difference manifested itself at hundreds of levels from the ephemeral and trivial to the crucial. A commonwealth government was running the show and you had to be a hermit in the wilderness not to notice. Less noticeable yet still very real were the forgotten of federation. Chief among these–though in the manner of those times people did not see it this way–were the Aborigines. They had no vote and no place in the federal structure. Their existence and condition did not detain or distract the framers of the constitution. The Aborigines were confidently thought to be 'dying out'–a problem that would go away. Like all colonised indigenous people, they quickly succumbed and in large numbers to new diseases, attacks by white settlers, loss of their accustomed homelands, disruption and fragmentation of their cultures and social structures, loss of their normal diet, inability to cope with alcohol, and aggressive conversion to various forms of white denominational religion. It was a terrible story then; it has become worse; and it is one that many Australians, on the eve of the centenary of that grand day in 1901, would dearly like to see resolved.

Women fared much better, even allowing for the exclusively white male constituency of all the deliberative groups, framing bodies, committees and conventions that went about the business of promoting and achieving unity. Where women had already at the colonial level achieved the vote, they were allowed to vote in the referendums. So the women of South Australia and Western Australia put their stamp on the federal argument in those states. The 'woman question' had, however, become a very live one indeed as the 1890s dawned. In Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne reformers were active, vocal and influential. In Sydney Rose Scott, Vida Goldstein, Louisa Lawson and others kept issues such as the franchise, marriage and divorce law reform and the Married Woman's Property Act constantly on the agenda for debate and publicity, so that when federation was achieved the views and aspirations of women were very much to the fore and known.

A great deal of their battle was already honourably fought, though far from won, by 1 January 1901. But not all the prominent women reformers were in favour of federation. Their suspicion of the power of male politicians ran too deep to allow them to expect some sort of millennial revelation when unity was achieved. Many did not believe that the vote achieved by their sisters in South Australia would necessarily flow on to them under federation and many, including Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson, reported discouraging experiences in their efforts to lobby delegates to federal conventions in the interests of the women's agenda.

Perhaps the decision that seemed the most marginal, on what should be the site of the federal capital was born of intercolonial rivalry and pettiness. It would in time underline a truth about the federal campaigns. Though it is customary to refer to a point at which the momentum shifted to the people, Stuart MacIntyre's summation already quoted remains true: 'The Commonwealth of Australia was created by an assembly of white males' and their bickering and jealousies persisted right down to the point of sending surveyors and other experts out into the sheep runs of New South Wales to site the national capital 'not less than a hundred square miles in area [and] not less than a hundred miles from Sydney'.

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