Tag Archives: federation

Henry Parkes had a vision of a new Australian nation. In 1901, it became a reality



State Library of New South Wales/Photographer H.B. Solomons, 1887

David Lee, UNSW

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and it relevance to politics today. You can read our piece on Julia Gillard here.


Henry Parkes, known today as the “Father of Federation”, set in motion the process that led to the joining of Australia’s six colonies in 1901 – a significant moment that heralded the birth of a new nation.

While he did not live to see the outcome – he died five years before the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia – Parkes had been the driving force behind the idea of federation and a key architect of the process that ultimately created it.

Parkes’s vision was to unite the British colonies into a self-governing and democratic nation that spanned the continent. The new country would have a constitution written by Australians, but would remain “under the British crown” in an enduring relationship with the land of his birth.




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Perhaps the most defining moment of his political career came in 1889, when he gave his Tenterfield Oration. Much like US President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863, Parkes’ speech was little reported at the time, but later took on legendary status.

The great question which we have to consider is, whether the time has not now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government and an Australian parliament … Surely what the Americans have done by war, Australians can bring about in peace.

From radical ideas to a career in politics

Parkes was born in Warwickshire, England, in 1815 into a family of poor tenant farmers. After his family was forced off the farm by debt in 1823, he later worked in Birmingham and London.

In 1838, Parkes moved to New South Wales as a bounty migrant with his young wife and developed considerable talent as a journalist. This was all the more remarkable given he was largely self-educated.

He eventually gravitated to politics and associated himself with the radical patriots in the colony. With these radicals, Parkes pushed for universal suffrage, the transformation of the Australian colonies into a federal republic and, above all, for free trade. He also campaigned against the transportation of convicts from the UK.




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Parkes later moved away from radicalism and republicanism, deciding he could achieve more in government. When New South Wales achieved control over its local affairs in the 1850s, Parkes joined the legislative assembly as one of a small group of liberals.

Parkes devoted his career to politics, moving through the ranks of the pro-free trade liberals to serve five terms as premier of New South Wales from 1872-91.

Sir Henry Parkes with the coalition ministry in 1880.
Blue Mountains City Library/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Parkes advocates for a federal council

After the separation of Queensland from New South Wales in 1859, there were five self-governing colonies in eastern Australia. The colonies were competitive and largely concerned with their own affairs. Federation was not a pressing issue.

Parkes was still relatively new to politics in the 1860s, but he nonetheless became a tireless crusader for his idea of a colonial union. As NSW colonial secretary, he proposed establishing a federal council of representatives from all five colonies in 1867, and again as premier in 1880. Both times, it went nowhere.




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However, a few years later, the colonies finally began to see the benefits of a stronger federation, due to unease over the expanding influence of the French and Germans in the Pacific. All except NSW ultimately supported the establishment of the federal council in 1885.

The new council had limited legislative powers and no permanent executive powers or revenues of its own. The absence of NSW also weakened it.

Nonetheless, it was the first major form of inter-colonial cooperation. The council also allowed federalists to meet and exchange ideas, setting in motion the more ambitious campaign for federation led by Parkes.

A statue of Henry Parkes today in the town named after him in NSW.
Wikimedia Commons

The Tenterfield address and dawn of federation

By the end of the 1880s, opinion was divided over the future of the Australian colonies. While some advocated to “cut the painter” and separate from Britain, others preferred to protect the current system.

The concept of an “imperial federation” with a single federal state consisting of the UK at the centre and the self-governing colonies was also gaining popularity.

One of the primary obstacles to federation was the struggle between New South Wales, which supported free trade, and other colonies like Victoria, which advocated protectionism. Parkes was able to neutralise this problem by proposing that once a federation was created, a Commonwealth parliament could legislate on tariff policy.




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In 1889, Parkes grasped the nettle. He proposed to the Victorian government that the colonies should appoint delegates to a convention, which would draw up the constitution for a nation and discuss its relationship with Britain.

Later that year, Parkes travelled to Queensland armed with a report on colonial defence to garner Queensland’s support for his cause. On his return journey, he delivered his famous address at Tenterfield calling for “a great national government for all Australia”.

In 1890, Parkes finally succeeded in putting together an informal colonial conference in Melbourne that led to the first National Australasian Convention in Sydney the following year. It was a revolutionary moment for the future country and produced the fundamentals of the federal system we have today.

Led by Parkes, the delegates in Melbourne and Sydney sketched out a House of Representatives, representing the people, and a Senate representing the colonies (later states). They also specified powers for the Commonwealth and the states, and envisioned a High Court to interpret the constitution.

Both conventions were a triumph for Parkes. Alfred Deakin, a young Victorian legislator at the time, noted he was

from first to last, the chief and leader.

More conventions were held over the coming years to iron out the details of a bill that was finalised in 1899 and transmitted to the UK for ratification by the British parliament.

Parkes’s legacy today

Parkes’s championing of the federal movement transformed Australia’s political agenda at a time when the colonies were still content to chart separate courses.

After his death, referendums were held in all the colonies in 1899 and 1900 and the people voted “yes”. Australia finally became a federation on January 1 1901.

Federation celebrations in Queen Street, Brisbane, 1901.
State Library of Queensland

In the federation procession in Melbourne in 1901, Parkes was the only leader who received public homage, with his image and slogans festooned on signs and other paraphernalia. Other politicians, including the country’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, yielded him the preeminent position in the pantheon of federation fathers.

After 120 years, Australians take federation as a given. But had it not been for Parkes, Australia would probably not have become a nation in 1901, and the system of government we have today might well be very different.The Conversation

David Lee, Associate Professor of History , UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


How Australia became a nation, and women won the vote


File 20170602 1275 1armln9
Delegates to the Australasian Federation Conference, Melbourne, 1890, where being white, male and bearded was standard form.
National Library of Australia

Clare Wright, La Trobe University

Maybe seven really is a magic number. 2017 certainly has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. And as we’ve heard in recent weeks, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the Mabo ruling, the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report and the 10th anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention. These are all significant milestones in Australian history and the legal, political and cultural relationship between Australia’s colonisers and its colonised.

In May, we witnessed the historic coming together of 250 indigenous delegates at Uluru to determine what form of constitutional recognition to seek from the Australian parliament.

But this is not the first time that locally elected delegates have gathered in one location to thrash out the legal and moral framework for establishing the principles through which our nation should be constituted and our people counted.

This year is also the 120th anniversary of the Australasian Federal Convention. In April 1897, ten elected delegates from each of Australia’s colonies (except Queensland, which did not attend) gathered at Parliament House in Adelaide to map the route to nationhood, a Commonwealth of Australia.

Six years earlier, delegates appointed by the colonial parliaments met in Sydney to discuss a draft constitution for federating the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. But 1897 was the first time that members of the Constitutional Convention were appointed by popular vote. (New Zealand was no longer included, having decided that being part of a trans-Tasman Commonwealth was not in its best interests.) Here was a novel experiment in democracy: allow the people to elect representatives to draft a constitution that would be submitted to the people for their assent.

Much has been made of the lack of unity at the Uluru Convention. But surprise, surprise: the 1897 Convention was no chorus of harmonious hallelujahs either.

Democratic sentiment in the last decade of the 19th century — a mood for inclusivity and openness to progressive change — did not necessarily subvert the age-old mechanisms of power; in particular, the fact that those who have it want to keep it. According to historian John Hirst,

the constitutional conventions were horse-trading bazaars at which premiers and their cohorts worked to protect the interests of their colonies.

Commerce and finance also manoeuvred to secure their short and long term investments. Hirst argues that if Federation was a business deal, as is commonly averred, it was a shaky one, with issues such as tariffs more often “divisive and tricky” than designed to broker consensus.

One major point of discrepancy among delegates at the People’s Conventions is what became known as “the Braddon Clause” (named after then Premier of Tasmania, Edward Braddon) whereby three-quarters of customs and excise revenue acquired by the Commonwealth would be returned to the states. Critics of “the Braddon Claws” feared this would lead to smaller states pilfering the profits of the more populous states. While Braddon’s initiative became Section 87 of the Commonwealth Constitution, many other issues were determined provisionally, with the get-out-of-jail-free rider “until the parliament otherwise decides”.

“Votes for Women”

Perhaps the most significant of the Federal Convention’s sticking points was the issue that would eventually make Australia a global exemplar in democratic practice: women’s suffrage. “Votes for Women” was the international catch-cry of the day, but in Australia, on the precipice of nationhood, the matter turned on what could be termed the “constitutional recognition” of women.

At the 1897 Convention in Adelaide, “warm Federalist” Frederick Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution. Three years earlier, South Australian women had become the first in the world to win equal political rights with men: the right to vote and to stand for parliament. (New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, but eligibility to stand was withheld until 1919.) Playing with a home ground advantage, Holder moved to add a clause to the draft Constitution that read “no elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right”.

Other delegates were left speechless. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, found words to express the horror:

As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the Federal Parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.

If South Australian women could not lose their citizenship status — their right to be counted — then the rest of Australia’s women must achieve it.

Barton spelled out the inescapable conclusion: ‘It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.“

Holder and Kingston threatened that, should the new clause not be approved, South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes. Universal suffrage effectively became the precondition of a federated Australia.

However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which made Australian women “the freest of the free”, was the same legislation that stripped Aboriginal Australians of their citizenship rights – legal personhood – which they would not claw back until 1967.

Catherine Helen Spence, Australia’s first female political candidate.
Wikimedia

If the founding fathers had one thing in common, it was that they were indeed all men. Monochrome photos of the Constitutional Conventions depict the monocultural make-up of the delegates, whether elected or appointed: white, bearded, suited.

But there were plenty of founding mothers in the wings. South Australian Catherine Helen Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate when she unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for the 1897 Convention. (Another 2017 anniversary, albeit one of apparent failure.) Spence’s proposal for political reform – what she termed “pure democracy” — did make it into the Constitution: the principle of one-man one-vote was not her idea exclusively, but she fought for it with ferocious tenacity.

According to her biographer, Susan Magarey, Spence also made proportional representation “the talk of the colony”, later developing a system for the fairest distribution of preferences (a system so unwieldy it has never been implemented). Though Spence was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia, her life’s major mission was to rectify the injustices of the electoral system to ensure “the elevation, educational and spiritual, as well as economic, of all humanity”.

Alfred Deakin concluded that Federation was achieved through a series of miracles. The road to nationhood was not always smooth, seamless or virtuous. Vested interests, entrenched prejudices, competing perspectives and outsized personalities meant that achieving “consensus” was a juggling act that required immense skill and determination. Balls fell. Some were picked up and thrown back in the ring. The nation that emerged was, and is, complex and conflicted.

The ConversationCatherine Helen Spence’s system for electoral reform may not have been initiated, but let’s hope that the ongoing process of constitutional reform ultimately achieves her broader goal: the elevation of all humanity.

Clare Wright, Associate Professor in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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