Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed

Spurred by anxiety over German and Japanese expansion, rising nationalist public opinion, and awareness of the logistical and administrative challenges of remaining separate, the Australian colonies agreed to join together as a federation, which assumed authority as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Summary of Event

The Australian continent’s path to federation was not an inevitable one: Australia’s geography made it somewhat self-contained, but its common language and geographic area did not guarantee cohesiveness. The colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania were founded at different times and for different purposes, and they had different positions on the legacy of transporting convicts. Furthermore, New Zealand’s close cultural ties to Australia meant that it might become part of a larger Australian federation, and the essentially ceremonial Federated Council of Australasia, Federated Council of Australasia set up in 1885, included Fiji, which also could have become part of the federation. (The Federated Council also included Queensland and Tasmania, although it omitted New South Wales and Victoria, the two most powerful and populous colonies actually on the Australia continent.) Australia;commonwealth formation
Commonwealth of Australia, establishment
[kw]Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed (Jan. 1, 1901)
[kw]Australia Is Formed, Commonwealth of (Jan. 1, 1901)
Australia;commonwealth formation
Commonwealth of Australia, establishment
[g]Australia;Jan. 1, 1901: Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed[00130]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 1, 1901: Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed[00130]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 1, 1901: Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed[00130]
[c]Independence movements;Jan. 1, 1901: Commonwealth of Australia Is Formed[00130]
Barton, Edmund
Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker
Parkes, Sir Henry
Reid, George Houston
Archibald, Jules François

In particular, New South Wales had always considered itself large enough to be an independent state. In the late 1880’s, however, New South Wales communities such as Tenterfield (in the New England region in the north-central part of the colony) began to feel increasingly distanced from the colony’s capital, Sydney. The distance meant that in logistical terms, Sydney was not able to provide the administrative services that Tenterfield needed. Tenterfield was far closer to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, but since the colonies were separate, Queensland could not provide any assistance. The veteran New South Wales politician Sir Henry Parkes addressed this situation in 1889 with his famous Tenterfield Oration. Tenterfield Oration (Parkes) Parkes criticized the tariffs that made free trade between Queensland and northern New South Wales practically impossible. This barrier seemed especially significant given the advances in technology: The telegraph’s dissemination meant that Perth, on the west coast, could be in touch with Sydney almost instantly, thus reducing the psychological distance between them despite the thousands of miles separating the two cities.

The main focus of the Tenterfield Oration, however, was national defense. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, British command of the seas had seemed secure, but a number of international issues began to threaten the Australian continent. The French presence in New Caledonia (an issue resolved by the 1904 Entente Cordiale) and the German acquisition of South Pacific possessions in Samoa, Micronesia, and especially New Guinea made Australians nervous and accelerated an awareness of the need for a strong common defense. Furthermore, the emergence of Japan after the Meiji Restoration and the decisive defeat Japan inflicted on China in the countries’ 1894-1895 war made Japan a threat. Beyond the immediate military threat that Japan posed, Australians were anxious—at times to the point of paranoia—about the “yellow peril” represented by Asian people; some Australians imagined that hordes of people from Asia were waiting to swarm across Australia’s shores. Thus, although the Australian federation movement had anticolonial aspects, it also proceeded from ethnic unease and often from outright racism.

Parkes died in 1896, seven years after his Tenterfield Oration. Before he died, however, he helped convene national congresses in 1890 and 1891 that made the federation’s forward movement possible. These congresses created the federation’s basic framework, but implementation was delayed for ten years by debate about the federated government’s mechanics. Early on, negotiators decided to adopt the British parliamentary model rather than the separate legislative and executive branches used in the United States, but the nature of the legislature and the basis on which legislators would be chosen remained issues of sharp contention.

Public opinion was deeply influenced by the period’s journalism and imaginative literature, two factors that played crucial roles in accelerating the development of Australia’s nationalist sentiment. In the 1890’s, balladeers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson and novelists such as Miles Franklin and the original and idiosyncratic Joseph Furphy made distinctly Australian contributions to world literature. Even obscure poets such as Christopher Brennan, who emulated the French Symbolists, contributed to the 1890’s climate by not aping British models. The single most dynamic force in the cultural arena was Jules François Archibald, editor of the Sydney journal the Bulletin, who promoted nationalist sentiment and popularized the egalitarian image of the Australian male, full of fellowship and brimming with vernacular vigor, that soon became a stereotype.

Although the commonwealth’s basic components were in place, the federation’s formation continued to be delayed. New Zealand dropped out less because of its geographic distance than because of the radical direction—and separate political identity—it had taken under the leadership of William Pember Reeves Reeves, William Pember and Richard John Seddon. Seddon, Richard John The smaller colonies, especially South Australia, still held out for a popularly elected senate that would represent their interests and prevent a dual hegemony between New South Wales and Victoria. Sir Samuel Walker Griffith of Queensland became the principal deviser of the constitution’s language, and he reconciled the diverging views of leaders from Victoria who wanted a strong lower house of the legislature and a ceremonial senate, and figures such as Edmund Barton, who, although from New South Wales, recognized that a reasonably strong senate was a prerequisite for successful federation. Barton’s economic concession to other states that wanted special tariffs and other trade protections after the federation’s creation led to accusations that he was not a sufficiently strong advocate for New South Wales’s interests. In contrast, George Houston Reid was in principle an advocate of federation, but he assumed an equivocal stance toward unity until he was convinced that New South Wales’s concerns were sufficiently safeguarded.

Starting in 1898, each colony held a referendum on the draft constitution. In 1900, the British parliament approved the constitution, and the Commonwealth of Australia was officially proclaimed in Sydney on January 1, 1901. Barton became the first prime minister, and Reid was the first leader of the Opposition. The largest city in the new nation, Sydney, was not chosen as its capital; that role went to Melbourne, the second-largest city, until a permanent capital was established in the new city of Canberra in 1908.


It is important to note that the Australian federation was a nationalist movement, not a true independence movement. Australia’s foreign policy still remained in the hands of Britain, and the British sovereign remained the sovereign of Australia, even after federation had been achieved. Compared with the establishment of the U.S. Constitution or even Britain’s Constitution Acts of 1867 (which created the Dominion of Canada), the process of Australian federation was relatively dry and lacking drama. Still, federation was the product of the convergence of many very complex factors, and although it produced a strong, united Australia, such an outcome was not an obvious result of inevitable historical forces. Australia;commonwealth formation
Commonwealth of Australia, establishment

Further Reading

  • Birrell, Robert. Federation: The Secret Story. Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001. Not quite as revelatory as the title promises, but a dramatic treatment of the subject that casts the historical material in an entertaining fashion.
  • Clark, Manning. The People Make Laws, 1888-1915. Vol. 5 in A History of Australia. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981. Australia’s greatest historian operates as both sage and storyteller in depicting the convergence of the Australian colonies; Clark’s treatment of Henry Parkes is particularly detailed and thorough.
  • Fitzgerald, Ross. The Federation Mirror: Queensland 1901-2001. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001. An innovative piece of historiography by the leading historian of Queensland that contrasts Queensland in 1901 and 2001. Looks at both the relative controversy occasioned by federation in 1901 and the variety and differing tenor of the commemorative events held in 2001.
  • Howell, Peter. South Australia and Federation. Kent Town, S.Aust.: Airlift, 2002. Discusses the often-neglected story of how South Australia became a crucial force in reviving the idea of federation in the late nineteenth century.
  • Russell, Roslyn. One Destiny! The Federation Story—How Australia Became a Nation. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1998. A well-researched and lively depiction of the federation process that does not commit the mistake, frequent in Australian historical writing, of being excessively anti-British.

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