By 1891, with the six colonies at loggerheads and the Victorian and New South Wales economies in freefall, Australia’s great federation movement ground to a halt. The cause took another blow when its champion, Sir Henry Parkes, resigned as Premier of New South Wales later that year.
The task of unifying the colonies fell to younger men like Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, who would devote the next 10 years to the creation of a Constitution for a federated Australia. At federal conventions in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, delegates from each colony met to hammer out a Constitution. The final draft was taken to the people at referendums between 1898 and 1900.
On 9 July 1900, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent, making the Australian Constitution law. Australia celebrated its first birthday as a new nation on 1 January 1901, when its Constitution came into force.
The idea of joining the Australian colonies together had been in the minds of officials for many decades before 1901 when Federation was achieved, even before the division of the Colonies into the familiar areas of land that have since remained almost unchanged (with only the Northern Territory separating from South Australia in 1911) and which shaped the States of the Commonwealth. In the decade before the separation of Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859) from New South Wales which completed the colonial ‘mapping’ of the nineteenth century, the federal ‘idea was already in the air’.
At a general intercolonial Conference, in 1867, discussion indeed got so far as to resolve that there should be a Federal Council. Henry Parkes, at that stage Colonial Secretary in the New South Wales Government, characteristically saw the matter in visionary terms, and spoke prophetically of ‘a new constellation in the heavens, and the footprints of six young giants [the Colonies] in the morning dew’. But the young giants preferred their own patches to the common plot of ‘morning dew’.
While, as one federal scheme succeeded another, almost everyone agreed in principle that some sort of union was a good idea, each proposal failed as the one before had done. British schemes invariably came up against Australian protests over failure to consult; proposals from New South Wales (which produced the majority) irritated the other Colonies because New South Wales always seemed to allocate itself the pre-eminent place in its scheme. Victorian schemes were rejected by New South Wales because these did not sufficiently recognise that Colony’s pre-eminence. And so it went on.
At yet another conference in 1881, Henry Parkes repeated his trade-mark theme that ‘the time is now come’. A Federal authority, he argued, would be the preparation for a full Federation; a Federal Council, with limited powers to legislate on matters of common concern would do the job.
Two years later, with Henry Parkes out of office and out of the country, another Intercolonial Conference finally committed itself to creating such a body: it would be called the Federal Council of Australasia. Its members were to include New Zealand and Fiji, as well as the six Australian Colonies. The Victorian and New South Wales representatives at the Conference fought with each other and accused each other of wanting to dominate but, astonishingly, this time the proposal proceeded. It was the same year the railway line was joined (albeit on different gauges) all the way from Sydney to Melbourne, and Britain shrugged its shoulders at the Australians’ alarm over German designs upon New Guinea.
A meeting took place, in Melbourne, in 1890 and it was followed by a full ‘National’ Convention in Sydney the following year. There, the first complete draft Bill for an Australian Constitution was written and adopted, and the Convention concluded with a commitment on the part of its representatives to put the Bill before their respective Parliaments without delay.
Only Victoria, however, went any distance towards following the plan. As had happened many times before, with changes of government and in addition now with considerable change of fortune brought about by severe Depression, inaction followed. The Bill was ‘put by’.
In between, with all the while the Federal Council continued to meet, a Premiers’ Conference was held in Hobart in January, 1895. There the procedure to set in train a new Convention was agreed to, leading to the popular election in early 1897 of ten delegates in each of four Colonies (with the West Australia Parliament choosing its delegates, and Queensland remaining unrepresented). These fifty men then met on March 22 that year and during sessions lasting several weeks at a time, up to March 17 1898, they debated and conferred and drafted, and finally came up with a new Constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia.
In the form of a Bill for an Act of Parliament, the Constitution was then submitted to the voters in four Colonies in mid 1898, where it received approval in all but New South Wales. Then, following what its critics called the ‘Secret’ Premiers’ Conference in January, 1899, certain modifications were made to the Bill, and it was put again to a referendum (this time with Queensland joining in) and passed.
The Australians had now completed their task of Constitution writing, and the means of federating the Colonies had been determined. It took one more step to activate the process. Unlike in America, where independence had been achieved by declaration, followed by war, the Australian Colonies pursued the alternative means of enactment. A small delegation of colonial politicians took the Constitution Bill, completed and approved, to London in early 1900, and there, after a struggle with the Colonial Secretary over several provisions, they saw the Bill pass through the Imperial Parliament, and receive the Head of States’, Queen Victoria’s, signature.
In the weeks before there was a small hitch provided by its newly appointed Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun. It was Hopetoun’s job to nominate the first Prime Minister, who would hold office, briefly, until the infrastructure existed for the first Commonwealth elections. Hopetoun chose the wrong man. In what has become famous as the ‘Hopetoun Blunder’, he picked William Lyne, the recently-elected New South Wales Premier and prominent ‘anti-Billite’ (as opponents of Federation under the 1898 Constitution Bill were called), thereby almost causing a mutiny among those colonial leaders who expected to serve in the interim Cabinet. But Lyne gave way and Hopetoun nominated Edmund Barton, the popular choice, the former New South Wales politician who had assumed the role of federationist leader and acted as both spokesman and statesman of the movement for almost the entire preceding decade. With Barton in his rightful place, the Commonwealth Inauguration took place, on the first day of the New Year, the first day of the New Century.