Centenary of Federation: Debates that shaped the nation


Middle to upper secondary


These activities provide students with an opportunity to investigate commonalities and differences between constitutional discussions in the 1890s and the 1990s.

In the 1890s, a series of conferences and conventions developed a Federal constitution that was agreed to by the people of Australia at referendums. In the 1990s, there was also a series of constitutional conventions.

To complete these activities, students need an understanding of the process that led to Federation in 1901. In particular, they need an understanding of the series of conferences and conventions.

Some of this information is contained in the middle secondary unit 'Making a nation' in Discovering Democracy: Middle Secondary Units, pp. 103–132. Further background information for students and teachers is available in 'Nation Making' in Discovering Democracy: A Guide to Government and Law in Australia, pp. 37–46. The One Destiny! CD-ROM includes the section 'Debate', which outlines events at and surrounding the constitutional discussions.

The CD-ROM also includes a useful timeline. The Federation Fast Facts page provides a brief overview of the major issues, a timeline and a list of resources for more information.


This set of activities could take as many as eight or ten class sessions but individual activities could be undertaken in a shorter time.


  • Access to the Internet. In particular, some of these activities depend on the use of Records of the Australasian Conventions of the 1890s. These records are scanned from original print copies and may contain minor inaccuracies as a result. In most cases, however, this should not present a problem. Access to the online records of the local and federal Constitutional Conventions of the 1990s is also necessary for these activities.
  • The One Destiny! CD-ROM.
  • Pens and paper.


What was being discussed in the 1890s?

  1. Explain that students are going to look at records of some of the debates that took place in the late 1890s as Australia moved towards Federation. Direct them to the 'Debate' section of the One Destiny! CD-ROM.
  2. Ask students to look at the conventions held in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897–98 and make a list of all the issues mentioned. Discuss various lists as a class and develop one list.
  3. Have the class work in small groups on a specific issue. Allocate one issue from the list to each group. Ask groups to investigate: 
    • What were the arguments around the issue?
    • Which colonies were taking the various positions?
    • Why might they have been taking such positions?
    • What was the outcome of the debate about the issue?
    • Which colonies seemed to benefit from the outcome?

    Arrange for groups to report their findings to the whole class.

  4. All of the above questions can be researched in a fairly simple way using only the One Destiny! CD-ROM. Especially for younger students, you may wish to end the 'What was being discussed in the 1890s?' activities here. In order for older students to achieve more depth, however, they can refer to the daily records of the conference sessions. Many of the debates were long and extensive and some of them contain language that some students might find difficult.

    Ask groups to find records of the convention session that are most associated with their particular research issue. For example, a group dealing with issues around control of the rivers will know from One Destiny! that this was an issue at the Adelaide convention session.

  5. Ask each group to refer to the 'Index to subjects' at the beginning of the records and use it to locate the relevant convention debate. Some reading time will be required before students will be able to add to their answers in Step 3 above.

    Groups can be asked to consider the following additional questions:

    • Who were the people representing the various positions?
    • What other arguments were used?
    • In terms of outcomes, what does the Australian Constitution actually say about the issue? Access the Constitution.

Extension activities

  1. Students could use the delegates' biographies on the One Destiny! CD-ROM to trace their involvement with the particular issue researched.
  2. Students could be asked to research a current issue that relates to the particular issue researched. For example, students who have dealt with issues around control of rivers could look at current debate about matters such as the regulation of the waters of the Snowy River.

What was being discussed at national Conventions in the 1990s?

  1. Explain some of the background to the conventions of the 1990s, using the following notes:

    Four conventions in the 1990s were organised by the Constitutional Centenary Foundation and held to commemorate the conventions of the 1890s. Three of these (Melbourne, 3–5 March 1998; Sydney, 10–12 September 1997; and Adelaide, 20–23 April 1997) were held to coincide with centenaries of sessions of the 1897-1898 Australasian Federal Convention. The fourth (Bathurst, 22–24 November 1996) was held to coincide with the centenary of the Bathurst People's Convention of 1896.

    These conventions took place in the lead up to the recent referendum and included discussions about the possibility of an Australian republic.

  2. Direct students to the records of the four Federation Centenary conventions.
  3. Arrange for the class to work in four small groups and assign one of the four conventions to each group. The account of each convention begins with a list of issues or themes. Arrange within each small group for at least one or two students to investigate each issue or theme and summarise the main points of the discussion at the convention. These can then be discussed within the group.
  4. After the discussion, ask each group to choose one issue likely to be of interest to the class and prepare a report that explains the discussion at the convention. Students could also be asked to give their own opinions about the issue.

What was being discussed at local conventions in the 1990s?

  1. Explain that the Constitutional Centenary Foundation organised a series of local Constitutional Conventions in the 1990s. Ask students to refer to the records of these conventions. This website has a summary of conclusions as well as communiques from individual conventions around the nation.
  2. Assign individual communiques to small groups of students, ensuring that any communiques that come from conventions held in the local area are included. Ask groups to report to the whole class about the concerns expressed.

    Alternatively, or in addition, refer to the 'Summary of Conclusions'. Arrange for students to add any further concerns to the summary already developed above. As an extension activity students could undertake research to account for differences between the communiques from various parts of the country.

Comparing the concerns of the 1890s and the 1990s

  1. As a class, discuss similarities and differences between the matters under discussion at the conventions of the 1890s and 1990s. This work could be recorded using this table.
  2. Ask students to suggest possible reasons for the pattern of results. Why have some issues become less important while new ones have appeared?

Extension activity

If students have studied the lives of historical figures involved in the debates of the 1890s they could be asked to discuss ways in which these figures might have reacted to the important issues of the 1990s.

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