Helen Irving

Australian Federation
by Helen Irving

Helen Irving is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is the author of To Constitute a Nation and editor of The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation both about Australian history and Federation.

What does Federation mean?
Federation means the coming together of Australia's six self-governing colonies in 1901. On 1 January 1901, these colonies became states of the Australian Commonwealth. They retained their own parliaments, but were now also represented in a national parliament: the Commonwealth or federal Parliament.

The Australian Constitution was written as the legal foundation for this arrangement, and it became operative with the inauguration of the Commonwealth on 1 January 1901. The term 'Federation' is often also used to refer to the series of historical steps or processes that took place in the 1890s which led to the inauguration of the Commonwealth.

Federation also has another, broader (related) meaning. The term is used for nations that have 'federal' political systems with both a central parliament and a number of regional (in Australia, state) parliaments. The central parliament makes laws for the nation as a whole and the regional parliaments for their regions only. In 1901 Australia became the fifth federation in the world, after the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Germany. There are many other examples of federations today.

Why was Australia called a Commonwealth after Federation?
The name Commonwealth was adopted at the first federal Convention in Sydney in 1891 to describe Australia nationally as a political, rather than simply a geographical, entity. The name was rather controversial at the time (some thought it was republican!), but people were quickly won over when they learned that its meaning was 'common weal' or common good. The name survived through the writing of the final draft of Australia's Constitution. It was adopted with the enactment of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in 1900 and the inauguration of the Commonwealth in 1901.

The name should not be confused with the Commonwealth of Nations, which was formed in 1946 out of those nations which had once been part of the British Empire and which today, for example, meet in Commonwealth Heads of State (CHOGM) meetings and compete in the Commonwealth Games.

Why is it important to celebrate Australia's Centenary of Federation?
All nations celebrate their great national milestones, in the same way that individuals celebrate their own anniversaries. This is not just an occasion for festivities, but also an opportunity to engage in national reflection and discussion about the nation's past and the future. The celebration of the Centenary of Federation will be a unique moment, in which Australians can learn something about the great achievement that Federation represents and can also look towards the future. History is both a source of spiritual and cultural nourishment and also a means by which people can understand how to enhance or improve those things in the nation's life that they value. The rituals of celebration are a valuable means of strengthening the bonds between people and assisting a society or a nation to hold together.

What should commemorate the Centenary on 1 January 2001?
Federation was a participatory process, with many of its steps involving direct popular input. The delegates who wrote Australia's Constitution were directly elected by the voters, and the Constitution was itself approved at a referendum in all of the colonies before it became a legal Act. It is appropriate therefore for the celebrations of the Centenary to be as participatory, informal and inclusive as possible. They should also be dignified and respectful of the achievements of the past, to honour those who worked so hard to bring about the Commonwealth of Australia. Just as Federation gave rise to a lasting Commonwealth, the Centenary should ideally give rise to lasting outcomes: a greater understanding of our history and a greater commitment to strengthening the institutions that promote harmony in al culture.

One hundred years ago, the founders of the Australian Commonwealth declined to build a permanent memorial to their work. It is perhaps appropriate now for such a memorial to be created, mindful of course that Australians tend not to appreciate an exaggerated veneration of historical sites or hero worship of their political leaders.

Have there been any big changes to Australia's Constitution since 1901?
The Constitution's wording can only be changed by a referendum. For a referendum to succeed, a majority of voters in the whole nation plus a majority of voters in a majority of states must vote 'yes'. Although there have been 44 separate referendum questions this century, only eight have been successful. Some of these eight have been relatively minor, but several have led to big changes.

In 1946, the voters approved an alteration to the Constitution giving the Commonwealth Parliament power to legislate in a wide range of 'welfare' matters: these included student allowances and unemployment benefits. The Commonwealth also gained the power to make laws regarding medical benefits: hence the national Medicare scheme could later be established.

In 1967, a successful referendum gave power to the Commonwealth to make special laws for Aboriginal people. Previously (with the exception of the Northern Territory) Aboriginal policy and services had been the sphere of state governments alone.

One of the three successful referendum questions in 1977 gave the people of the Territories the right to vote in referendums and for their vote to be included in the national count.

The Constitution's application has also changed and evolved in two important ways. The Commonwealth now has a much greater share of revenue collecting than the states, largely because it has the power to collect income tax, which makes up the bulk of revenue (this was only a very minor type of taxation in 1901). The Commonwealth can then re-distribute this revenue in the form of grants to the states, sometimes attaching conditions to the grants and thereby venturing into areas of law that the states previously controlled.

In addition, the Commonwealth's power over 'external affairs' has meant that, with the great growth of international treaties since the last world war, Commonwealth law implementing such treaties can be applied to the states, again in areas (such as environmental protection) which were previously controlled by the states alone. These shifts and changes have all been done under our existing Constitution and have been upheld by the High Court.

What are some of the important changes to our system of government and law since 1901?
It is widely considered that the increased power of the Commonwealth to collect revenue (and then return it to the states in the form of grants), as well as the application of international law in spheres formally under state control, have fundamentally altered Australia's 'federal balance' this century.

In addition, some important changes have occurred in our political practices. Compulsory voting was brought in for Commonwealth elections in 1924, and was extended to the states. The introduction of proportional representation in 1949 for electing the Senate has meant that minor parties and independents are regularly elected, and it is very rare for the government (which has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives) also to have a majority in the Senate. Because the Senate has almost the same powers as the House of Representatives, governments increasingly have to negotiate with the minor parties and independent Senators before an Act of Parliament can be passed. Two of Australia's territories - the ACT and the Northern Territory - have become self-governing.

On the wider constitutional sphere, Australia's relations with Britain have fundamentally changed so that what remain are purely symbolic and historical ties between the two nations. After Federation in 1901, Britain had constitutional powers in Australia, although they were not exercised. Through Acts of both the British and Australian Parliaments between 1931 and 1986, these powers were gradually removed and now no longer exist.

Australia gained its own citizenship in 1949. Appeals can no longer go from Australian courts to Britain's final court of appeal, the Privy Council.

In areas of legislation, vast changes have occurred. The so-called 'White Australia' policy with which Australia began has long ended; Australia is now officially multicultural. Environmental control and protection is now a central policy issue, as is national economic policy and regulation of electronic communications systems.

On the other hand, Australia's political institutions themselves have changed little. The Upper Houses of the states have been democratised, with the Queensland Upper House abolished in 1922. The size of all the Houses of Parliament has increased. But Parliaments still perform much as they did at the time of Federation. There are still six state Governors and one Governor-General. Australia is still a constitutional monarchy. No new states have been created. If people of the 1890s came back today, they would find much that is different, but also much that is familiar.

The issues at Federation were about creating a new nation. What do you think are the major issues for the Australian people at this Centenary?
People have different views about what are the major issues. However, there would probably be agreement that reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is central.

Disparities in lifestyles and living conditions between urban, outer-suburban, and rural Australia are also a growing challenge. The size of Australia's population and its compatibility with environmental protection is rapidly becoming a significant issue for debate and is certain to heat up with the new century.

Adapting to globalisation, while retaining Australia's cultural and political integrity, is a major issue that crosses over most others. The republican question will not go away, despite the defeat of the 1999 referendum.

Overall, the question of how Australia can hold together as a sovereign nation, while evolving in the international sphere and accommodating increasing differences among its population and its values, would probably be nominated by a majority as the central challenge facing Australia in the year of its Centenary.

What do you think are some of Australia's achievements as a nation over the past 100 years?
Australia has experienced remarkable change and growth over the last 100 years. While it was a very small and only semi-independent, indeed embryonic, nation in 1901, it has evolved into a fully independent nation-state, with an international presence equal to that of many nations. Australians have lived through two World Wars and a major depression.

Australia has remained a democratic, and unusually tolerant society, and it has continued to search for ways of improving its democratic record.

Australians have also achieved much in the spheres of culture, sport and science. They have built beautiful cities without environmental devastation. They have in many, if not all, respects fulfilled the dreams of those who created the Commonwealth in 1901. While many problems remain, perhaps the greatest achievement overall has been the willingness of Australians to keep on discussing these problems and attempting to tackle them.

Back to Resources for Federation and the Centenary of Federation