Self-government to Federation in Australia

The Proclamation of South Australia
The Proclamation of South Australia

Beginning with the establishment of the legislative council for New South Wales in 1823, the Australian colonies had gradually received increasing measures of self-government from the British Colonial Office.

In 1850 the British parliament passed the Australian Colonies Government Act that allowed the colonies to set up their own legislatures, pass laws to determine the franchise, tariff rates, and alter their constitutions, all subject to royal confirmation. In the following years, most of the colonies adopted their constitutions with slight variations.

All provided for a bicameral legislature of elected members and a cabinet on the British model (except for the most recently settled and most sparsely populated Western Australia, which established responsible government in 1890).

Evidence of their autonomy was indicated when Great Britain accepted a law passed by the legislature of New South Wales in 1851 that forbade the landing of convicts in that state. The last state to stop receiving British convicts was Western Australia, in 1867.

There was rapid progress on many fronts during the second half of the 19th century, shown by the founding of public universities in each state and the introduction of compulsory public education.

Railway building began in 1850, followed by the arrival of regular steamships that shortened the time of voyages, and the opening of telegraphic communications with other parts of the world.

Other signs of maturity are indicated by the withdrawal of British forces from the continent in 1870 as the colonies established their own militias and the colonies agreeing to subsidize financially the British naval squadron stationed in Australian waters in 1890.

However, the lack of a central government for the continent created problems and confusion. For example, each of the states built its railways using different gauges: the standard gauge of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 inches for New South Wales, the wide gauge of 5 feet 3 inches for Victoria, and a narrow gauge of 3 feet 6 inches for South Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland. Another question that needed a common approach was immigration.

Few non-British immigrants had settled in Australia up to 1850. However, in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851, peoples of many nationalities flooded to the gold fields. Disputes over taxation resulted in an uprising by German and Irish gold miners in November–December 1854 who proclaimed the Republic of Victoria—it was quickly put down.

It was the presence of 33,000 Chinese in the gold rush that led the legislature of Victoria to pass laws in 1855 that levied a heavy poll tax and put other restrictions on the Chinese that shut down Chinese immigration. New South Wales and South Australia followed with their own laws to restrict Chinese immigration, and they prevailed despite British government pressure against them.

Two other issues also affected all the Australian colonies. One involved the importation of laborers from the Solomon and other islands to work in Australia, mostly in the sugarcane fields in Queensland.

The condition of these laborers (called Kanaka) approached slavery and needed regulation. Another involved national security over control of the eastern portion of New Guinea (the Netherlands had annexed the western half).

Queensland was located nearest to New Guinea and was most anxious to control all western New Guinea. However, due to British reluctance to act promptly, Germany had already claimed the northern half, leaving only the southern part, which became a British colony in 1884.

These many issues contributed to the sentiment for forming a federation of all the Australian colonies. In 1885 the British parliament established a federal council to meet every two years to consult on problems that concerned all the colonies, but it was inadequate because it had no enforcement powers. The first Australian Federal Convention to create a union with more power met in Sydney in 1891.

It was composed of members of all colonial legislatures, including those from New Zealand, another British possession, presided over by Sir Henry Parkes, and failed to win acceptance of all the states. A second convention met in Hobart (Tasmania) without New Zealand in 1897 and drafted a constitution that won acceptance.

The union was called the Commonwealth of Australia, a federation that resembled the United States. The federal government was to control foreign affairs, defense, trade, tariffs, currency, citizenship, post and telegraph, etc.

It would be headed by a governor-general who represented the British monarch but would be governed by a prime minister and cabinet that had a majority in the lower house of Parliament called the House of Representatives, whose members represented districts based on population. The upper house, or Senate, had six senators from each state. A supreme court guarded and interpreted the constitution.

A new city whose location would be determined later would become the federal capital. (A site in New South Wales was later chosen and named Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.)

After acceptance in a referendum held in all states, the British parliament passed a bill of ratification. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on January 1, 1901. After Canada (in 1867), Australia became the second self-governing dominion of the British Commonwealth.