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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Essay: An independent Australia at the time of Federation?

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This essay explores the question of why the idea of an independent Australia largely died out as the Federation Movement gathered pace.

A printable copy of this essay with full bibliography can be downloaded here.


The Australian federation movement, which started to gather pace in the 1880s, shared many of the agitations and much of the momentum with its alternative, the pro-independence republican movement. Both movements rose to national discussion around the same time. Both federalism and independence in the latter decades of the 1800s found support bases in different groups who needed a union of the colonies to better function in the Asia-Pacific. Whilst independence gained some strong support in the 1880s, many of its potential supporters could find what they sought from independence in federation. The desire for independence in the 1880s drove the republican movement to centre stage, however as the need for a union of the states became more and more important with regional, economic and racial fears heightening, pragmatism led to a growth of support for federation. Indeed, much of the decreased talk of independence from the time leading up to federation was because federation could provide the convenient local central administrative body that would provide the economic and political institutions that independence did, with the added clout of the British Empire in trade and defence. The attachment to Britain was also important in the demise of independence sentiment, as White Australians identified themselves predominantly as British, although somewhat detached from their homeland.

Federation and independence both appealed to the same ideals in the Australian colonial mind-set. This common interest meant that as significant public figures, including the then-longest serving member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly Henry Parkes,[1] turned to support the federation movement, bringing with him public support for the movement. Parkes’ stance helped draw the Australian public to support federation rather than the alternative of outright independence from Britain. The draw away from republican and independent sentiments toward greater support for federation can be seen through the need for economic stability during the 1880s. Prior to the 1880s the republican movement had been a small movement, unable to gain major public support. However, falling wool prices, drought and the unpopular demands of the Australian Workers Union brought republicanism out from the fringes of Australian society.[2] It came to be considered by the Bulletin that to be Australian and to be republican were one and the same, however this was a misconception. The demands of the new supporters of federation were in fact attracted more toward the idea of a union of the colonies, which would allow for more control over their assets[3] under a local, Australian central government. This goal of local central government was common to both the supporters of independence through a republic and to the supporters of federation. Republicanism also gained support from “radicals”, a term which covers those who believed in broader social reform or rejected the status quo.[4] Once again the demands of these groups could be at least in part satisfied by what was offered in federation. From the United Kingdom too there had been calls for a central administrative body to be established in Australia, one which could take over much of the administrative work from the “less competent authority of the British parliament.”[5] There was a British Government proposition put forward to only allow Victoria to split from New South Wales if the colonies agreed to a central administrative body. This early attempt to force a union, the brain-child of British Secretary of State for Colonies Henry George, the third Earl Grey, was to attempt to improve economic relations between the colonies.[6] Parkes was initially a supporter of the republican movement,[7] however he moved to being a supporter of federation, even earning himself the name of the “father of federation”.[8] According to another republican of the time Daniel Deniehy, Parkes had too much ‘“Englishmanism” about him’,[9] which led Parkes and his followers to support the federation movement. This ‘Englishmanism’, although appearing foreign from a modern standpoint, was the social norm prior to and beyond the time of federation, when Australians would become the “Britons of the south.”[10] It is this loyalty to Britain and what Britain represented in trade and raw power that gave strong support to the federation movement rather than the independence movements.[11]

The nationalism that was promoted by Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin in the 1890s was to promote the feeling that “the nation is coming”,[12] this nation being a British outpost in the Asia-Pacific – a sentiment that was supportive of the federation movement to a greater extent than the independence movement. Due to the common country of origin, it was noted that the White Australian colonies shared a single heritage, language and culture[13] - a trait which leant itself to unification. The Australian colonies were divided over basic political ideologies which nearly saw some colonies not join the federation. The most prevalent of these standoffs was between free trade New South Wales and protectionist Victoria. However, despite this disagreement it is important to note that the colonies all shared the same Queen. Alfred Deakin, the man who would eventually become Australia’s second Prime Minister, said at the 1890 Australasian Federation Conference that ‘in this country, we are separated only by imaginary lines ... we are a people one in blood, race, religion and aspiration’.[14] Just two years before Parkes had delivered what became known as the ‘Tenterfield Address’, in which he called on the colonies to 'unite and create a great national government for all Australia'.[15] Much earlier in 1867, Parkes had delivered a similar speech in which he argued that ‘the time has arrived when these colonies should be united by some federal bond of connection.’[16] These speeches would help drive the federation movement, and what both Deakin and Parkes before him spoke of provided a similar result to independence but with a greater tie to the homeland. In light of this during the 1800s republican John Dunmore Lang along with other “radicals” founded The Australian League, which sought freedom and independence for the Australian colonies,[17] and reformist William Charles Wentworth established The Australian Patriotic Association, which pushed for a union of the colonies.[18] These organisations were founded and followed by nationalists,[19] however this nationalism was not for an Australia separate from Britain. The Australian Natives Association (ANA) is a particularly good example of a belief of being Australian but British. The ANA was established in 1871 and in just over a decade limited its membership to solely those Australians who were born in Australia.[20] The ANA quickly became a large organisation[21] and redefined the word “national”, promoting Australian literature, history, the celebration of “Australia Day” to mark the arrival of the British in Australia, and the progression of Australia from the “old world”.[22] This however did not mean that the organisation did not support the Empire. The organisation was instead promoting a respectable place in the Empire for Australia.[23] This shows the common definition of Australians at the time to be British, a part of the British Empire and “more British than the British.” As a result of this definition of nationalism, it can be seen that the federation movement drew strong support from Australians because of its attachment to the British Empire, unlike the proposition of independence. Further evidence can be seen in the celebrations of federation, which had a particularly great ceremony for the swearing in of the first Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in Australia.[24] Regional fears in the psyche of nationalistic Australians during the discussions on an Australian federation meant that there was an even further decline in support for independence.

Pressures on the economy and security of Australia in the decades leading up to federation also drew support away from independence. The military support of an expansive Empire during aggressive territorial acquisitions in the Asia-Pacific in the 1880s and 1890s by rival countries, and the sheer amount of trade with the mother country saw federation being heralded as the best way forward, and independence a danger to Australia. The German attempts to control New Guinea and the French in the New Hebrides accelerated the actions of the colonial governments to unite with a stronger political body under the protection of Britain.[25] Queensland even went so far as to attempt to annex New Guinea before Germany, a move which was condemned and reversed by the British parliament.[26] The push for federation as a method of dealing with issues of inter-colonial importance was accentuated by this concern of isolation, as too was it driven by economic concerns. Earl Grey attempted, during the separation of Victoria from New South Wales, to force on to the colonies a form of central government as a way to combat the already numerous customs duties that had been established by the colonies. Grey’s concerns were that the competing colonies would impede economic development.[27] Economic rivalries had been so great between the colonies in fact that customs houses were established at both ends of the Murray River bridge which, although shared the Queen’s “HM Customs” name, were in place to levy customs duties on the goods of the other colony.[28] There were even some economic fears at the time which delayed federation, with New South Wales fearing, first in the 1880s during the gold rush that Victoria would dominate the commonwealth, and then in the 1890s fearing that the depression in Victoria would bring down the economy of the rest of Australia.[29] Britain was Australia’s largest trading partner, with exports from Australia to Britain in the four years leading up to Federation accounting for 57 per cent of Australia’s exports, and imports from Britain accounting for 63 per cent of total imports.[30] The economy was a great catalyst for the federation movement. The depression of the late 19th century gave cause for the republican, independence pressures to be dropped for the far more practical, basic political action of federation.[31]

The ultimate success of the federation movement was due to the nationalism aroused by such leaders as Deakin and Parkes. This sense of nationalism, not toward to an independent Australia but to a strong Australia as part of the British Empire, was integral as the close of the 20th century drew nearer. The military strength of the Empire could defend Australia from the potential threat of Germany and France in the surrounding islands of the Asia-Pacific. Through federation, the Empire could also continue to be a strong trading partner, willing to buy Australian materials and sell to Australia, and through this was able to support the Australian economy out of the late-1800s economic slump. The movement for independence was slowly side-lined back to being a fringe movement, as it had been prior to its somewhat mainstream uptake in the 1880s, by the sudden uptake of federation as a move of greater importance for all the Australian colonies. The independence movement had its support stripped down by the vastly similar and more nationalistic implications of federation. Federation also gained pace through its support from prominent colonial politicians, including Parkes and Deakin, whose speeches and the roles played by them in the federation campaign were important in directing nationalist sentiments toward the cause for federation.

[1] AW Martin, “Parkes and the 1890 Conference,” in Papers on Parliament #9 (Canberra: Department of the Senate, 1990), page 3. [2] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 6. [3] Ibid, page 6. [4] Bruce Mansfield, ‘The Background to Radical Republicism in New South Wales in the Eighteen Eighties’, Historical Studies, vol 5, no 20, May 1953, 338-348 [5] Radio National, ‘The Commonwealth, Democracy and Nation, Program 2’ [6] John Hirst, The Sentimental Nation (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000) pages 45 to 46. [7] Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition, “Parkes, Sir Henry (1815 - 1896),” Australian National University, Canberra,, (accessed September 11, 2010). [8] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 11. [9] Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition, “Parkes, Sir Henry (1815 - 1896),” Australian National University, Canberra,, (accessed September 11, 2010). [10] P. Spearritt and D.Walker, AUS1010: ‘Out of Empire’ Semester One 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 9 [11] Radio National, ‘The Republican Idea, Democracy and Nation, Program 1’ [12] Radio National, ‘The Commonwealth, Democracy and Nation, Program 2’ [13] ibid [14] Australian Government Information Management Office “Federation,” Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra, (accessed September 11, 2010). [15] ibid [16] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 11 [17] The People who made Australia Great, 1st ed. (Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia, 1988), page 146 [18] Ibid, page 279 [19] Ibid, page 279 [20] Radio National, ‘The Commonwealth, Democracy and Nation, Program 2’ [21] Hirst, The Sentimental Nation, page 36 [22] ibid, page 39 [23] Hirst, The Sentimental Nation, page 40 [24] Radio National, ‘Framing the Constitution, Democracy and Nation, Program 3’ [25] Radio National, ‘The Commonwealth, Democracy and Nation, Program 2’ [26] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 11 [27] Hirst, The Sentimental Nation, page 46 [28] ibid, page 45 [29] Radio National, ‘The Commonwealth, Democracy and Nation, Program 2’ [30] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), page 35 [31] Radio National, ‘The Republican Idea, Democracy and Nation, Program 1’


A printable copy of this essay with full bibliography can be downloaded here.

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