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Why federate

Even though they shared a British heritage, for a long time the six colonies saw themselves as separate from each other. Support for federation grew as colonists recognised their similarities were stronger than their differences. They realised the colonies would work better if they united.


Removing trade barriers was both a reason for, and an obstacle to, federation. Because the colonies acted as if they were separate countries, each colonial government charged taxes, known as tariffs, on goods and produce (such as sugar or wheat) imported from the other colonies. This made imports more expensive than things made or grown locally and so discouraged trade between the colonies. While this helped local industry and farmers, without competition from the other colonies, locals could charge high prices for their products.

Free traders, as they were called, were among the strongest supporters of federation. Uniting the colonies as a single nation would create one market and so make trade between the states free. One big market would allow farmers and manufacturers to expand their business. Protectionists, on the other hand, worried the removal of tarrifs would be bad for their local economy. They argued  competition from the other colonies could put local farmers and industry out of business.

However, tariffs made up a large part of the revenue, or money, collected by the colonial governments to run their colonies. Some of the colonies worried they would be worse off under federation. In 1898, the Daily Telegraph warned 'No colony can afford to enter into Federation unless its solvency [financial security] is secured'. In order to calm these fears, the drafters of the Constitution agreed that for the first ten years after federation, the federal government would return three-quarters of the money it collected through tariffs to the states.

Trade restrictions also caused great inconvenience and delays for travellers. People crossing from one colony to another had their luggage searched by Customs officials checking for smuggled goods. As many more people travelled between the colonies to look for work, the borders became difficult to manage.

Sir;– I write to you to protest against your barbarous Custom-House regulations. I and my wife were passengers by the express from Adelaide last Thursday, and on arrival in Melbourne we were subjected to the ignominy of having our boxes etc searched and turned over before a crowd of railway porters and bystanders, although we had nothing but our wearing apparel, and no dutiable goods. I consider it a disgrace to the colony of Victoria that visitors from neighbouring colonies should be subjected to such treatment. I am a Sydney resident and may state that this is the first time I have been so treated. What is the use of talking about Federation, when I cannot travel from South Australia or New South Wales without being subject to having my luggage searched and turned over? Victorians should be heartily ashamed of themselves, Yours etc Indignant.

Letter to the editor of the Melbourne Argus, 2 February 1887.


Before federation, each colony had its own small military force. These forces were poorly trained and not equipped to protect the continent's vast coastline. At the time, the colonies were worried about attack from countries like China and Japan who had strong military forces. They also feared France, Germany and Russia, who had colonised parts of the nearby Pacific, might try to take control of the Australian colonies.

In 1889, the British government sent Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards to look at the defence of the colonies. He was shocked by what he found. The colonies did not have enough soldiers or weapons to defend themselves properly. The Major-General felt the colonies needed a single national defence force. After federation, the federal government became responsible for the defence of Australia.

Cartoon - The defence view +

This cartoon suggests only a united Australia can protect the continent from attack

State Library of South Australia


The colonists were also united by a common sense of identity. By 1901, over three-quarters of the non-Indigenous population were born in Australia and saw themselves as 'Australian', rather than British. They spoke the same language, played the same sports and shared the same customs and values. New South Wales Premier Sir Henry Parkes described it as 'the crimson thread of kinship that runs through us all'.

At times the colonies behaved as if they were already united. For example, in 1899 soldiers from the colonies who fought in the Boer War in South Africa served together as Australians. Even before federation, sporting teams made up of athletes from the colonies represented 'Australia' overseas. Pride in an 'Australian' culture began to be celebrated in poems, songs and art. Given colonists felt they shared a common identity, it made sense to become a single nation.

The first official Australian test cricket team +

In 1877, the first cricket test match between Australia and England was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Australian team, which won the match, was made up of players from the colonies. The first official Australian team (pictured) toured England the following year.

State Library of Victoria, H90.25/136


This cartoon shows a lady shutting a door on a Chinese immigrant. +

In this 1888 cartoon, 'Australia' shuts the door on Chinese immigration. Racist and anti-Chinese feeling grew from resentment towards the Chinese on the gold fields in the 1850s.

Linley Sambourne, in Punch, National Library of Australia, an8870609

At the time of federation, many people wanted to keep and strengthen the British character of the colonies and restrict immigration. In particular, some worried that allowing Asians or Pacific Islanders into the colonies would create an underclass of lowly-paid workers who would take jobs away from white colonists. In this period such attitudes were common and were used as an argument for federation. It was claimed a national government could stop Australia being 'swamped,' or overrun, by non-white immigrants.

A call for federation

On 24 October 1889, NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes gave a rousing address at Tenterfield in NSW calling for 'a great national government for all Australians'. It triggered the events which led to the creation of the Australian nation. At a meeting in Melbourne the following year, representatives from the colonies agreed on the need to federate. They decided the next step was to draft a constitution, or rule book, for the new nation.

Australia had now a population of three and a half millions, and the American people numbered only between three and four millions when they formed the great commonwealth of the United States. The numbers were about the same, and surely what the Americans had done by war, the Australians could bring about in peace (Cheers). Believing as he did that it was essential to preserve the security and integrity of these colonies that the whole of their forces should be amalgamated into one great federal army, feeling this, and seeing no other means of attaining the end, it seemed to him that the time was close at hand when they ought to set about creating this great national government for all Australia...They must appoint a convention of leading men from all the colonies, delegates appointed by the authority of Parliament, who would fully represent the opinion of the different Parliaments of the colonies. This convention would have to devise the constitution which would be necessary for bringing into being a federal government with a federal parliament for the conduct of this great national undertaking. (Applause).

'Sir Henry Parkes at Tenterfield', Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 1889. The newspaper report noted that the people of Tenterfield responded enthusiastically to Parkes' speech