News | Published September 17 2018

On this day in parliament - Commonwealth of Australia is proclaimed

Today, much of parliament's time is spent agonising over Britain's withdrawal from a block of 28 countries. Historically, however, Westminster is much more used to tying itself in knots over the issue of other countries withdrawing from Britain. On this day in 1900, for instance, Queen Victoria made a royal proclamation federating the six former British colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The proclamation stated that the Commonwealth of Australia would come into being on the 1st of January 1901. New Zealand and Fiji had initially been involved in the process, but they later decided not to become part of the federation.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 became law on 9th of July, following an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. This codified the supreme law under which the new Commonwealth would be governed, de facto granting Australia independence.

Key points
  • The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed by Queen Victoria on the 17th of September, 1900
  • The proclamation came after years of negotiation between the Australasian colonies and the UK parliament
  • The Commonwealth of Australia officially came into being on the 1st of September, 1901

The journey towards the Federation of Australia began in earnest during the 1880s, a period in which Australian nationalism came to the fore. The discussion of a united Australia became commonplace in literature and songs, a movement that came about as a result of the telegraph system between the Australasian colonies that had led to infrastructural improvements across the continent. The British government was in favour of a federated Australasia and campaigns began calling for the creation of Council that could oversee inter-state trade agreements.

In 1885, parliament passed the Federal Council of Australasia Act, signalling the first form of inter-colonial co-operation. The Council would represent the colonies’ interests in the Pacific islands, and it could legislate on certain issues directly. It also acted as a forum for politicians from across the colonies to meet and develop a collaborative cross-border strategy. Support was not universal among politicians and businesses across the colonies, with doubts about how a potential federation would affect governance and industry.

During the Conference of 1890, representatives from each of the Australasian colonies met to discuss the form a federated Australia would take. A key topic of debate involved how the federation would resemble the Westminster style of government, while also continuing to allow for the autonomy of the individual legislative houses. The Canadian model, a recent example of how a former British colony had managed federate a number of autonomous states, was rejected, but it was decided that the colonies had started a definite path towards federation.

A year later, at the Convention of 1891, a parliament bill was proposed that would resemble the federal system that was adopted in the US, while maintaining the Westminster tradition of a Prime Minister. A key contention revolved around the sovereignty of the lower house, and after Samuel Griffith amended A.I. Clark’s draft the constitution lost support from a majority of the colonies. Historians have stated that, despite being thrown out, the 1900 Constitution is intrinsically associated with the draft of 1891.

In 1893, John Quick drafted a bill that would come to form the basis of the Adelaide Convention, the convention that is regarded as having made a significant contribution to the final constitution. At the convention, the basis of the 1891 agreement was adopted, with the concept of responsible government finally agreed upon. The final bill was then sent to each colony in 1898, with referendums supporting federation in each colony. Although each colony voted in favour, the threshold of votes for passage of legislation in New South Wales was not met. In response, amendments were drafted to ensure further support in New South Wales, and in 1899 the bill was passed and sent to the UK to be ratified. The federation was proclaimed the following year on the 17th of September.