Alfred Deakin and Federation

The Beginnings of the Federal Movement

Although Federation had been an idea within the Australian colonies for some fifty years prior to Deakin's involvement in politics, it seems to have been the 1887 Colonial Conference in London that galvanised his interest. This unwieldy assemblage of 121 representatives of the British Government and her colonies included two or more representatives each from the six disunited Australian colonies.

The aim of the Colonial Conference was to discuss commercial, social and security ties; it commenced with a speech rife with generalities and condescension from the British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Salisbury, and proceeded with speeches of grateful thanks from the colonial representatives.

THowever Deakin spoke out against the Colonial Office and against British foreign policy in the Pacific, much to the horrified surprise of many of the delegates. His was the only memorable speech at the conference which was also noteworthy for the extraordinary level of antagonism between the colonies, namely New South Wales and Victoria who rarely agreed on a single issue. Deakin returned to Australia having scored a major personal success, determined to now devote his energies to the cause of Australian Federation.

In the following years, he attended a series of conferences and conventions regarding Federation. At the 1889 Federal Council of Australasia, advice was received regarding the state of the colonies' military forces, where it was pointed out that no defence of Australia could be effective without centralised control. This prompted Sir Henry Parkes' famous Tenterfield speech which was to make Federation a live political issue from this time onwards.

Deakin then attended a conference of ministers in 1890, at which it was decided to hold a convention the following year to draft a constitution for Australia. The 1891 National Convention sat in Sydney and included seven representatives from each of the Australian colonies and three from New Zealand.

A Constitution for Australia

The convention was presided over by Sir Henry Parkes and issues such as constitutional functions, combined finance and trade and the establishment of a federal judiciary were grappled with. Deakin spent much of this convention working behind the scenes as a peace-maker, leaving the details to those delegates more suited to this work whilst he concentrated on smoothing the way where parochialism, ego or party issues threatened the process. The result of the convention was a bill constituting the Commonwealth of Australia which was to be voted upon by the people.

Unfortunately the initial groundswell of support for Federation died away during the depression of the 1890s and the continuing concern over issues such as free trade versus protectionism and states' rights versus the national interest. A further series of conventions were held to discuss the Constitution in 1895, 1897 and 1898 and Deakin was involved in them all.

Ultimately the final version of the Federal Constitution framed by the 1898 Convention was put to the popular vote in four of the six colonies. Despite some fiercely provincial campaigns against the Bill, it won victories in each of the colonies in which it was voted upon. However a technicality (the Bill was to be considered a failure in New South Wales unless 80,000 votes were received in its favour - it received 72,000) meant that the Bill was lost. Further negotiations were to follow; another conference was held in 1899 where some minor amendments were made, but the tide of popular nationalistic sentiment meant that the 'same old Bill' was carried by majorities even larger than before. Queensland and Western Australia were to join the Commonwealth soon after.

Ironically, the final, 1899 version of the Constitution was almost the same as the one agreed to in 1891; the only significant changes were an elected Senate and the revival of the right to appeal to the Privy Council, but only in cases in which the Empire was involved.

The final hurdle for the federation of Australia was to be the enactment of the Australian Constitution by the British Parliament. Deakin joined a five member Federation delegation to London to ensure that the Bill was passed unchanged. However a major sticking point for the British Government was clause 74 of the Constitutional Bill which stated that the High Court of Australia was to be the court of final appeal in all cases except those affecting the other parts of the Empire. The British Government, personified by Joseph Chamberlain, argued that the power of the High Court and the lost right of appeal to the Privy Council was a step towards Australian independence, decreasing links with the Empire and potentially endangering British commercial interests in cases heard before Australian courts.

The Australian delegation argued in turn that a Bill passed by a people's referendum should not be changed. They spent the following weeks lobbying extensively for the passage of the Bill in its original form and despite some internal bickering and pressure from home, refused to budge on this point. Finally clause 74 was re-drafted to state that on constitutional questions, for instance between the Commonwealth and the States, no appeal to the Privy Council should be permitted unless by consent of the High Court. The delegation considered that as this consent would be rarely if ever granted, the proviso had virtually no impact on the clause itself, and were more than happy to accept the compromise. Thus the Bill passed through Parliament and after Queen Victoria's assent on 9 July 1900, it became law and the Commonwealth of Australia was constituted and the inauguration date set for 1 January 1901.

See also: Alfred Deakin: Biography | Alfred Deakin's Family | Alfred Deakin as Prime Minister

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