On January 1, 1901, the people of Australia had a date with destiny. They kept it, despite all odds. The struggle to free ourselves from the past, the struggle to unite for a better future is as natural to humankind as breathing. Both are vital, if life must go on. For Australians too, the struggle that led to the triumph of destiny was not an easy one. The path that led to the federation of colonies was peppered with obstacles.
But it is a proven fact that all you need to succeed is a single idea, a few good men or women and loads of hard work. This essay will open a window to the past and trace the road to federation and the birth of a nation. To begin at the beginning, the exodus from Africa began around 60,000 years ago, and following the southern coastline of Asia, the first early travelers crossed about 250 kilometers [155 miles] of sea, and colonized Australia by around 50,000 years ago.
The Aborigines of Australia, are the descendants of the first wave of migration out of Africa. 1 The story may have begun there but there is a great deal to follow. European nations were interested in discovering the Great South Land. The first recorded European contact with Australia was in March 1606, when Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon (c. 1570 – 1630) charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Over the next two centuries, European explorers and traders continued to chart the coastline of Australia, then known as New Holland.
In 1688, William Dampier became the first British explorer to land on the Australian coast. It was not until 1770 that another Englishman, Captain James Cook, aboard the Endeavour, extended a scientific voyage to the South Pacific in order to further chart the east coast of Australia and claim it for the British Crown. 2 HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 2
Australia was invaded by a naval power, its first colonial culture of authority was maritime, whaling and sealing were the colony’s earliest productive industries, and it took settlers a quarter of a century to cross the first land barrier, the Blue Mountains that hemmed in Sydney. Colonial settlements hugged the coast and were connected to one another by the ocean rather than the land, like islands in an archipelago. 3
The proposals for the use of the continent had a history almost as long, though by no means so distinguished as that of its discovery. Some saw it as a land of the Holy Spirit; some saw it as a land fit only for the refuse of society . 4 Following the lost war (American War of Independence), Britain moved to reorganize its remaining overseas empire and decided to settle Australia with convicts. Convicts provided an ideal source of human capital for such ventures, and all European colonizing nations used convicts overseas.
The penal establishment for incorrigibles at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania is famous. The name Harbour is associated exclusively with remembrance of inexpressible depravity, degradation and woe. The convicts called this the Hell’s Gate. 5 By the 1880s, New South Wales had come a long way away from its beginnings as a convict settlement and was ruled by a British-appointed Governor supported by military force.
Transportation of convicts had ended forty years before; a system of elected, responsible government had developed where virtually all adult males had the right to a secret ballot – a situation which made the colony one of the most democratic places on earth. Pastoral development, then the gold rushes had led to great economic development; working people were better off here than almost anywhere else – at that time the colonies were called a “working man’s paradise”.
6 HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 3 The other five Australian colonies were developing in similar ways, with systems of government modelled originally on NSW – the “mother colony”. There had been many proposals calling for the bringing together of the separate Australian colonies into a single nation.
The first intercolonial conference met in Melbourne in 1863 to discuss uniform customs, trade and tariff duties. But each continued to go their separate ways on these issues. Some colonies chose to protect their industries with tariffs, others preferred free trade. There were customs posts on colonial borders and duties had to be paid on goods “imported” from one colony to another. As well, the various colonies built their railways with different gauges, so that trains could not cross borders.
These problems kept the colonies divided. Despite the problems there were strong reasons supporting some form of federation. The colonies were mainly Anglo-Celtic in culture, institutions and outlook: there was little difference between them. Major-General Edwards’ 1888 defence report showed that adequate defence of the continent would be impossible without combining the different colonies’ forces. There was much concern about the activities of other nations in the Pacific, particularly Germany which had colonised New Guinea.
Communications issues – the railway gauge problem, the new electric telegraphs spanning the continent, postal services, currency – were forcing the colonies to come to some common agreements. The trade and customs issues caused inconvenience and expense to trade and commerce. Most of the colonies were also concerned about immigration, particularly of non-Europeans, and could see the advantages of a common policy. Federation offered a way of solving these problems. 7
HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 4 But the Australian colonies had always been individualists. Their origins were diverse, their capitals were widely separated from one another, and the outlook of their people, we may as well acknowledge it at once, was parochial in the extreme. Attempts to introduce local government bodies were long resisted.
Local government could have been a first step towards union or federation, but the wish to federate grew slowly. As early as 1847, Earl Grey, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonies, suggested federation. To his impartial gaze it must have seemed foolish and wasteful that six colonies, all following the same course of development, all with similar interests, should not combine for the better regulation of mutual interests. From the Australian point of view it would mean greater efficiency and economy.
8 Between 1823 and 1842 the British crown colony, the New South Wales was administered by the Governor in combination with a Legislative Council which met behind closed doors and whose proceedings were not reported by the press, a pattern similar to the other six colonies. The New South Wales Legislative Council is often referred to as the “squatters council”, reflecting the influence that squatters, as the most significant wealth producers and land-holders, had on the political process.
9 The squatters were thus in a strong position which they were unlikely to surrender. They had borne the burden and heat of the day and thought of the land as their own and their children’s by right of pioneering. As it was, the tense political atmosphere made compromise more difficult each year as the clamour to “unlock the land” grew and the squatters became intransigent.
As a result the land Acts of the early sixties were declarations of war for the possession of the Crown lands — the reformers never doubting that the victory would go to “the people”. 10 HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 5 The post-1850s in New South Wales marked a shift in political power from country to town.
The extension of suffrage and other democratic reforms weakened the political hegemony exercised by squatters. However, during the same period, their general economic prosperity increased as a result of increases in prices for wool, the weight of fleeces and a reduction in the use of farm labour. The absence of significant wealth independent of agriculture ensured pastoralists’ interests prevailed despite reform of electoral and legislative processes. As the number of free settlers increased they, too, became politically active.
By the beginning of the 1880s the factions that had previously characterised the New South Wales Legislative Assembly were crumbling. A worsening economic crisis catalysed social tensions that favourable economic conditions had largely obscured. As the environment within which primary producers operated increased in complexity –due to technological innovation, changes in marketing arrangements, government legislation and economic conditions — producers started to experiment with diverse forms of organisation.
The period between 1875 and 1900 was a turning point in the political organisation of primary producers. It was through local groups that primary producers came to be aware of transport, trading, banking and tariff issues. Importantly, they became aware that most primary producers were enduring similar experiences and perceived similar threats. This was instrumental in forming a collective identity which addressed “the absence of tradition and the weakness of shared values” that were “characteristic of earlier colonial times”.
The most commonly cited catalyst for the political organisation of farmers was the shearers’ strikes of the 1890s. 11 HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 6 Transition went on long after 1880. The next twenty years brought many new experiments, some reckless and ill-considered, others designed to give more equal opportunity.
The new changes aimed at correcting old mistakes and strengthening the promise of a southern utopia; but in spite of common aims and closer links, the colonies still cherished their separate policies. The penalties of rivalry only became irksome when isolation within and from outside seemed to threaten the continent’s welfare. Reluctantly the colonies agreed to yield some of their jealously guarded rights. In this great readjustment ‘the indissoluble Federal Commonwealth’ came into being, more through necessity than in faith.
12 There were more reasons why the federation became a necessity. While the fundamental successes of the trade union movement in the colonies in gaining a reasonable standard of living for its members should be acknowledged, they were limited. At best, male workers in full-time unionised jobs were able to live on their wages. It must be stressed that a ‘decent living wage’ was not achieved for casual workers, for non-union workers in permanent part-time jobs or for women.
Coghlan’s reports showed that before the 1890s there had been seasonal and local fluctuations in the availability of work (and consequently income), some on quite a large scale. Therefore the “workers paradise” did not hold good at times. For example in 1866 the Mayor of Sydney declared that ‘the poverty was so great that he thought of relieving people with flour, meat, etc. ‘ As the year went on the distress increased . . . the lamentable spectacle might be seen everywhere of able-bodied men tramping about the country in a vain search for work.
13 HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA Page # 7 The 1883 rural drought across Eastern Australia led to a general lowering of wages and to unemployment. Employment was so scarce that in April 1884 meetings of the unemployed were held in Sydney every day. Between 1885 and 1887 there were sufficient numbers of unemployed for the government regularly to provide relief work, including road-making and scrub-cutting.
Sydney seemed to suffer particularly, in that people displaced in other parts of the colony would join the ranks of the unemployed in the city. Such people included the miners from the Illawarra who had fought a hopeless battle throughout 1886 against reduced employment and reduced wages. In 1887 there was so much unemployment that it was impossible to maintain even the nominal rates of wages of many trades, such as tinsmiths, brick makers, coachbuilders, brass and copper workers. 14
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