Papers on Parliament No. 32
December 1998

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When Henry Parkes delivered his Tenterfield speech in October 1889, declaring federation’s time had come, he provided the stimulus for an eighteen-month period of lively speculation. Nationhood, it seemed, was in the air. The 1890 Australian Federation Conference in Melbourne, followed by the 1891 National Australasian Convention in Sydney, appeared to confirm genuine interest in the national cause. Yet the Melbourne and Sydney meetings brought together only politicians and those who might be politicians. These were meetings, held in the Australian continent’s two most influential cities, which only succeeded in registering the aims and ambitions of a very narrow section of the colonial population.

In the months following Sydney’s Convention, the momentum of the official movement was dissipated as the big strikes and severe depression engulfed the colonies. The New South Wales government did not take the lead, as had been expected, after the completion and distribution of the 1891 draft constitution. By late 1892, the political support for federation had faltered as intercolonial relations deteriorated over a range of issues. Commercial and social barriers between the colonies created particular problems in the borderland of New South Wales and Victoria, and to a lesser extent between New South Wales and Queensland. The colonial governments were showing little interest in addressing the complex problems of constitution-making in a climate beset by economic and social upheaval. Sir John Robertson was wrong to say that federation was as dead as Julius Caesar, but it was certainly ailing. Far too many colonial Australians felt left out of the process. In the early 1890s, federation was perceived¾quite accurately¾as the politicians’ plaything.

Yet in the period from the establishment of the Australasian Federation League, in July 1893, to the first session of the National Australasian Convention in Adelaide, in March/April 1897, federation’s cause was steadily resuscitated. Indeed, by the time of the Adelaide session, as Helen Irving suggests in To Constitute a Nation¾A Cultural History of Australia’s Constitution (1997), the ‘people had become the legitimating force behind Federation’. In this process, the Corowa Conference (1893) and the Bathurst People’s Federal Convention (1896) had significant roles. Until recently, neither one had been accorded the attention it deserved in the federation story. However, on the centenary birthdays of both the Corowa and Bathurst federation gatherings, celebratory events were held in order to publicise the largely forgotten federation contributions of each town. The results are contained in this special issue of Papers on Parliament.

Notes on contributors

Stuart Macintyre is the Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne.

Helen Irving is a Senior Lecturer in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.

David Headon is Director of the Centre for Australian Cultural Studies (Canberra) and teaches in the School of English, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy.

Jeff Brownrigg has developed a national federation community history project, ALFRED. He is an historian in Academic Outreach and Research at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

James Warden currently works for the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance, Darwin.

Paul Keating was Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996.

A former premier of South Australia, John Bannon is currently a post-graduate student at the Flinders University of South Australia. He is writing a biography of Charles Cameron Kingston.

John Hirst is Professor of History at La Trobe University.

Anthony Cahill is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Sydney. He is writing a biography of Cardinal Moran.

Tessa Milne is a member of the History Department, University of Sydney, and the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Mark McKenna is a Research Fellow in the Political Science Program, Research School of Social Science, Australian National University.

Robin McLachlan is a senior lecturer in History and Cultural Heritage Studies at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

At the time of his death in September, Kevin Livingston was Head of the School of Behavioural and Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ballarat. His book, The Wired Nation Continent: the Communication Revolution and Federating Australia, was published in 1996 by Oxford University Press.

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