The June 1870 intercolonial conference and the path to Federation


The Prime Minister’s announcement last month regarding the establishment of a National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) to replace the Council of Australian Governments has once more highlighted efforts to better coordinate and enhance engagement between Australia’s jurisdictions. This agenda for reform and coordination has long endured throughout Australia’s political history. June 20 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the 1870 intercolonial conference, held in Melbourne, which provides an early example of such attempts at policy coordination.

The conference comprised nine parliamentarians: three from South Australia and two each from New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. The Queensland Government declined to send delegates due to a clash with its parliamentary sitting schedule, while Western Australia was not granted ‘responsible government’ for another two decades (in 1890). The New Zealand Government, having initially proposed the conference, was staunchly against a customs union being on the agenda and accordingly declined to attend.

In contrast to the broad sweep of the NFRC’s proposed reform committees (on rural and regional issues, skills, energy, housing, transport/infrastructure, population/migration and health, and taskforces on Indigenous affairs and women’s safety), the subjects of discussion at the 1870 conference were ‘a free interchange of the natural productions and manufactures of the respective colonies, a uniform tariff with assimilated excise regulations, a customs union and a distribution of the revenue derived therefrom upon the basis of population’.

As it had been in the 1850s and 1860s, the idea of federation was present. At a banquet dinner to celebrate the conference’s conclusion, the mayor of Melbourne, Samuel Amess, declared his desire that the conference’s deliberations would ‘tend to the accomplishment of the great object in view, viz. the federation of the Australian colonies’. He reportedly continued that:

the meeting of the conference brought to recollection the well-known fable of the bundle of sticks. Taken one by one, they were easily broken, but placed side by side, and knit together, they defied all human strength to break them. He trusted that this conference would result in the breaking up of the narrow, petty, legislative difficulties which had existed between the various Australian communities, and that the Australian colonies would unite, as it were, in one mansion, and keep open house, so as to give a hearty welcome to our brothers and sisters who might prefer our shores to the land of their birth; that we should welcome them gladly, and not bar the door against them.

Despite enthusiasm such as this for an outcome of federation, many of the attending conference delegates acknowledged the inherently incremental nature of change, given the contentious nature of all the topics (particularly those concerning economic realignment). The intercolonial negotiation process indeed proved arduous, with 11 major intercolonial conferences being held between 1863 and 1890 in attempts to pursue further coordination amongst the Australian colonies.

The establishment of the Federal Council of Australasia in the mid-1880s was a notable development, but it would take the 1891 National Australasian Convention, with its unprecedented calibre of delegates including seven current and nine former premiers, to instigate the necessarily robust resolutions to allow for the initial drafting of a national Constitution. In presenting his resolutions to the Convention, Sir Henry Parkes sought to define:

what seems to me an absolutely necessary condition of anything like the perfect federation, that is, that Australia, as Australia, shall be free – free on the borders, free everywhere – in its trade and intercourse between its own people; that there shall be no impediment of any kind – that there shall be no barrier of any kind between one section of the Australian people and another; but, that the trade and the general communication of these people shall flow on from one end of the continent to the other, with no one to stay its progress or to call it to account.

Parkes concluded his speech imploring all present to recognise the benefits of federated unity:

One great end, to my mind, of a federated Australia is that it must of necessity secure for Australia a place in the family of nations, which it can never attain while it is split up into separate colonies with antagonistic laws, and with hardly anything in common … every one of us knows the extent of the evil resulting from this want of harmony. All that can be cured; but it can be cured only by one great union government which shall faithfully represent us all.

The Convention’s outcomes, and just under half of its delegates, were again brought together for the Australasian Federal Conventions of 1897–8, which produced the advanced draft of the Constitution and were the precursors to Australia’s formal federation on 1 January 1901. The full proceedings of these Conventions are publically available in digital format through the Australian Parliament website.

Demonstrating the long road taken to arrive at Federation, none of the delegates from the 1870 conference would live to see Federation’s birth in 1901. The last surviving delegate, Sir Saul Samuel, passed away some four months prior on 29 August 1900. This would also be true for the proclaimed “Father of Federation”, Sir Henry Parkes, who died suddenly of heart failure on 27 April 1896, at 80 years of age. However Parkes’ legacy and contribution to Federation was marked with one of the original 75 federal electorates being named after him and his portrait reflected in Tom Robert’s painting, The Big Picture, which commemorated the opening of the first Australian Parliament.

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