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The Inauguration of the Commonwealth 1901

Unknown, Melbourne Arch, Park Street, Sydney, from Federation Celebrations, 1901, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection.

Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901. The inauguration ceremonies began with a grand parade from Sydney’s Domain to Centennial Park, with approximately 500,000 people lining its route. At the ceremony itself, 100,000 spectators witnessed Governor-General Lord Hopetoun1  take his oath of office and swear in Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton2, and his ministry.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

The crowds in all the city’s thoroughfares, the procession that threaded its way through the dense masses of the populace, the military display, all united to form a pageant as remarkable as it was historically significant. Soldiers of the finest regiments in the service of the Queen marched in the same ranks with Australian soldiers from all the colonies.3


The Governor General and the first Federal Ministry, January 1901, Crown Studios, Dixson Library. Courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

The Salvation Army’s Limelight Department documented the occasion, with Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth becoming Australia’s first known feature length documentary. Heralded as ‘an overnight sensation’,4 the film was shown in theatres throughout Australia, Britain and Canada.5

Days of celebration pomp and pageantry followed, with church services, civic banquets, military displays, debates, sports carnivals, fireworks, bonfires and illuminations.6  Though the nation was now created in law, much work remained to create a true federal union. As the newly-appointed Commonwealth Attorney-General Alfred Deakin7  wrote anonymously in London’s Morning Post:
Sudden as the birth will be and richly endowed as is the new-born with the amplest charter of self-government that even Great Britain has ever conceded to her offshoots, much time and toil will be required before we can hope to actually enter and enjoy our inheritance …

The Constitution … contains merely the framework of government, whose substance and strength must come by natural growth …
[C]auses of controversy lie thickly around. These are likely to be multiplied and rendered bitter because a considerable portion of the electors of the Federal Parliament are not yet really allied in sentiment nor ripe for concerted action … [I]t may be taken for granted that the Commonwealth will not begin its reign without much friction, much misunderstanding, and even much complaint …

The Commonwealth Constitution will begin to take effect on the 1st of January, but everything which could make the union it establishes more than a mere piece of political carpentry will remain to be accomplished afterwards.
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