Federation Built a Racist and Anti-Worker Australia

Unlike some nations, Australia’s origin story wasn’t marked by revolution or a democratic movement. Rather, it was a way for the colonial bourgeoisie to unite against the union movement and close the nation to non-white immigration.

Australian statesmen meet in Melbourne to discuss the federation of the six Australian colonies. From left to right (on bench): Sir John Hall, Captain William Russell, William McMillan, Dr John Cockburn, Thomas Playford, and Alfred Deakin; Sir Henry Parkes is at the table on the left, with Mr G.H. Jenkins at the far end, Duncan Gillies in the background, and Andrew Inglis Clark on the right. Illustration originally published on April 12, 1890. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Australians have a strange relationship with patriotism. It’s debatable whether a majority know that Australia became a nation on January 1, 1901, let alone the sequence of events that led the six British colonies to federate.

It’s not as though it’s ancient history. The movement for federation kicked off in earnest following an 1889 speech, now known as the Tenterfield Oration, given by Henry Parkes, then premier of the Colony of New South Wales (NSW). One hundred and ten years later, then NSW premier Bob Carr claimed the speech was as significant to Australians as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is to Americans. This would come as a surprise to the vast majority of Australians who would have trouble even recognizing Parkes’s name, let alone his 1889 speech.

In her study of history teaching in Australian schools, Anna Clark suggests that this is because federation was boring when compared to other nations’ exciting origin stories. It’s true that Australia’s birth wasn’t marked by struggle, war, or revolution. But regardless of whether federation was boring or not, it was certainly shameful. Australia’s “founding fathers” were preoccupied with limiting non-white immigration and restricting working-class organization and power and obsessed with creating a free market economy that would enrich themselves and their mates.

The Tenterfield Oration

The location of Henry Parkes’s oration was significant. On the border between NSW and Queensland, Tenterfield was home to a booming Merino wool industry and close to several recently discovered gold deposits. The locals, for their part, felt more a part of Queensland than NSW, given the 650 kilometers that separated them from Sydney, the colony’s capital. Despite this, when crossing the border, travelers had to pay tariffs on certain items. Meanwhile, differently sized railway gauges in the two states created delays.

In the Tenterfield Oration, Parkes argued federation would solve these problems and called for a meeting of delegates from all colonies to discuss federation and a potential constitution. He also compared Australia to the United States, noting that Australia’s population was similar to that of America prior to the War of Independence.

Parkes spent a good deal of his speech expounding the merits of standardizing the rail gauge used across Australia. In fairness, it was a very serious issue in federation-era Australia. Prior to the 1880s, rail lines mostly remained within one colony, connecting ports, major cities, and mining towns. Within each colony, rail gauges were fairly uniform, and as a result, different gauges didn’t become an issue until intercolonial trade took off.

The problem was that the different colonies had inherited two main gauge lengths from Great Britain. England, Scotland, and Wales used a 4’8 ½” gauge while in Ireland they used a 5’3” gauge. Which gauge a given colony ended up with depended on the preference of private-railway-company bosses, and reflected their country of origin. For example, because he was Irish, the boss of the Sydney Railway Company passionately advocated for the Irish gauge. Consequently, passengers and freight on trains to Queensland and Victoria had to change over at the border.

Parkes also argued that the colonies needed federal military force. This, too, added to the case for gauge standardization — you wouldn’t want the army to be held up by the need to change trains at every state border.

Voting for Federation

In 1890, a conference on federation proceeded according to Parkes’s suggestion. Representatives from the colonies came together to discuss different structures of government, comparing models from Britain, Canada, the United States, and Switzerland. While Parkes boasted he could federate Australia within twelve months, the other colonies did not feel the same urgency. Although they were eager to abolish tariffs on intercolonial trade, they were equally anxious to ensure their own wealth would be preserved in a federated Australia. Western Australia (WA) was particularly reluctant as it was the biggest colony by area, with a valuable mining industry.

Shortly after the conference an economic depression slowed progress yet again. However, by 1893, the cause had regained momentum. In part, this was also because the workers’ movement had grown in size and militancy and posed a greater threat to the colonial ruling classes.

So, the National Australasian Convention met three times from 1896 to 1899. At the 1897 session, the man who would become the first prime minister of Australia, Edmund Barton of the Protectionist Party, insisted that a federated Australia would need to guarantee considerable independence for each state.

At the 1898 convention, the assembled representatives approved a draft constitution and decided that each colony should hold a referendum to accept it. In January 1899, a secret meeting of premiers from each state met in Melbourne and agreed to six amendments to the constitution. The most important of these was born of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne over the location of a capital city. As neither colony could accept the other hosting the nation’s capital, they struck a compromise. The capital would be in NSW, provided it was at least 100 miles from Sydney.

In 1899, with the exception of Western Australia, all colonies held referenda that approved the proposed constitution. On this basis, Australian delegates traveled to London to negotiate the enactment of the constitution, which was approved by the British Parliament on July 9, 1900, and ratified by Queen Victoria shortly after. Later that month, WA decided to join the federation.

These referenda were deeply flawed, and not just because the other states refused to wait for WA. Many residents were barred from voting. Only Western Australia and South Australia allowed women a vote. In Tasmania, only property owners were allowed a vote. Queensland and Western Australia barred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from voting as well as Asian, African, and Pacific Islander people, unless they owned property.

The debates leading up to the referenda were also dominated by racist anxieties over non-white immigration. The “Billites,” as the “yes” camp was known, argued that federation would allow Australia to take a united approach toward immigration and defense. The Billites won much of the labor movement over by promising to deport indentured Pacific Islander workers from Queensland. The Billites also campaigned to abolish trade barriers and tariffs between colonies.

The “Anti-billites” opposed federation largely over fears that the colonies would not be equally represented or taxed. However, they agreed that restricting non-white immigration was a priority.

A Third-Rate Constituion

The National Australasian Convention was made up of delegates from the Free Trade and Protectionist parties. They decided that Australia’s constitution should replicate Britain’s Westminster parliamentary system, in which the prime minister is chosen by a parliamentary majority in the House of Representatives. Although they adopted a bicameral legislature, the drafters of Australia’s constitution decided against a House of Lords with hereditary or appointed members. Instead, they borrowed from the United States and decided upon a Senate. Designed to guarantee representation for the states, each would elect twelve senators, regardless of population differences.

The constitution also established Australia’s High Court and mandated the governor-general (the Queen’s representative) as official head of state, in practice to be nominated by the government of the day.

Section 127 of the constitution, entitled “Miscellaneous,” included clauses excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from citizenship. Instead, it classed them as flora and fauna. This only changed following a 1967 referendum. The same section also mandated the construction of a new capital city, later named “Canberra” by a 1913 act of Parliament.

The constitution did, however, realize the vision of Henry Parkes’s Free Trade Party by guaranteeing freedom of trade between states and completely abolishing tariffs. Section 51 of the constitution gave the federal government power over industrial relations. This was intended to restrain the colonies’ militant and sizable union movement.

In 1901, the governor-general appointed Edmund Barton as caretaker prime minister, pending an election in March. Labor parties in the different states stood candidates in every state except Tasmania. These included a “Socialist Six” ticket from NSW, who stood for the Senate and were far to the left of other Labour MPs and quite critical of the party’s direction. In total, the labor parties won a total of fourteen lower-house seats. The Protectionist Party won the election with thirty-one seats, as opposed to the Free Trade Party’s twenty-eight.

With the Protectionist Party unable to form a majority in their own right, Barton became prime minister following negotiations with the Labour MPs. As the colonial labor parties had not yet formed a federal party, they had no candidate of their own. Instead, they agreed to back Barton as PM, provided he enact laws restricting non-white immigration.

Not everyone was as enamored of the new constitution as the colonial bourgeoisie and most Labour MPs. In 1898, the Australian Socialist League proclaimed their goal as the “establishment of a Co-operative Commonwealth founded on the collective ownership of the land and the tools of production.” Alongside a handful of Labour socialists, including the NSW “Socialist Six,” they represented a small alternative to Labour’s increasingly conservative parliamentarism.

Regressive Features

The Barton government did not waste time. He appointed former South Australian premier Charles Kingston minister for trade and customs, who started work immediately on mandatory arbitration legislation. Building on the constitution, the resulting act of Parliament created the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, which held the power to arbitrate industrial disputes and create enforceable collective agreements. This essentially outlawed striking across Australia and began to domesticate one of the world’s most militant union movements.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Australia’s union movement was divided between larger industrial unions on one side and craft unions on the other. The industrial unions were newer and more powerful, representing unskilled, semiskilled, and itinerant workers. The smaller, more numerous craft unions mainly represented skilled workers in the cities and were less militant and more politically conservative. Lacking industrial muscle, they instead focused on electing Labour representatives to Parliament. These MPs, in line with the craft unions that had supported them, backed Kingston’s industrial relations legislation.

Support for arbitration was not, however, unanimous within the workers’ movement. Some unions saw it as a threat to the principle of unionism itself. In 1902, for example, the Sydney branch secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation declared, “If we are going to sit down and rely wholly on the Arbitration Court to adjust our grievances and look after our interests then what good is a union to us.”

With respect to immigration, Barton was quick to deliver on his promise to Labour. In December 1901, only six months after Parliament first met, Barton’s government proposed and passed the Immigration Restriction Act. This formed the basis for the White Australia Policy that remained in force until 1973.

The Immigration Restriction Act was modeled on a similar bill that had recently passed in South Africa and that formed an early part of the infrastructure of Apartheid. The act allowed the government to exclude migrants deemed “undesirable” on the basis of a diction test. To pass the test, prospective migrants needed to write out fifty words in any European language, as dictated by an immigration officer. This made it easy for officials to reject migrants by choosing a language they had little hope of understanding — for example, by testing a Chinese migrant’s ability to understand Welsh.

Indeed, earlier drafts of the bill had been more explicit about restricting non-white immigration. The British government rejected these, however, for fear of offending British subjects in India or then-allied nations like Japan.

The union movement — including larger industrial unions like the Australian Workers’ Union — supported the legislation, believing that migrants posed a threat to Australian workers’ jobs and conditions.

Incomplete Tasks of the Democratic-National Revolution

Over 133 years after Henry Parkes’s stirring call, Australia has still not achieved the standardization of rail gauges. It’s moot whether the blame for this falls on the states or the federal government, the Australian Labor Party, or the descendants of the colonial-era bourgeois parties.

Federation did, however, live up to other dreams dear to the colonial bourgeoisie. Australian capitalism has profited spectacularly from over 120 years of structural racism, free market capitalism, and federal control over industrial relations.

And in 1975, Australia’s capitalist class must have blessed the foresight of their Free Trade and Protectionist party forebears. Thanks to the constitution drafted by Australia’s founding fathers, the governor-general was able to sack Gough Whitlam, one of Labor’s few genuinely reforming prime ministers.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single improvement — for workers, for Australia’s Aboriginal people, or for humanity in general — that stemmed from Australia’s federation. And perhaps this is why very few Australians know about it, let alone celebrate it today.