Federal defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon has called for the states to be abolished and said Australia is still paying for the compromises made before Federation in 1901. Fitzgibbon told the inaugural Edmund Barton lecture at Newcastle University that Australia was the most over-governed nation in the world with 14 houses of parliament for just 22 million people. "I'm sure the current model frustrates even the most patient in our society whether it be the individual trying to secure an answer to a health policy issue or a business trying to work across state borders and facing six to eight regulatory frameworks, he said. ''The duplication, the inefficiencies, the buck-passing and blame-shifting cost our economy billions.”
Federation snuck up on most Australians. It wasn’t even the most important matter on the nation’s mind as the nineteenth century ended. In 1900, bubonic plague was raging throughout the country. It started in Adelaide the year before when the city’s harbour was declared “an infected place”. It spread to Sydney where xenophobic locals blamed it on rats from a French Caledonian ship. By August over a hundred people had died of the plague in a city with the poorest sanitation in the country. But locals were loath to blame poor hygiene, it was more likely to be the fault of “the Queen’s Nigger Empire” which brought plague and pestilence to Sydney’s “British” shores.
These illogical views reflected the fact that jealous Australians felt they deserved more attention and respect from the Mother Country. They resented the fact that despite Australians modelling themselves on Britain, the British regarded India as the jewel in the crown. It was reflected in two of the earliest acts of Federation, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, (the basis of what became known as the White Australia Policy) and the lesser known 1908 Quarantine Act. While both laws were designed to keep Australia ‘white and pure’, it was this latter piece of law that first encouraged Australians to see themselves as an integral whole, a new island-nation.
This was a new concept. Before federation, the continent was dominated by colonial practices that did not take any national interest into account. For instance, travelling to Australia was unnecessarily difficult because the six colonies did not have a co-ordinated policy on navigation in dangerous waters. Politicians had been talking about a national federation since the 1840s but whenever the six Premiers would get together, the proposal would be buried in yet another committee to examine it in detail. Each colony was too keen to protect its own interests and there were sharp differences between the two major colonies - NSW was predominantly freemarket while Victoria was implacably protectionist.
The other states had their gripes too. South Australia saw itself as a cut above because it was never a convict colony. Western Australia resented its distance from the others which meant it was more or less totally ignored. Queensland had delusions of empire of its own, wanting to gobble up eastern New Guinea, New Hebrides and Samoa. It was the NSW Premier Henry Parkes who talked up the future of “Australia.” He made a powerful case for Federation at Tenterfield in 1889 where he said the population of Australia was similar to that of the US at the time it was formed. “Surely what the Americans have done by war,” he said, “Australia can bring about in peace”.
Two years later Parkes drafted up a constitution for “the United States of Australia”. The motion was sent to the individual parliaments for approval and another four years ticked away in inaction. Parkes died aged 80 in 1896 with his dream still unfulfilled. But in Adelaide one year later, delegates from all states met to hammer out the disagreements in the draft. The key question was whether power should reside with the people or some elite minority group.
Edmund Barton (who would become the nation’s first Prime Minister) convinced the delegates they had to choose a middle way. He proposed a referendum in each of the colonies to agree to a Federation with a Governor-General appointed by the Queen, who would have vested in him (not till 2008 would that person be a ‘her’) all the powers of the Crown. But the referendum failed in NSW and the Melbourne Age blamed the free-trade premier of that state for “striking a blow below the belt at the federal cause”.
The states tried another referendum in 1899 after negotiations with NSW. There was a decisive yes vote in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The ‘yes’ vote barely made it in Queensland and Western Australia held out until July 1900. As the only colony to avoid the depression of the 1890s, they had serious concerns about effect of Federation on the West, but eventually signed up to make it a continent-wide affair.
But as Fitzgibbon noted yesterday, Federation was a botched affair. Its leaders were unable to fully break with their colonial mentality. Instead of a lean and efficient system of government, As Phillip Knightley points out in his “Australia: Biography of a nation”, the nation ended up with three tiers and 15 governments as well as a Governor-General, six state Governors, overlapping bureaucracies, and “a tangle of disparate laws, taxes, railway gauges, land titles and education systems.” One hundred years later states still compete against each other for foreign trade contracts allowing Australian states to be played off against each other in a bidding war that is detrimental to the nation as a whole.
The problem with Federation is that at no stage did it succeed in capturing the imagination of the people. There was never a widespread determination among ordinary Australians to forge their own path in history. They were all too busy being British, and Australia, united or not, was merely a part of the Greatest Empire on Earth. When on the eve of Federation, Britain declared war on the Boer states of South Africa, 16,000 Australians troops volunteered to serve. That service did engender the first feelings of nationalism. Despite the nastiness of that war, there was a feeling that Australian troops were invincible, helping the British out of their troubles. NSW Premier William Lyne welcomed home the first troops by saying: We will shortly have a federation of the colonies and this is a forerunner of when we will find Australian contingents going to the front, fighting together, shoulder to shoulder”. Lyne was uncommonly prescient. That bloody fighting in World War I would do more to encourage a sense of nationhood than Federation ever could.