Constructing Australia: The West and Federation

Constructing Australia: The West and Federation
Film Australia
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Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846.

Ferocious political struggles over the shape of the new nation continued to the eleventh hour.

'The West and Federation' is an excerpt from the film Pipe Dreams, the second episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

You can find all three titles from the Constructing Australia series in the NFSA Online Shop.

Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846. But progress was agonisingly slow. The colonies often agreed in principle to the desirability of Federation, but found the devil in the detail. Federation seemed likely in the early 1890s but foundered because of the reluctance of New South Wales. As the 19th century drew to a close, an agreement seemed again achievable.

The Australian constitution contains a few clues to the ferocious political struggles over the shape of the new nation, which continued to the eleventh hour. For example, the preamble declares that ‘the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania … have decided to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth’.

Where, you might wonder, is Western Australia? It does not get a mention until clause 4, which says that ‘if Her Majesty is satisfied that the people of Western Australia have agreed thereto’ then that colony will become part of the new nation.

There were several reasons for Western Australia being the last and most reluctant colony to commit to Federation. Its sheer remoteness set it apart from the other colonies. Western Australia’s slow development was part of the picture too. Economically weak, and struggling to attract migrants, the colony had only just won the right to self-government from England. There were fears that Federation might mean exchanging rule from distant London for rule from distant Melbourne.

Gold changed everything: not only was Western Australia economically much stronger, but the miners, many of them migrants from the east, were far more enthusiastic about Federation than the older settlers. This division created a political nightmare for Premier John Forrest.

Forrest, a supporter of Federation for almost the whole of his public life, was placed in an extremely delicate political position. The core of his political support came from settled farming areas, but it was these regions where the greatest apprehension about Federation lay.

Forrest needed to extract the best possible deal for rural interests if Western Australia as a whole were to join. But the population of the goldfields, populated by ‘t’othersiders’, was enthusiastic about Federation and saw Forrest’s caution as the dithering of a Perth-centred squattocracy.

Wendy Hughes
Franco di Chiera