The House of Lords and House of Commons, more than 10,000 miles away from six self-governing states in the South Pacific, passed an act to create the federation of Australia, a law decreed by Queen Victoria on July 9th, 1900. After more than 125 years of serving as variously as a prison colony and a collection of independent territories, a new Commonwealth would be officially created on January 1, 1901.
The process to create a new nation out of six unique colonies had taken decades. The initial rumblings of the need for sovereignty were met with little in the way of approval during the mid-1800s. Not quite dissatisfied with the idea of being so far from the ruling class, most Australians felt little in the way of pressure to self-govern – the massive size and wide open spaces of the country made it difficult to connect in any meaningful way.
In the late 1880s, popular opinion began to change. Much like their cousins in the United States of America, a generation of native-born individuals began calling themselves “Australians.” With colonist parents – or, in some cases, grandparents – the new-found identity soon gained a voice in song and verse. Further, the installation of state-of-the-art technology, the telegraph, allowed communication across the landscape on an unheard of scale.
Momentum shifted for good in 1885, when the Imperial Parliament passed the Federal Council of Australasia Act. Colonies all over the South Pacific – from Fiji to Western Australia, gained a taste of governing for themselves. Then, in 1890, Sir Henry Parkes called for a conference to begin laying out a constitution for the new federation. Having first presented the idea in 1867, Parkes had only organized the meeting after metaphorically being rapped on the knuckles by the Governor of New South Wales. Parkes believed the time for bringing the colonies together was at hand, stating he could pull it off in a year – to which Lord Robert Carrington wryly replied, “Then why don’t you do it? It would be a glorious finish to your life.”
The process would not be so smooth. Though Parkes came up with the early outline of a constitution while visiting London in May 1890, his vision would take another ten years to come to fruition. His first draft for an Australian Constitution would be passed around the countryside in 1891, when a second convention set about defining the powers of the three-branch federal government Parkes had defined.
A final draft would be published in June 1898, after an additional four conventions and extensive debate over the role of the new federal government. All that was left was to put it to the people. In 1898, four of the six colonies agreed (the other two didn’t vote) but the threshold of 80,000 affirmative votes had not been achieved in New South Wales. The following year, satisfactory majorities would be achieved in five colonies, with Western Australia following in 1900.
Parliament then debated the idea in London, ratifying it on July 5th. Six months later, in Sydney’s Centennial Park, more than 100,000 people gathered to hear the Royal Assent read aloud and the new Commonwealth of Australia ushered in.