The first efforts towards the federation of Australia’s six independent colonies began in the 1850s but had little popular support and failed to gain traction. Real progress began in the late 1880s, by which time the great majority of the population was native born and there was an increasing sense of nationalism. The then-premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, was a major instigator and is credited with sparking the genesis of the movement in his historic Tenterfield address of 24 October 1889, where he told a small gathering that the time had come for the colonies to consider Australian federation.
Over the next decade a number of conferences were held with representatives from each of the six Australian colonies working together to develop a constitution. New Zealand and Fiji were originally involved in this process but ultimately decided not to join the federation. Each colony had its own concerns about joining with the others, with disagreements largely concerning how the new federation’s finances would be administered.
In the end, there were very few changes made to the constitution that had been drafted in 1891 and this document was sent to each of the colonies to face a Referendum vote in the latter part of that decade. The vote was ‘yes’ in all colonies and in 1900 the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) was passed with Australia officially declared a unified, self-governing nation on 1 January 1901. It was a cause for great celebration and even a wild thunderstorm could not dampen spirits on Sydney Harbour that New Year’s Eve, with whistles, gongs, church bells, rattles, pots, pans and accordions joining the sirens of boats as the clock struck midnight. In Queensland celebrations took place in every major town, with huge crowds turning out to watch the procession down Queen Street in the capital of Brisbane.
Sir Edmund Barton was sworn in as Australia’s first Prime Minister heading a bicameral Parliament containing a Senate and a House of Representatives, while the colonies became states and shared the powers of government with the new Commonwealth. Federation was seen as one of the main reasons for the ensuing decline in the social prestige and political importance of state governors, with the new office of Governor-General taking on the greater part of vice-regal power.