From the Goldfields to Federation


During the 1850s, the seemingly radical idea of uniting Australia's colonies to form a single nation was conceived. The idea, however, lacked popularity and was consequently abandoned. At that time, the colonies were more concerned with putting the interests of their own people first and the technology to ensure communication between the colonies had not yet been developed. It was not until the 1880s, that people began to give serious consideration to the possible advantages of uniting the colonies under a federal government which could make uniform laws.

Defence and foreign policy

One of the key reasons for Federation was to achieve a united defence force which could better protect Australia. Around the 1880s, the Australian colonies had become increasingly concerned over the close proximity of foreign powers. A Russian presence in the Pacific, Germany occupying parts of New Guinea and France having colonised New Caledonia, left the colonies in fear that attempts may be made to invade Australia.

At this time, each of the colonies had their own separate defence forces (army and navy) which were without any overarching structure to unite them if a part of the country was under threat. Initially, the colonial navies operated one or two warships. It was soon realised, however, that they did not have the size or the strength to protect the vast Australian coastline and so the colonies employed the services of the British Navy to patrol Australian waters. The colonial armies were just as vulnerable to attack. Despite each army having a military unit in nearly every town, a report, made in 1889 by the British Army's Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards, indicated that the colonies did not possess enough men, arms or even ammunition to provide adequate defence.

There were also suggestions that a unified nation would be better equipped to deal with matters of foreign policy. This notion was particularly reinforced when Germany claimed ownership of New Guinea. Many people in Australia believed that New Guinea should have, and could have, belonged to them if the six colonies had been able to unify to annex it themselves.


Aside from a fear of coming under foreign attack, concern over being invaded by non-white immigrants was another major factor which encouraged people to support Federation. Despite the fact that several colonies already had implemented laws which restricted immigrants from certain countries, all of the colonies were keen to strengthen their immigration policies by uniting to keep non-whites out of Australia.

At that time, there were particular prejudices against the Chinese and Pacific Islanders. The Chinese immigrated in large numbers during the gold rush period which began in the 1850s. From 1863, Pacific Islanders (derogatively known as 'Kanakas') were also brought to Australia to work in the hot conditions in the sugarcane fields. People believed that these foreign workers took jobs away from them and caused their wages and working conditions to be lowered since the foreigners accepted substandard arrangements. See image 1

Transport, trade and taxes

A significant argument in favour of Federation was the need for a uniform rail system. Despite developments in the railway system which allowed even many remote areas to be reached by rail by the late 1800s, progress was ultimately restricted by each colony having a different rail gauge (width of the track). When the rail system in each colony was being built, the colonies were operating independently of one another. Connecting the tracks between them was not considered and therefore never discussed. As a result, Victoria had a gauge of 1.6 metres, while in New South Wales it was 1.43 metres and in Queensland it was 1.07 metres.

Without a uniform gauge, trains could not cross colonial borders. At a time when trains were the main means of long-distance land transport, having to change trains at the border of each colony was a great inconvenience for people travelling. Those involved in inter-colonial trade were also hindered by the rail system, having to unload and reload goods and produce at each border. See image 2

The need for free trade between the colonies and an overarching government to ensure that it was fair was another reason behind support for Federation. During the 1860s the Victorian government realised that goods from overseas and from other colonies were being produced at a cost which their own industries could not equal. It responded with a policy of protectionism which involved imposing customs duties (government taxes or tariffs) on incoming goods, which made them more expensive to consumers than local goods. This encouraged consumers to buy items produced inside the colony, therefore 'protecting' employment and industries. See animation

These taxes, however, created substantial tension between the colonies. The New South Wales government was particularly opposed to tariffs. It believed in free trade as the best philosophy for the most efficient use of scarce resources. A number of people were also concerned that import taxes may even jeopardise foreign relations by discouraging overseas companies from trading with Australia altogether.

Growing national pride

The growth in national pride towards the end of the 19th century served as a considerable factor in securing Federation in Australia. It was not until the 1870s when the percentage of the non-Indigenous population born in Australia began to exceed the number born in the British Isles, that people in the colonies began to consider themselves as something other than British. Unlike their ancestors, they were no longer as interested in wearing the British fashion and composing artworks, poems and songs about Britain.

Even before the colonies were united and Australia had become a nation, national pride had begun to form. The nation's current national anthem ('Advance Australia Fair') was first performed in 1878, despite being more than two decades before Australia officially even existed as a nation. Cricket also instilled a feeling of national pride in Australians when, prior to the colonies being federated, the best cricketers from each colony went on to play in a Test match in London in 1882 where they defeated England by seven runs. See image 3