New Commonwealth

It was a triumph of statesmanship when, on 17 September 1900, Queen Victoria was able to proclaim the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia to take effect from 1 January 1901. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament, on 5 July 1900, was the result of a decade of negotiations and consultation between the colonies. Even at that late date the Western Australian government was still undecided: it was not until 31 July that it agreed to join the Federation, which would have gone ahead without it. Queensland also had been a slow starter: four colonies had passed Enabling Bills by 1896, but Queensland’s was passed as late as 1899.

The birth of the Commonwealth was celebrated on 1 January three weeks before the death of Queen Victoria who had presided over the expansion of the British Empire for 63 years. The first parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne’s spacious Exhibition Building. The 75 members of the House of Representatives and 36 members of the Senate then met in Melbourne’s Parliament House: Edmund Barton became Prime Minister, leading the supporters of Protectionism, and George Reid led the Free Traders on the opposition benches. The House of Representatives boasted 10 former premiers and 12 former colonial ministers among its members.

The development of the site for the nation’s capital was time consuming, and interrupted by the first World War. It was not until 1927 that parliament moved to Canberra. As a result, Melbourne not only hosted the parliament but also the nucleus of the Commonwealth Public Service, whose establishment was the first task of the new government. On 1 January, 1901 staff of the Customs offices became officers of the Commonwealth, followed in March by the transfer of personnel from post and telegraphs and defence establishments. Despite the move to the Commonwealth, these administrations continued to operate through their established offices in the states. They were joined by the new departments of the Prime Minister, External Affairs, Home Affairs, and Attorney General. By 1905 there were 22,300 public servants in the Commonwealth administration.


The first legislation of the new parliament addressed immigration. It permitted entry only to Europeans, requiring any others to pass a language test, and it terminated the use of Pacific Islander labourers in Queensland. The new nation was to be of British stock, and British immigrants were actively encouraged. Aboriginal affairs were left to the states where Australia’s indigenous people were left unrepresented even in census statistics. On 12 September 1901, Attorney General, Alfred Deakin, explained the nation’s immigration policy:

Members of both sides of the House and all sections of all parties - those in office and those out of office - with the people behind them, are all united in the unalterable resolve that the Commonwealth of Australia shall mean a ‘white Australia’ and that from now henceforward all alien elements within it shall be diminished. We are united that this Commonwealth shall be established on a firm foundation of unity of race, so as to enable it to fulfill the promise of its founders, and enjoy to the fullest extent the charter of liberty under the Crown which we now cherish.1


The second immediate concern was customs, addressed by the Customs Tariff Act 1902 which abolished all internal tariffs, imposing five to twenty per cent tariffs on imported goods to protect local producers as well as generate income. The third pressing issue was defence. On 1 March 1901 the Commonwealth took control of the defence facilities of the states, but naval forces and establishments continued under state Acts and Regulations until February 1904. The Defence Act of 1903 provided for the enlistment of volunteers in peacetime. In introducing the Bill, Sir John Forrest explained:

The measure recognises that the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth shall be constituted almost entirely of citizen soldiers, and that the primary duty of such forces is to defend Australia from invasion or attack. Provision is to be made for a permanent force, which will, under existing conditions, be only sufficient for the purpose of manning the forts and ships, working the submarine mines, and instructing the citizen forces. 2

High Court

In September 1903 the High Court was established with Queensland’s Sir Samuel Griffith as Chief Justice. It had the power to allow appeals to the Privy Council in Britain in certain cases involving interests of members of the Empire. Appeals to the Privy Council from state jurisdictions were preserved under state constitutions. The eventual abolition of this process was a benchmark of Australia’s achievement of independent nationhood. The power to interpret the Constitution which was given to the High Court will continue to be a significant force in the evolution of the nation.

An ongoing process of national evolution is the birthright of all future generations of Australians. So too is the heritage of public buildings which represent the processes which have made our present nation possible. Our court houses maintained an ordered society long before parliaments were conceived. Our parliament houses and public offices are a tribute to the democratic coming of age of the colonies. Our town halls and mechanics’ schools of arts provided the rallying points for public meetings, where the voices of the people were heard. Custom houses and post and telegraph offices transferred easily to the Commonwealth as proud architectural symbols of commercial and social achievements. Railway stations symbolised the conquest of the tyranny of distance. As we pursue our destiny, we need these constant reminders and the reassurance which their presence gives.


1 Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates. House of Representatives, 12 September, 1901, vol. 4, pp. 4805-7, 4817. Quoted in Frank Crowley, A Documentary History of Australia, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, 1973, vol. 4, p. 17.

2 Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 16 July, 1903, Vol. 14, pp. 2266, 2277-8. Quoted in Frank Crowley, A Documentary History of Australia, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, 1973 vol. 4, p. 47.


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