The Politics of Federation. (Centenary of Federation Special)

By Roberts, Winsome | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Federation. (Centenary of Federation Special)


Roberts, Winsome, Melbourne Journal of Politics


Although federation was essentially a political act, putting in place a new sphere of governance, little attention has been paid to the achievement of federation as a political process. This paper addresses the politics of federation. Its starting point is the ongoing debate as to whether federation was a hollow agreement or built on broader political foundations. It argues that federation was based on popular nationalist sentiment as well as a tradition of widespread involvement in politics. In an important sense, the Australian nation was not only imagined in local communities, it was constructed in them. An active citizenry gave life and meaning to the more formal democratic institutions and practices. If the current body politic is curiously devoid of politicisation, it is worth remembering that the fire of politics formed the spirit of Australia at federation.

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As the Centenary of Federation approaches it is fitting to revisit the debate commenced at Federation's Jubilee as to the extent of popular political support. Robert Parker (I) looked at regional voting patterns for the federation referendums and argued that those who turned up to vote cast their lot according to how they expected it to affect their livelihood. Geoffrey Blainey (II) countered that voters were motivated by broader considerations. Subsequent studies, (III) employing a similar methodology, produced equivocal results and Scott Bennett, (IV) in a systematic overview, characterised it as an enduring problem of political science.

Scholars of constitutional jurisprudence are divided on the issue of the extent to which the constitution was founded on and legitimated by popular participation. Those who celebrate federation have argued that Australia, for its day, provided the most democratic model of constitution making ever to be attempted. (V) The critics, like George Williams, (VI) have a contrary view:

      The making of the Australian constitution was neither representative nor
   inclusive of the Australian people generally. It was drafted by a small
   privileged, section of society. Whole sections of the community were
   excluded from the Conventions or from voting for the draft constitution....
   (VIII)

Historians have also presented differing accounts. Stuart Macintyre's (VIII) recent historiographical review shows how the earlier celebratory accounts of Federation gave way to more sceptical and critical ones. Revisionist historians characterised it as something of a political hoax, involving an elite and curtailing rather than enhancing democratisation. (IX)

The immanence of the Centenary of federation has stimulated the entry of new proponents putting extra spin on old positions. Bob Birrell (X) adopts a celebratory approach by drawing attention to the mobilisation of popular opinion through the Australian Natives' Association.

Others continue to denigrate its achievement. Professor McMinn (XI) claims that although there was popular sentiment, this was not translated into political involvement. Peter Botsman (XII) goes so far as to argue that any notion of `the people's constitution' is a `swindle', but then uses spurious

figures, based on the total population rather than the total eligible voting population, to argue that only the smallest minority actually supported federation. Phillip Knightley (XIII) alleges that Australians showed little interest in Federation because they were captured by the more immediate concerns of plagues and drought and because of utter weariness that `politicians had been talking about it but doing nothing for too long.'

My current work revisits federation and takes an entirely different approach, theoretically and methodologically. It focuses on the political. Theoretically it takes a holistic approach and argues that to understand federation you need to view its construction as a process undertaken within the framework of existing liberal democratic regimes, imperial and colonial. …

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