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Taking Federation to the People

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'Today, Saturday March 12th 1898, after an all-night's sitting and under conditions of great nervous exhaustion and irritability we have practically completed the draft bill for the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth.'

Alfred Deakin, in his first-hand account of federation, first published in 1923 as The Federal Story.

The Australasian Federal Convention of 1897 and 1898 was a tale of three cities. The opening session was held in Adelaide in March 1897 where a draft Constitution was produced. Four months were then allowed for the colonial parliaments to consider and comment upon this draft. The Convention reassembled in Sydney in September and a final session was held in Melbourne in February and March of 1898. On 17 March 1898, St Patrick's Day, a Constitution was ready to place before the voters of Australia.

The Convention delegates used the Constitution of 1891 as their starting point and amended various sections. A small drafting committee then worked the Convention's resolutions into the precise language of a legal document. The members of the drafting committee were faced with a most demanding task.

A central concern to the Convention was how to resolve irreconcilable disputes over legislation between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Delegates spent hours debating this issue. Section 57 of the Constitution, the 'double dissolution' clause, provided for a simultaneous election of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. If the Senate then still refused to pass a bill, a joint sitting of both Houses could be called. In a joint sitting a three-fifths majority would be sufficient to pass a bill.

State finances also worried the colonial premiers. How would they balance their budgets if the Commonwealth government collected customs duties? It was decided that the states would receive back a fixed proportion of customs revenues in perpetuity. Because this provision would curb the spending power of a Commonwealth government, it was known as the 'Braddon Blot' after Edward Braddon, the Premier of Tasmania who devised it

Image - Talking Federation
The Bulletin, 18 April 1891