Sign In

The 1891 National Australia Australiasian Convention

Text Size a a a Print Print this page

'One People, One Destiny'

Australasian Convention at a banquet in the Sydney Town Hall, 2 March 1891.

Toast given by Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales and President of the National Australasian Convention at a banquet in the Sydney Town Hall, 2 March 1891.

The man popularly credited with the first decisive move towards federation was Sir Henry Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales. Parkes persuaded the other colonial premiers to hold an Australasian Federation Conference in Melbourne in 1890. The Conference decided to call a National Australasian Convention. The purpose of this Convention was to 'consider and report upon an adequate scheme for an Australian Constitution'.

The Convention met in Sydney in March and April 1891. Each colony sent seven Members of Parliament and two even came from New Zealand. By April 9 they had hammered out a draft bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. The principal draftsman and architect of the Constitution was Sir Samuel Griffith, the Premier of Queensland. Griffith was assisted by Andrew Inglis Clark, the Tasmanian Attorney-General, Charles Cameron Kingston, MP, from South Australia and Edmund Barton, MP, from New South Wales.

The Convention delegates tackled the thorny problem of how six independent governments might surrender some of their powers to a 'federal' Parliament. How could states with small populations resist the overwhelming voting power of Victoria and New South Wales? Members of Parliament from those states would dominate the proposed House of Representatives. It was decided that a Senate, in which each state would be represented equally no matter what its population, would defend the interests of the small states.

Alternate image text 

The people and federation - a punter's comment!
Melbourne Punch, 12 March 1891

Another major problem for the Convention was the power of the proposed Senate, particularly over money. A majority of delegates from the smaller colonies favoured a second chamber which would be able to amend, although not initiate, money bills. The larger colonies thought this undemocratic as the wishes of a minority of the population could prevail over the representatives of the majority. At this point the Constitution would not have been accepted without the delegates' agreement to the great 'Compromise of 1891'. This restricted the Senate's powers over money bills. The Senate could not itself make amendments to these bills, although it could request the House of Representatives to make such amendments, and, ultimately, it could refuse to pass the bills.