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The Australasian Federal Convention 1897/1898

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The lantern slide shows Edmund Barton.
Town and Country Journal
18 March 1897

In the early 1890s the Australian colonies descended into economic depression. In the midst of bank crashes, rising unemployment and social distress, many politicians took little real interest in federation. It was not a good time for serious consideration of an Australian constitution. By the end of 1892 the draft Constitution of 1891 had failed to make any headway in the colonial parliaments.

It became evident that to succeed federation would have to take on the appearance of a popular cause. In Victoria men like Alfred Deakin and other members of the Australian Natives Association had long worked for national unity. To stir up interest in New South Wales, Edmund Barton founded the Australasian Federation League in 1893. The League received strong support along the Murray River where the people of the border towns were daily inconvenienced by customs barriers.

At a conference of federation leagues and branches of the Australian Natives Association, held in the Murray River town of Corowa in 1893, a real link between federation and the people was forged. John Quick, a lawyer from Bendigo, successfully proposed a resolution which showed a new way forward. Each colonial parliament should pass an Act to elect delegates to another convention. This convention would draw up a constitution. The proposed constitution would then be put to the voters for approval at a referendum in each colony.

The Hobart Premiers' Conference of 1895 accepted Quick's proposal. By 1897 Enabling Acts to elect delegates to a Convention had been passed by all but the Queensland Parliament. Subsequent Convention elections revealed who the people regarded as the real supporters of federation. Leading politicians such as Alfred Deakin in Victoria, Charles Cameron Kingston in South Australia and Edward Nicholas Braddon in Tasmania were easily elected. But far above them all in the popular mind was New South Welshman, Edmund Barton. He topped the poll in his own colony - 15,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival.