Shattering Myths Of Federation

8 December 2021
Shattering Myths Of Federation - Featured image

A new book’s argument that Federation was driven by self-interest and the result deeply flawed is a long-overdue corrective, writes historian of Australian politics, Zachary Gorman.

For 120 years the story of Australia’s Federation has been told with an overwhelmingly positive tone. While it has never truly captured the public’s imagination—as testified by the fact a national advertising campaign had to teach people who Edmund Barton was in the lead up to the centenary—the fact six separate colonies came together to ‘create a nation’ in 1901 is seldom looked upon as anything other than a great achievement. This is perhaps surprising, as left and right critics alike have found almost pervasive issues with the Federation as it exists. Needless to say, these issues have only been compounded by the recent pandemic.

Their Fiery Cross of Union: A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation

Their Fiery Cross of Union: A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation, 1889-1914
William Coleman Connor Court Publishing, 2021, pp446

William Coleman’s new book is thus simultaneously timely and long, long overdue. Their Fiery Cross of Union: A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation, 1889-1914 seeks to shatter the myths that have surrounded Federation and present a critical narrative of the causes, process, and consequences of this formative historical episode. One key point the book seeks to prove is that in contrast to the comforting conservative reassurance that our ‘founding fathers’ produced a wonderful and ideologically ‘Federalist’ document only to be thwarted by the High Court, our Federation was overwhelmingly flawed from the beginning.

Federation cut markets off from competition.

Take for example the fact that, contrary to the principles of the much-lauded ‘competitive federalism’, our Federation set out explicitly to eliminate competition between the States such as variable railway fares. Or how about the ‘Vertical Fiscal Imbalance’ whereby the Federal Government raises the majority of the taxes and then distributes them to the States, blurring accountability and disincentivising policy differentiation. This was no product of the Federal Government seizing exclusive powers of income taxation (though it was obviously exacerbated by this); in 1901 every State barring New South Wales relied almost entirely on the distribution of Federal tariff money to stay afloat.

Modern ‘Federalists’ tend to emphasise the importance of subsidiarity and the benefits of local autonomy. Smaller polities are more democratic, as votes count for more, smaller electorate sizes represent ‘communities of interest’, and decisions are not made in a far-off bush capital where public servants are isolated from the values and concerns of the society they are meant to serve. In a ‘Federalist’ utopia states can set their own taxes and regulations, with people ‘voting with their feet’ and moving to the State that most suits their own personal preferences about the role of the state and which offers them the most opportunities.

This ideal is precisely what existed in Australia prior to Federation. Indeed, the statistics show quite clearly that people were voting with their feet against the Protectionist policies of Victoria and emigrating to the other colonies, particularly Free Trade NSW. It is worth emphasising that by the 1890s all six colonies were fully functioning democracies in their own right. The birth of Australian democracy is a separate story entirely to the birth of the Australian Federation, and that is perhaps why the latter lacks the emotional pull needed to capture the public imagination.

Delegates at the Australasian Federation Conference, Melbourne, 1890.
Photo: State Library of South Australia

If a modern ‘Federalist’ wants to support the Federation of 1901 as a positive historical event, they must argue not for decentralisation from the modern reality, but for centralisation from the 1890s reality to the extent present in our Constitution. This is where Coleman draws his battlelines. He does not argue that the colonies would not have benefitted from closer cooperation and even some form of Federation, but that the Federation of 1901 was a ‘botched federation, and may have precluded a better one’.

Why then did Australia federate in 1901? The book starts off by dissecting the commonly maintained justifications. First, that Federation was an economic necessity, fostering free trade between the colonies and destroying artificial barriers. Coleman, primarily an economist by trade, is able to unpack this easily. Free trade areas are meant to create a greater market for goods, but all the colonies already could sell their goods in free trade NSW, the largest internal market. The three largest colonies did more trade with the world than with each other; trade which Federal tariffs might ultimately undermine.

Federation was not an assertion of Australian identity and independence.

What Federation did in practice was not so much foster a local market but cut that market off from competition. Victorian manufacturers could already sell their goods in NSW, but they had to compete against the prices offered by other import sources. There was thus a great financial motivation behind Federation, but it was a sectional one. Consumers and the wider economy would be left to foot the manufacturers’ bill.

Was Federation carried out because of a healthy sentimental nationalism? Not if you take nationalism to be an appreciation for what actually exists in a country or for the achievements of its past. Sydney—Australia’s birthplace, which not only had the deepest historical roots but which had a conscious memory of a long struggle to wrest self-government from Britain that bore no equivalence elsewhere in Australia—voted ‘no’ at both referendums. In that city, Anti-Federalists argued they would not sacrifice what was emotively dubbed ‘Wentworth’s Constitution’, nor undermine their existing democracy by submitting to a Senate that gave equal representation to the States regardless of population.

In contrast, Federationist support was strongest in Victoria, to the extent that significant sums of Victorian money went into financing the Federation campaigns in the other colonies. This was not just due to the interests of Victorian manufacturers, but, Coleman suggests, a product of an ‘instant society’ that had sprung up from the goldrush and which had little in the way of a past. In the generation which sprouted the leading Federalists, hardly any Victorian knew their grandparents. They were focused firmly on the future in a manner that practically precluded the wisdom of Edmund Burke.

Nor was Federation nationalist as in an assertion of Australian identity and independence. Most leading participants saw Federation as an important stepping stone towards Imperial Federation and wanted the Union Jack to be the national flag. A non-controversial clause of the Constitution granted the monarch the power to disallow legislation, despite the fact that in an earlier generation William Wentworth had done his utmost to limit that power when it came to NSW.

Though it is not granted its own chapter, Coleman likewise downplays the defensive imperative towards Federation. Legislation from the much-maligned Federal Council allowed colonial troops to be deployed in other colonies prior to Federation, Australia’s commitment to the Boer War was successfully organised on a colony-by-colony basis, and in the one area where the pooling of resources might have been necessary, the creation of a navy, the first Federal Parliament saw no need to act.

There is a sombre tragedy to the book befitting a ‘lost cause’ narrative.

Having thus critiqued the old myths, Coleman posits new ‘causes’ that might explain Federation. Perhaps the most powerful is the desire of a class of professionals to increase their own prestige, creating new titles, offices, and jobs that will garner them respect within Australia and hopefully in the Imperial Capital itself. Another is circumstance and happenstance. Take the NSW Governor Lord Carrington goading Henry Parkes to accomplish Federation, when the old political master had previously been uninterested. Or the political needs of George Reid, who had used a critique of Federation to bring down Parkes only to find he needed to reunite the Free Trade Party that he had fractured in the process.

Their Fiery Cross of Union is a self-conscious act of historical revisionism, and like all great works of this kind it deliberately pushes its perspective to its limits in the hope of changing where the centre of the debate will from here on sit. Certainly, there are places where in this reviewer’s not-unsympathetic opinion it goes too far. One is in the complexities of the position of ‘Yes–No’ Reid.

The literature of the past several decades has firmly established George Reid as the pivotal figure in the success of Federation, or at least its success in the 1890s and thus us having the specific Constitution we have. Coleman paints him as a ‘faithless’ figure who at both referendums supported a Constitution that embodied most of the flaws for which he had attacked Parkes. Much of this criticism is valid, but in the first referendum the infamous ‘Yes–No’ speech was arguably seen as a ‘No’ and it was only after that referendum received a ‘Yes’ majority (while failing to reach the minimum number of votes) that Reid went all in on the Federation bandwagon. A more detailed study of why Reid made the fateful decisions he did is one of the obvious needs of this new revisionist outlook.

A must read.

Likewise, in Coleman’s attempt to paint Federation as the imposition of a Victorian hegemony over the continent, he points out how clearly the Australian flag resembles the Victorian one and that this was acknowledged at the time. However, he does not mention both flags being virtual copies of the earlier Anti-Transportation League flag. That flag was flown during the campaign to end convict transportation, a campaign which along with the related fight for responsible government would make a far more suitable basis for a national foundation myth than the Federation episode.

Coleman is aware many conservatives may accept his arguments but reject them out of the perceived need to maintain the utility of such a foundation mythology. He is quite conscious there is no going back, and there is a sombre tragedy to the whole book befitting of a ‘lost cause’ narrative. He nevertheless argues the work’s utility lies not just in setting the record straight, but in illustrating:

… the mechanicality of Australian commitment to democracy, the weakness of national feeling, the slightness of ideas in its political counsel, the political ascendency of the professions, and the pre-eminence, contrary to mythology, not of the utilitarian, but of the ritualistic, the legalistic, and the bureaucratic.

This is undoubtedly achieved. Whether you agree with its arguments or not, the provocative nature of Their Fiery Cross of Union and the originality of its perspective make it a must read for those with an interest in Australian political history. That interest is perhaps a prerequisite to appreciation, as the reader may well be lost without an understanding of the received narrative Coleman is arguing against.

The book is full of depth, such that one of its main themes—a critique of the supposed ‘democratic’ way in which Federation was carried out—has scarcely made it into this review. As Henry Ergas declares on the back cover, it has “all the hallmarks of a classic”.

Dr Zachary Gorman is the Academic Coordinator at the Robert Menzies Institute.

During his time at the IPA (2018–2020) he delivered a paper on ‘Why Sydney Voted “No” to Federation’ at the Demythologising Federation Conference in 2019, and published Fathers of Our Constitutional Inheritance, which can be accessed at ipa.org.au.

More about his 2020 book published by the IPA, Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom’s Symbol Over a Millennium, can be found at ipamagnacarta.org.au

This article from the Spring 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by historian of Australian politics Zachary Gorman.

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