The 1899 referendum created outcomes nearly the opposite of what Yes voters had been told would happen.
Some of the arguments for an Indigenous Voice to parliament are stronger than others.
One of the least persuasive arguments for the Voice is that Australians should support it in the same way a century ago the population of the colonies said yes to federation.
If Australians knew more of their history they’d know that in 1901 federation enshrined the White Australia policy, created the bureaucracy and duplication that are the hallmarks of public administration in this country, and gave to unelected High Court judges the ability to impose upon politicians their own preferences as to how they believed Australia should be governed.
Federation is most definitely not the precedent Voice supporters should rely on to bolster their case. Which is why it’s surprising knowledgeable people who are both Voice supporters, the eminent historian Judith Brett and Ken Henry, former senior public servant and NAB chairman, have talked of the parallels between federation and the Voice.
For Brett the Voice, like federation, is an opportunity that if “missed may not come again”.
Henry has asked, “Imagine for a moment that you were participating in one of the constitutional conventions of the 1890s, pondering the merits of including in the Constitution” section 51 giving parliament the power to make laws for “peace, order and good government”.
“How much patience would you have for a protest that such a clause should not be considered unless and until everybody was fully informed of everything that the parliament might do with those powers?”
(Henry seems to believe that because not every question about the Voice can be answered, no question should be answered.)
In Their Fiery Cross of Union – A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation, 1889-1914, published in 2021 from Connor Court Press, William Coleman, an academic at the Australian National University, demolishes the myths of 1901. It is one of the most important books of Australian history of the last decade.
As Coleman makes clear, the movement for federation was driven by political and business elites motivated by their desire for the social prestige.
Naturally, public servants embraced federation. As a delegate to one of the federation conventions wrote, “the establishment of the Federation should in time, make its civil service attractive to a considerable portion of the very elite of its youth”.
Everyone was enthusiastic about federation – except the public. At the 1899 referendum the Yes vote in New South Wales was 56.5 per cent of those who voted. But as voting was not compulsory those who voted Yes were only 34.9 per cent of those enrolled to vote and just 15.3 per cent of all the adults in the colony.
Even in colonies where the Yes vote was higher, support for federation was not overwhelming. The Yes vote as a share of those enrolled to vote was 53.1 per cent in Victoria and 39.8 per cent in Queensland.
Courts overturned nearly everything
The federation votes were not expressions of the popular will. For example, only women in South Australia and Western Australia had the vote, and in Queensland and Western Australia Indigenous Australians could vote only if they owned property.
Coleman is correct when he says federation was a manifestation of “an international political hit of the day, known as ‘Progressivism’ in the United States and ‘New Liberalism’ in Great Britain, which amounted to a certain winning formula of centralism, bureaucracy and imperialism”. Federation did not so much “make a nation” as “make a state”.
The Federation Fathers sought “the imposition of uniformity; the construction of hierarchy; and the elimination of competition”.
Within 20 years of federation the High Court had overturned nearly everything the Fathers had intended. The states became financially subservient to the Commonwealth government, while the High Court gave to itself powers which had never been foreseen. Coleman is polite when he describes some of the court’s decisions as “extraordinary, if not perverse”.
Federation was a top-down movement to which the public was largely indifferent. Crucially, as even its most ardent advocates would admit, federation produced not only enormous unpredicted consequences, it created outcomes nearly the exact opposite of what Yes voters had been told would happen.
The government of Australia today, with its dysfunction and its lack of democratic accountability, is what’s come from federation.