Debate for Federation

Pro-federation pamphlet

Much of the debate surrounding the question of whether Western Australia should enter the Federation centred on tariffs and economic matters, with both sides throwing numbers at each other.

A large part of the public debate also dealt with identity. Many of the miners on the goldfields were either born or had spent much of their lives in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, and it was natural for them to feel affinity for Federation. The nationalistic workers and miners of the goldfields, and their unions, strongly backed Federation. They believed it would give them stronger representation, more rights and protect them against Western Australian politicians. Meanwhile, many long term residents were reluctant to join in the creation of a new Commonwealth so soon after gaining their own representative government. 

Lined up in opposition to the pragmatic government of John Forrest and the conservative Legislative Council, were the colony's leading liberals and reformers. George Leake and Walter James worked with the newspaper editor, and later politician, John Kirwan, to coordinate a joint campaign between the goldfields and pro-Federationists in Perth. Much of the debate revolved around persuading the Legislative Council to allow a vote on federation. Frustration at Forrest's reluctance to push for the referendum to be put the people is evident in Leake's letter of 12 September 1899 to his fellow federalist John Kirwan.

"... the electors have not spoken at all on the Federal question. They had no voice in the selection of delegates. There has been no general election at which Federation has been the paramount question and they have not voted on the draft bill ... "

For the Federal League, the referendum when it finally came allowed them the chance to argue passionately for a unified Australian nation.

Focus questions

Key Words


Legislative Council









General election

Further reading

Parliament of Australia - Records of the Australasian Federal Conventions of the 1890s

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