Australia History: Australia Federation and WWI

During the 1890s calls for the separate colonies to federate became increasingly strident. Supporters argued that it would improve the economy and the position of workers by enabling the abolition of intercolonial tariffs and protection against competition from foreign labor.

Each colony was determined, however, that its interests should not be overshadowed by those of the other colonies. For this reason, the constitution that was finally adopted gave only very specific powers to the Commonwealth, leaving all residual powers with the states. It also gave each state equal representation in the upper house of parliament (the Senate) regardless of size or population.

Today Tasmania, with a population of less than half a million, has as many senators in Federal parliament as New South Wales, with a population of around six million. As the Senate is able to reject legislation passed by the lower house, this legacy of Australia's colonial past has had a profound effect on its politics, entrenching state divisions and ensuring that the smaller states have remained powerful forces in the government of the nation.

With federation, which came on 1 January 1901, Australia became a nation, but its loyalty and many of its legal and cultural ties to Britain remained. The mother country still expected military support from its Commonwealth allies in any conflict, and Australia fought beside Britain in battles as far from Australia's shores as the Boer War in South Africa.

This willingness to follow Western powers to war would be demonstrated time and again during the 20th century. Seemingly unquestioning loyalty to Britain and later the USA was only part of the reason. Xenophobia - born of isolation, an Asian location and a vulnerable economy - was also to Мате.

The extent to which Australia regarded itself as a European outpost became evident with the passage of the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901. The bill, known as the White Australia policy, was designed to prevent the immigration of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Prospective immigrants were required to pass a dictation test in a European language. This language could be as obscure a tongue as the authorities wished. The dictation test was not abolished until 1958.

The desire to protect the jobs and conditions of White Australian workers that had helped bring about the White Australian policy did, however, have some positive results. The labor movement had been a strong political force for many years, and by 1908 the principle of a basic wage sufficient to enable a male worker to support himself, a wife and three children had been established. By that time also, old age and invalid pensions were being paid.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Australian troops were again sent to fight thousands of km from home. From Australia's perspective, the most infamous of the WW I battles in which Diggers took part was that intended to force a passage through the Dardanelles to Constantinople. Australian and New Zealand troops landed at Gallipoli only to be slaughtered by well-equipped and strategically positioned Turkish soldiers. The sacrifices made by Australian soldiers are commemorated annually on Anzac Day, 25 April, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing.

Interestingly, while Australians rallied to the aid of Britain during WW I, the majority of voters were prepared to condone voluntary military service only. Efforts to introduce conscription during the war led to bitter debate, both in Parliament and in the streets, and in referenda compulsory national service was rejected by a small margin.

Australia was hard hit by the Depression; prices for wool and wheat - two mainstays of the economy - plunged. In 1931 almost a third of breadwinners were unemployed and poverty was widespread. Swagmen became a familiar sight, as they had been in the 1890s depression, as thousands of men took to the 'wallaby track' in search of work in the countryside. By 1933, however, Australia's economy was starting to recover, a result of rises in wool prices and a rapid revival of manufacturing.

Also on the rise was the career of Joseph Lyons, who had become prime minister after defeating the Labor government, headed by James Scullin, at elections in 1932. Lyons, a former Labor minister, had defected and formed the conservative United Australia Party, which stayed in power through the 1930s.

The death of Lyons in 1939 saw the emergence of a figure who was set to dominate the Australian political scene for the next 25 years - Robert Gordon Menzies. He was prime minister from 1939 until forced by his own party to resign in 1941, after which time he formed a new conservative party, the Liberal Party, before regaining office in 1949, a post which he held for a record 16 years.