Australasian Federation Conference

This is a black-and-white group photograph showing the secretary and 13 colonial delegates to the Australasian Federation Conference. It shows the men seated or standing in front of Parliament House in Melbourne before or after one of the sessions of the conference, held between 6 and 14 February 1890.

Educational value

  • This photograph shows the politicians from the six Australian colonies and the colony of New Zealand who, meeting in Melbourne in February 1890, agreed that the interests of the Australian colonies would be best promoted by uniting as one nation under the British Crown. They transformed the federation question from whether it should occur to how it would occur, agreeing to meet to draw up a draft constitution the following year.

  • The Australasian Federation Conference was a significant event and each of the colonies sent delegates who were described at the time as 'representative public men' – public figures who were members of colonial parliaments. Nine were ministers in colonial governments. Three were premiers: Duncan Gillies (1834–1903) of Victoria, Henry Parkes (1815–96) of New South Wales and John Cockburn (1850–1929) of South Australia. Debate among these 'public men' was vigorous.

  • The conference met from 6 to 14 February 1890, and between 10 and 13 February debated Parkes' motion that the colonies ought to unite, finally amending it to remove any reference to Australasia. On 13 February, it also agreed to a motion moved by the NZ delegates that the remoter Australasian colonies would be able to join any union of Australian colonies, and to a motion moved by Alfred Deakin (1856–1919) that a national constitutional convention be called.

  • This conference was not the first intercolonial gathering to debate a union or federation of the Australian colonies. Significant among the early meetings was the Australasian Intercolonial Conference held in Sydney in November and December 1883. This conference resulted in the ineffectual Federal Council of Australasia, which met in 1886, 1888 and 1889. The council was handicapped by the non-participation of New South Wales, New Zealand and South Australia (until 1889).

  • The 1890 conference was triggered by two events in October 1889 – a report on the defence of the Australian colonies and Parkes' Tenterfield Address. The defence report prepared by James Bevan Edwards (1834–1922) found that the colonial forces would be unable to defend the continent from attack and recommended that the colonies combine for mutual defence – federating their forces, using the same weapons and establishing a military college for officers.

  • Following Edwards' report, Parkes made a famous speech in Tenterfield, New South Wales, on 25 October 1889, in which he argued for federation, stating that he hoped to live long enough to see 'the dawning of a great new day in our beautiful land when all matters of national importance are considered and acted upon by a national government'. With New South Wales now supporting federation, Parkes' calls for a convention resulted in the 1890 conference.