CONSTITUTION - FEDERATION, GLOBALISATIONS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
globalisations and the environment
O’Dowd won the Bulletin’s
1900 competition for a Federation poem with his sonnet Australia.
Generations of schoolchildren obliged to decipher its complexities were
turned off poetry. Despite O’Dowd’s arcana, he counterpoised
pertinent questions about the coming Commonwealth. “Are you”, he
and his mates around the Victorian radical weekly, Tocsin,
were right to suspect that the Constitution had been fixed for the
benefit of British bond-holders and colonial plutes. For O’Dowd. the
promise of a workingman’s paradise lay in social revolution more than
in the planting of a garden continent.
challenge federation from the left in 1899 was to be isolated among the
distinguished company of radical nationalists opposed to both imperial
control and local capitalists. The dissenters wanted a democratic
polity, and not a monarchical model which would be broken from the
Among those calling for a “No” vote in 1899 was Henry Bourne
Higgins, who, in the following year, lost his Geelong seat in the
Victorian Legislative Assembly for characterising the Boer war as
“unnecessary and unjust”. In 1901, an inner-Melbourne working-class
electorate returned Higgins to the first House of Representatives; he
became Attorney-General in the first Labor administration in 1904, and
as President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission went on to
make the most of the bad job of Federation.
At the close of this centenary year, with its bias towards celebrating individual politicians and deploring their racism or sexism, it is time to recall that Federation happened within a global economy and ecology. Throughout most of the European occupation of Australia, our story was treated as an appendix to the deeds that made the Empire. During the 1960s, Australia took center stage. The lens has become so focussed on the local that we have been losing sight of our place in the world. To counter that tendency, five of the interweaving contexts in which Federation was achieved merit attention: nation-building; competing empires; high finance; monopolising; and climatic turmoil. In short, Federation needs to be considered in terms of a previous stage in globalisation, the third of four eras deserving that name.
Mark I had flourished around the Iberian seaborne empires, bringing
Vasco da Gama eastwards to India (1497-98), Ferdinand Magellan westwards
to the Philippines (1520-21) and Luis Vaez deTorres (1606) through the
strait that bears his name. Globalisation Mark II took over during the
seventeenth century with the triangular trade of slaves, molasses and
rum between Africa, the Americas and England. In our region, Mark II
manifested itself in the East India Company and the Netherlands Indies
Company. Mark II saw the British claims of possession by Cook in 1770
and occupation under Phillip from 1788 to serve the China trade.
1860, the United States accelerated towards a continental market through
the war against Confederate independence, by completing the genocide of
the Amerindians, and the building of transcontinental rail links. Guided
by London, Canada’s elites federated into a Dominion between 1867 and
1871, partly to ward off any takeover from the reunited power to its
south. At the same time, wars advanced German and Italian political
integrations, which were mostly complete by 1871. Elements in the
Japanese ruling circles staged the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to do the
same to their archipelago in a civil war. Legal and physical impediments
to internal trade lingered in every case. The Union of South Africa in
1910 had been hammered into being on the battlefield at the time of our
Federation. These states marshaled and inculcated the ideology to
legitimise the nation-markets, often through compulsory military
training followed by ex-service bodies.
first prime minister, Edmund Barton, could declare on 1 January 1901:
“There is a nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation”.
Confined to geography and government, that slogan left out the key
aspect of the federal impulse, which was to establish a state to promote
a market across the continent. The heart of this drive was the
abolishing of inter-colonial tariffs under Section 92: “On the
imposition of uniform duties of customs, trade, commerce, and
intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or
ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free”.
The federationists could not confine the market to their
nation-continent because Australia’s state, nation, continent and
market were all inside the British Empire.
The new Commonwealth did exclude one element of Globalisation Mark III, namely, the switch from chattel slavery to indentured labour, “a new system of slavery”. The Indian or Chinese coolie and the kanaka made way for White Australia as a national ideal, not just a restrictive immigration policy.
also helped to concentrate the allocation of investment. One example was
the erection of BHP’s iron and steelworks at Newcastle, instead of
squandering resources in each of the six colonies. The rolling of the
first steel there on 24 April 1915 has as much claim to be called the
birth of an Australian nation as the landing at Gallipoli a few hours
later. This rationalisation of capital funds continues to be weakened by
the States’ use of their residual powers to underbid for projects. For
instance, the South Australians required BHP to construct a steel works
at Whyalla in order to gain access to ore bodies.
web of empires
terms of territorial expansion, US Imperialism also peaked around 1900
with its annexations of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii, and its
occupation of Cuba. The prize in the Pacific was China where Washington
called for an “open door” so that its firms would not be confined to
one slice of the melon.
These rising powers challenged the supremacy of the British Empire. Australia was again caught within a web of rivalries, this time between France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Russia and the US of A. An Empire-wide movement to catch up with German efficiency appeared in the recommendations of the 1901 Royal Commission on Victoria’s technical education. From within Britain’s industrial heartlands came the 1903 call for an Imperial Tariff by Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain.
initial response by Australians had been to get London to rally around
the flag against the Germans in the Pacific. But, after 1895,
Britain’s search for allies brought it closer to Japan. The rise of an
Asiatic power quickened calls to strengthen Australian defences by
integrating six colonial armies and five navies. The pooling of
resources after 1901 meant that, by 1913, the national government could
afford a battle cruiser, HMAS Australia,
and maintain 300,000 volunteers abroad in 1914-18. Tariff-spawned
factories supplied the British military with boots, jackets, jams and
agitation to federate coincided with an economic contraction in the
Eastern colonies and a gold boom in the West. The Barings collapse in
1890, followed by bank failures in Victoria and Queensland, made
investors more anxious to protect their funds. Throughout the 1880s,
Australia had attracted a fifth of new issues on the London financial
market, and returned to that level in the late 1890s only because of the
gold rushes around Kalgoorlie. The proportion going to the older
crashes in Australia contributed a too often overlooked reason for an
alliance between the colonies. Melbourne financiers such as the
Austro-Hungarian consul, Carl Pinschoff, urged that London would be more
willing to lend if the debts of each colony were underwritten in a
federation. A crisis in one part of the country could be compensated for
by the resources of the rest. That reduction in risk offered the further
advantage of lower interest rates. Section 105 allowed the new
Parliament to “take over from the States their pubic debts”.
the USA, promoters of railroad stock had been swindling British
investors. To restore confidence, Congress established an Interstate
Commerce Commission in 1887 to regulate the industry. In Australia,
governments built the railways, making the loans more secure.
Nonetheless, our politicians defaulted in their personal projects. In
1892, London investors charged the Queensland treasurer, Sir Thomas
McIlwraith, with fraud over his handling of the Queensland Investment
and Land Mortgage Company. When he won on appeal in the local courts,
rumours reached London that he had forced the Chief Justice to resign,
replacing him with the premier, Samuel Griffith, godfather of the draft
constitution, with whom McIlwraith had been in the “Griffilwraith”
coalition since 1890.
these circumstances, British capitalists and their political agents were
keen to maintain appeals to Privy Council to protect investments in
government and corporate ventures. In 1897, the Colonial Office worried
that loans may not be secure if suits for their recovery were to be
finalised in the High Court of Australia, as proposed in Section 74 of
the draft. “Is it likely”, a high official wrote, “that the House
of Commons where such capital is largely represented will allow the
appeal to be swept away?” Worse still, populist politicians might
The Secretary for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, conspired with the premier of New South Wales, George Reid, to secure amendments to Australia’s Constitution to protect British investors. The Adelaide Convention altered the clause dealing with the Privy Council to allow unfettered appeals on non-constitutional questions. Another result of the Chamberlain-Reid understanding was that the Governor-General could act without the advice of the Executive Council, as Sir John Kerr did on 11 November 1975.
the Australian delegates went to London in the summer of 1900 to watch
over their draft being turned into the Act of the British parliament
that would grant the Commonwealth its legal status, the movement towards
Federation almost stalled on the question of appeals. As one of the
delegates, Alfred Deakin, put it: “The Conservative classes, the legal
profession and all people of wealth desired to retain the appeal to the
Privy Council and had heartily and openly supported Chamberlain’s
proposed abolition of clause 74”. Those interests wanted an absolute
right of appeal in all cases. Chamberlain assured the House of Commons
that he was protecting “the private interests of investors … a very
large class … of British subjects interested in Australia”. In the
end, the Australians agreed to the High Court’s having the power to
allow appeals on Constitutional issues. That concession came on top of
the one worked by Reid in 1897.
(Appeals to the Privy Council continued until 1982.)
federationists were alert to the US situation, just as their drafts had
been inspired by its Constitution. Their concern can be read in Section
51 (xx) which gave the new Commonwealth power to make laws for the
control of “foreign corporations, and trading or financial
corporations formed within the limits of the Commonwealth”.
such giant was International Harvester which had extended its
price-fixing ring to Australia in collusion with H. V. McKay’s
“Sunshine” company at Ballarat. In 1905, McKay alleged that its US
partner was determined to drive him out of business by dumping machines
here at whatever price would bankrupt his factory. This claim was
credible given that McKay’s production had grown from 50 to 1900 units
during the decade after 1896. McKay turned to the Commonwealth which
passed The Australian Industries Preservation Act.
sections of that Act were modeled around the Sherman anti-trust Act, the
local law was aimed not at increasing competition but at guaranteeing
employment and sustaining British industry against yet another US
encroachment on Imperial trade. International Harvester already had 90
per cent of world sales. The US monopolisers were part of world-wide
developments that squeezed the markets and profits for British firms,
thus weakening the Empire’s capabilities in every field.
so many factories serving farms in Australia, it is not surprising that
the key constitutional cases for tariffs, monopolies and the basic wage
during the first decade of the Commonwealth should have been initiated
by a supplier of agricultural equipment. The significance of that
connection for the early Commonwealth lies in the natural environment
viewed on a global scale, as O’Dowd had when he recognised Australia
as home to “The cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere”.
affairs are more subject to the weather than geographers have been able
to teach historians. In Victoria, for instance, the long drought gave
rise to the Kyabram Movement, a forerunner of the Country Party, to
reduce the costs of government. That upsurge delivered a reactionary
administration in 1902 which attacked public servants on both the
industrial and political fronts, provoking a rail strike in 1903, and
wholesale dismissals under a Coercion Act. One follow-on was the defeat
of the first Federal Labor government in 1904 when it tried to extend
the Arbitration Act to State government employees. The shelving of the
Report on Victorian Technical Education was another effect of the
rolling El Nino meanwhile had
ravaged a sweep of societies from East Africa, through India and China,
and the Netherlands Indies and the Philippines, and on to Brazil. In
China, the failure of crops enflamed the Boxer Rebellion against the
Christian missionaries who had been backed by the cannon of the foreign
One Boxer manifesto read:
South Wales and Victoria dispatched naval contingents to Hong Kong in
1900 to suppress the Boxers. Britain learned from its dealings with the
other Concession holders that the Royal Navy could no longer rule all
the waves by itself and thus signed the 1902 Alliance with Japan.
ending of that El Nino
sequence opened the way to other environmental changes in Australia.
Prickly Pear had been held back during the drought when it was used as
stock feed. From infesting 10,000 acres in 1900, it covered 58 million
acres by 1920.
The drought refocused attention on irrigation, which the Victorians had been pushing since 1885, initially guided by Alfred Deakin. Control of the Murray waters became an issue at the 1897 Convention in Adelaide as the delegates debated giving the Commonwealth power over “The control and regulation of navigable streams and their tributaries within the Commonwealth and the use of the waters thereof”. The host colony sought to preserve its navigation and fisheries; Victoria wanted to irrigate; New South Wales had no immediate scheme in mind, but asserted its ownership of all the water to the South Australian border.
Federal spirit flickered in the symbolically significant town of Corowa
at the 1902 meeting that set up a tri-State Royal Commission on the use
of the Murray River, which was then almost dry. In 1905, the Victorian
government brought the management of its rivers under a single
authority, a precondition for any cross-border arrangements.
Rivalries prevented an inter-State agreement until the next big drought
encouraged the creation of the River Murray Commission in 1915.
prospect of famine in Australia had stimulated research for higher
yielding grains. Crops per acre had been falling since 1860 as the later
maturing types in the higher rainfall areas were blighted with stem
rust. Millers imported grain in 1890 from overseas after crop losses of
£2 million. In 1900, after fourteen years of cross-breeding, William
Farrer named his “Federation” strain, an early maturer and drought
resistant type, which expanded the wheat belt beyond the Great Divide,
thereby changing the colour of the agricultural landscape from golden to
strains, however, could not prevent the return of El
Nino. In 1914-15, Australia’s wheat yield was the lowest since
1902. The following year, the crop was the most abundant ever, leaping
from 25 million to 179 million bushels, ample to feed the Mother Country
at war. To the promise of aiding Britain to “the last man and the last
shilling” should be added “and the last loaf”.
uncertainty of cereal output had implications for the clash of empires.
Britain’s naval spending rose 300 percent between 1894 and 1913 to
protect the conveyance of grain tonnage which had grown by only one
quarter. As Anver Offer put it: “Free trade no longer came free. The
cost of naval power became a subsidy for food not different in principle
from the tariffs”.
strategists anticipated that, once hostilities commenced, their import
of grains and superphosphates would be disrupted. That fear encouraged
the quest for a catalyst to lower the temperatures and pressures at
which the creation of ammonia from the combining of nitrogen and
hydrogen could be done economically. The answers developed in the Bosch-Haber
process between 1908 and 1913 were applied to making explosives.
the golden anniversary of the Commonwealth in 1951, the landscape of
much of Australia would have been unrecognisable to the generation who
had forged the Federal compact. Following a drought in 1944 as severe as
that in 1902, the Australian earth was about to regenerate. The release
of myxamatosis in 1950 killed off so many rabbits that the landscape
looked greener than it had for some seventy or eighty years. Grasses and
shrubs took off at once, but tree seedlings also had more of a chance to
grow. This rebirth was a mixed blessing because exotic flora were no
longer held in check while foxes and cats turned on native species.
In The reluctant nation (1994), ex-Director of the Australian
Conservation Foundation, Phillip Toyne, recognised that the Commonwealth
possessed the constitutional authority under the foreign affairs and the
corporations powers bestowed in Section 51 to protect the environment.
Sometimes, that authority has been used, by both the Coalition over
sand-mining on Fraser Island, and the ALP on damning the Tasmanian
south-west. Just as often, the Federal government has compromised with
the States, as in the Regional Forests Agreements. According to Toyne,
remains to be found the approach which avoids the better confrontation
generated by unilateral intervention by the Commonwealth, but abandons
the “lowest common denominator” of the consensus approach to
achieving national objectives in environmental protection. (p. 15)
answer is not adding a new power to the Section 51. Despite the 1967
deletion of “other than the aboriginal race in any State” from
sub-section xxvi, no Federal government has been game to override the
States on land rights. The same will apply to the rights of the land
itself. They too will need preservation from States Rights when used as
a stalking horse for corporate plundering.
future for our Federal compact in the current round of Globalisation
cannot be glimpsed by regurgitating Barton’s slogan of “a nation for
a continent, and a continent for a nation”. His vision splendid dealt
with demands within Globalisation Mark III for co-operation among the
colonies to strengthen the Empire. Globalisation
Mark IV is more likely to establish linkages between regions inside
Australia and specific parts of other countries. Regions
are the nodes for expanding trade, built
around their comparative advantages.
In place of cliches about Australia’s
becoming part of Asia, the point to ponder is which bits of Australia
are likely to be tied to which bits of every other continent. Nation,
market, state, region, empire and class remain the stars in our
constellation but the latest wave of Globalisation is realigning them so
that Eden needs fresh defences against Mammon.
McQueen is a freelance historian working from Canberra. His recent books
include Temper Democratic, How
Exceptional is Australia? (Wakefield Press, 1999) and
The Essence of Capitalism, The Origins of Our Future ( Sceptre,
 Hugh Anderson, Tocsin: contesting the constitution, Red Rooster Press, Melbourne, 2000.
 K. Dallas, Trading Posts or Penal Colonies, Fullers Bookshop, Hobart, 1969.
 David Kynaston, The City of London, volume II, Golden Years, 1890-1914, Chatto & Windus, London, 1995, p. 48.
 J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1972, pp. 172-75 and 263-64.
 Mike Davis, “A World’s End: Drought, Famine and Imperialism (1896-1902)”, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, 10 (2), June 1999, pp. 3-46.
 Ian Tyrrell, True gardens of the gods, Californian-Australian environments, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1999, p. 205.
 Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Government Printer, Adelaide, 1897, p. 794.
 Don Wright, “The River Murray: Microcosm of Australian Federal History“, Federalism in Canada and Australia: the early years, ANU Press, Canberra, 1978, pp. 277-86.
 Anver Offer, The First World War, An agrarian interpretation, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, pp. 219-20.