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The West and Federation

Video clip synopsis – Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846. Ferocious political struggles over the shape of the new nation continued to the eleventh hour.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 4min 24sec
Tags - Australian History, colonisation, Constructing Australia, federation, identity, Kalgoorlie, national identity, nationalism, natural resources, pioneers, see all tags


The West and Federation

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About the Video Clip


The West and Federation is an excerpt from the film Pipe Dreams (55 mins), the second episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

Constructing Australia
Politics, tragedy and conquest combine in stories behind the building of Australia. The Bridge, Pipe Dreams, and A Wire Through the Heart, combine rare archival images with dramatic storytelling in showcasing three landmark events that would allow Australia to mark its place in the world. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph line were engineering triumphs, but the human drama in constructing Australia is even more fascinating.

Pipe Dreams
From the remote coast of Western Australia, to deep within its inhospitable interior, an immense water pipeline was being constructed that would unlock countless riches and help build the nation. This is a story of personal tragedy, political rivalries, corruption and trial by media that nearly tore apart Australia at the moment of its birth.

Pipe Dreams was produced with the assistance of ScreenWest and Lottery West. Developed and produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. A Film Australia Making History Production in association with Prospero Productions.

Background Information


Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846. But progress was agonisingly slow. The colonies often agreed in principle to the desirability of Federation, but found the devil in the detail. Federation seemed likely in the early 1890s but foundered because of the reluctance of New South Wales. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, an agreement seemed again achievable.

The Australian constitution contains a few clues to the ferocious political struggles over the shape of the new nation, which continued to the eleventh hour. For example, the preamble declares that ‘the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania….have decided to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth’. Where, you might wonder, is Western Australia? It does not get a mention until clause 4, which says that ‘if Her Majesty is satisfied that the people of Western Australia have agreed thereto’ then that colony will become part of the new nation.

There were several reasons for Western Australia being the last and most reluctant colony to commit to Federation. Its sheer remoteness set it apart from the other colonies. Western Australia’s slow development was part of the picture too. Economically weak, and struggling to attract migrants, the colony had only just won the right to self-government from England. There were fears that Federation might mean exchanging rule from distant London for rule from distant Melbourne.

Gold changed everything:not only was Western Australia economically much stronger, but the miners, many of them migrants from the east, were far more enthusiastic about Federation than the older settlers. This division created a political nightmare for Premier John Forrest.

Forrest, a supporter of Federation for almost the whole of his public life, was placed in an extremely delicate political position. The core of his political support came from settled farming areas, but it was these regions where the greatest apprehension about Federation lay. Forrest needed to extract the best possible deal for rural interests if Western Australia as a whole were to join. But the population of the goldfields, populated by ‘t’othersiders’, was enthusiastic about Federation and saw Forrest’s caution as the dithering of a Perth-centred squattocracy.

Classroom Activities

  1. Why were the miners on the eastern goldfields discontented with the Western Australian parliament in Perth? Discuss in class, drawing on information from the video clip, plus further research, then write a letter to the editor of a Perth newspaper (such as The Sunday Times, as edited by Charles Vosper in the 1890s) outlining your grievances on behalf of the other miners at the goldfields.
  2. As though you were Forrest, write a passionately delivered speech to the Western Australian colonial parliament in 1890, the year the colony became self-governing, in which you argue for the development of large infrastructure undertakings of roads, railways and telegraph lines extending out from Perth across the land. In your argument you should associate this need with the growing mood in the eastern colonies for an Australian federation of states, in which Western Australia should be an equal partner. Record your speech for playback on your school’s intranet.
  3. Research then discuss in class and write notes on the reasons why women in 1899 were given the vote in Western Australian colonial elections and referenda, and whether this may have influenced the outcome of the 1900 referendum on whether Western Australia should federate with the other Australian colonies.
  4. In pairs, prepare a “what if” alternative history scenario, and present it either as a large poster display, or one or more connected website pages for display on your school’s intranet site. What if the 1900 referendum had produced a “No” result, meaning that Western Australia would not have joined the new Australian Commonwealth in 1901, but would have remained a self-governing colony of Great Britain? Would a breakaway state of “Auralia” have been formed in the south-eastern section of Western Australia? Would Western Australia eventually have joined the Commonwealth or become a separate nation? What kind of Australia may have developed over the next few years, or decades, from this scenario, and would it affect us today?

Further Resources


Frank Crowley, Big John Forrest 1847–1918: A Founding Father of the Commonwealth of Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, WA, 2000

A. G. Evans, CY O’Connor: His Life and Legacy, UWA Press, 2002

Richard Evans and Alex West, Constructing Australia, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007

Albert Gaston, Coolgardie Gold, Hesperian Press, 1984

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