Colony and Empire

Section One

Australian National Sovereignty


It would be untrue to say that the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901 gave birth to a nation. Australia was still called a "colony" after 1901, albeit one of the "great colonies". Even the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act stated that, for certain purposes, "the Commonwealth shall be taken to be a self-governing colony"; and the Colonial Laws Validity Act applied to Australia right up until 1942.(2)

Federation, rather than enabling the expression of nationalistic ideals, actually became an expression of British Imperialist designs.

As Hudson and Sharp have spelt out: This view has been borne out by the words of the British politician Joseph Chamberlain, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies, in his speech to the British Parliament - when it was considering whether to grant the federation of the Australia colonies, via the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill. Chamberlain said that "federation... is a great and important step towards the organisation of the British Empire" and that "we believe the relations between ourselves and these colonies will be simplified... when we have to deal with a single central authority instead of having severally to consult six independent Governments".(4)

The parliamentary committee of the NSW Trade Labor Council recognised this important distinction, when it campaigned in 1891 for "The Federation of the Australasian Colonies upon a national, as opposed to an imperialistic, basis". The Bulletin magazine also recognised this distinction, as its stated "Australian National Policy" denounced "Imperial Federation". Indeed, when federation was achieved in 1901, Australia simply moved from limited colonial self-government to limited national self-government.(5)

As Donald Horne has pointed out: "Even when these colonies federated it was believed that Australia was still not a true nation. Economically, strategically and culturally Australia was defined as part of the British Empire", although it came to pass that "Decade after decade, Australians slowly abandoned this explicitly colonial frame of mind".(6)

Later on - in 1907 - it was decided that the "great colonies" (Australia, Canada, Cape Colony, Natal, New Zealand, and the Transvaal) should no longer be called colonies "because that term confused their status with that of crown (coloured) colonies lacking self-government". The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom hosted a "Colonial Conference", with the prime ministers of the "great colonies", where it was agreed that "henceforth the Colonial Conferences would be called Imperial Conferences and that the great white colonies should be styled 'the self-governing dominions beyond the seas' - which inevitably became shortened to 'the Dominions'."(7)

In nationalist terms, the Federation of the Australian colonies was largely a farce. It did not lead to a new nation, but rather to "one big colony" (which was therefore easier for Britain to administer, rather that channelling all matters through six separate colonies).(8)

As E.M. Andrews has stated: Indeed, many nationalists opposed federation; not because they didn't want the six colonies to unite, but because they realised that the form of federation proposed at that time would mean that Australia would remain as a British colony.

The 1891 New South Wales Labor election platform had thus included the aim of: "The Federation of the Australasian Colonies upon a national, as opposed to an imperialistic, basis".(10)

When Australia became a federated Commonwealth it was as a colonial Commonwealth, not as an independent Commonwealth. The joining together of the six colonies was seen as an expedient method of efficiency in the interests of the British Empire.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (the British Act establishing and encompassing Australia's Constitution) states that the Commonwealth of Australia itself "shall be taken to be a self-governing colony" (emphasis added). So, Australia simply moved from being six colonies into being a single colony (thus ensuring ease of administration for the British Government).(11)


The Australian Constitution (which had been approved by the Australian people voting by referenda) was interfered with, and changed, by the British Government. The clause in the Constitution regarding the avenue of legal appeal to the Privy Council in Britain (known as "The Queen in Council") was opened far wider by the British Government, in order to "satisfy British commercial interests". The British were able to demand such a change, because the legal creation of the Australian Constitution was in the hands of the British government - it came into being only as part of a British law: The Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act.(12)

F.W. Eggleston later testified to a Royal Commission that Joseph Chamberlain (Britain's Secretary of State for the Colonies) "did not want the appeal in private cases stopped, because he said that the big shipping companies and mercantile interests desired the right of appeal to the Privy Council".(13)

Hudson and Sharp have explained why this "right of appeal" was wanted:

Note: The Australian Parliament passed laws in 1968 and 1975 to stop appeals from federal courts to the Privy Council, and - with the consent of the states, and that of the British Government - passed the Australia Act in 1986 to stop appeals from state courts.(15)


Tom Keneally and John Craig have concisely pointed out the realities of Australia's early standing as regards foreign affairs: These early years saw that Australian prime ministers still could not communicate directly with British prime ministers and that Australian communications "could be addressed no higher than the Colonial Secretary via the governor-general's office".(18)

For foreign affairs, the rules still applied in like manner as had been laid down in 1894 by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Ripon: For example, in 1907, The answer (that France had no intention for such a penal settlement) had to come back via all those same channels - thus it took almost three months for Deakin (Australia's Prime Minister) to receive a response to his question.(20)

Indeed, when Deakin had spoken to the Japanese Consul in 1905 "he was chastised by London for improper dealings with a foreign power".(21)

Hudson and Sharp give another example: Because of such treatment of Australia by Britain, "in federal circles there was some resentment at the extent to which the Colonial Office still could involve itself in Australian affairs".(22)

In 1911, Australia was forced to protest "at the commitment of the Dominions to international treaties entered into by the UK without consultation".(23)

The Colonial Office channel was changed in 1918 to allow direct communications between the Prime Ministers of Britain and Australia.(24)

However, it was not until after the First World War that, largely at Canada's instigation, the British "surrendered control over the diplomacy of the dominions" ("In 1923 the dominions had been given their diplomatic independence").(25)

But even that "diplomatic independence" can be questioned, when Declarations of War are considered (see relevant section in this publication).

Colony and Empire

Australian Nationalism Information Database -