An Australian Federation [17 January 1857]

[Editor: A report on a discussion in the Victorian parliament regarding the proposed federation of the Australian colonies. Published in The Argus, 17 January 1857.]

An Australian Federation.

Although the motion of Mr. Duffy in the Assembly yesterday for a committee on federal union was carried sub silentio, our readers at a distance must not conclude that this was a sign of indifference in reference to the grand object of the motion. We feel certain, on the contrary, that on no great political question is there a more unanimous and cordial feeling, not merely among politicians, but among all the intelligent population of Victoria. We believe it would be difficult to find any persons throughout this colony who are opposed, nay, who are not strongly in favour of the immediate formation of an united Australia.

But it would be as erroneous to suppose that this feeling is equally prevalent in the other Australian colonies. The scheme of federation is popular in Victoria, because it’s inhabitants are secure in their preeminence, and they believe that in other respects the federation will conduce to their physical interests. On the other hand, however, there is a jealousy on the part of the inhabitants of the neighbouring colonies. They are afraid that, under a federal Government, they would lose their independent position, and that in every question that arose their interests would have to succumb to those of Victoria. This feeling existed very strongly among the smaller colonies in America at the time of the revolution, and we believe that nothing but the necessity of combining their powers against a powerful common enemy would have accomplished the American Union in it’s present form. That great work having, however, been perfected, it’s benefits were soon demonstrated, and have all along been so great, that now it is considered by the citizens of a territory newly settled to be a proud and fortunate day when they achieve it’s admission as a State of the Union. The grand objection to the American Federal Union originally made was, the danger of the smaller States being swamped by the larger States. The remedy for this was the equality of representation of the States in the Upper House of Congress; while in the Lower House the individual States were represented according to population, in the Upper House each State had an equal representation. As an illustration we may mention that in 1850 New York had 33 members in the House of Representatives, while Delaware had only 1; but in the Senate, Delaware and New York had each two members. It was by the expedient of the Upper House that the repugnance of the smaller States in America to a federal Union was overcome, and if a federation is to be accomplished in Australia, it must be by the adoption of a similar principle.

On examining the history of the American Constitution we find that it was only after discussions carried on for a great number of years that the present form was adopted, and at first the system was comparatively crude. The first articles of confederation were framed in 1778, and the Constitution, in it’s present form, was agreed to in 1789. During that period it was subjected to every possible criticism and discussion both in Europe and America. It is the best federal Constitution, we believe, that exists, and forms a valuable model for our imitation. It should, however, be borne in mind by those who promote the movement here, that the strong motive for union, the attack of a common enemy, which existed in America, does not exist in Australia, and that possibly, therefore, the smaller colonies will not so readily agree to unite, except upon terms of greater equality than exists in America. For example, it is very possible that the smaller colonies here may insist upon something like equality even in the Lower House, or they may insist upon giving the legislative powers exclusively to one House, in which each colony should be equally represented. Even with such an imperfect system as this, however, we should not regret a federation. In a congress of nations in Europe, where matters of mightier moment than will be discussed in Australia for some hundreds of years to come are determined, the representation of States is not according to population, and we can conceive that highly beneficial measures may be passed by delegates in equal numbers from each of the colonies. This may be a commencement, and in time, as was the case in the United States, a more perfect system may be matured.

It will be important to consider what powers shall be conceded to the federal Legislature; and it may be interesting to our readers at the present moment to describe the powers conferred by the Constitution of the United States on Congress. They are as follows:—

1. To levy and collect taxes, &c., to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, &c., shall be uniform throughout the States.

2. To borrow money on the general credit.

3. To regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the States, and with Indian tribes.

4. To establish an uniform rule of naturalisation, and uniform laws respecting bankruptcies.

5. To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin; and fix the standard of weights and measures.

6. To provide for punishment of counterfeiting coin, and currency.

7. To establish post-offices and post-roads.

8. To promote the progress of science and the arts, by patent and copyright.

9. To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court.

10. To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations.

11. To declare war, &c.

12. To raise and support armies, &c.

13. To provide and maintain a navy.

14. To make rules for government of land and naval forces.

15. To establish a militia force.

16. To provide for organising an army and disciplining the militia.

Such are the principal powers of the Congress of the United States, specially mentioned in the 8th section of the Constitution; but they have others almost equally important. For example, they pass laws for taking the decennial census. The public lands are under their control. They have power to regulate banking and currency. They pass laws for regulating railways, steam-vessels, telegraphs, and for establishing and maintaining lights along the coasts.

On all these subjects it is equally important that there should be uniform laws in Australia. Indeed it seems to us that the scheme of an union for the purposes named only requires to be placed clearly before the inhabitants of these colonies in order to gain their universal and cordial assent, and we sincerely trust that the various Legislatures and our brethren of the press will lend their hearty aid in this preliminary work. They will thereby effectually promote the accomplishment of a measure the honour and the benefit of which to the people of Australia it is almost impossible to over-estimate.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday 17 January 1857, page 4

decennial = occurring every ten years (in other contexts, something lasting ten years)

sub silentio = Latin for “under silence”; in legal terms, it refers to something which is implied but not expressly stated

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