Australian identity at federation

Background to Federation

The Australian colonies federated in 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia. The initial idea (to have a central government that coordinates defence and the affairs that the colonies/states have 'in common’) goes back to the 1840s. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the move to federation had gathered momentum, until all that needed to be achieved was the formal arrangement under which the six colonies would be unified. Clearly, any new arrangement or government would be responsible for the common defence of Australia, would encourage free trade between the states and establish a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown. By the time of Federation, there was already a developing idea of Australia as a nation separate from Britain, and that was more than just a set of separate colonies. Having close institutional ties with Britain and being part of the British Empire, however, were still vital to being ‘Australian’ at this time.

Overall aim

The aim of this investigation is to explore the concept of national identity by investigating the nature of Australian identity at the time of Federation in 1901. By participating in this exploration you will:

  • develop your understanding of a major historical event – Federation
  • use your skills as a researcher to gather, analyse and synthesise information
  • draw conclusions as to the historical effects Federation had on a developing Australian identity
  • refine your understanding of the concept of identity.  

Focus questions

  1. What was the nature of Australian identity at Federation?
  2. How did Federation influence the development of an Australian identity?  

Introductory activity  

Before embarking on the main investigation, you should explore the notion of identity as a concept.

1. Draw a ‘layered onion’ diagram similar to the one provided. This diagram will help to explain how we can explore the concept of Australian identity and its many layers.  

(Hint: The inner circle should be labelled ‘definition of identity’; the second, ‘my identity’; the third, ‘my community identity’; and the fourth, ‘Australian identity’.)  

2. As a class, brainstorm the meaning of the term ‘identity’ and write some descriptive words and phrases in the centre circle. You may wish to consult a dictionary to assist with this process.

3. Spend a few minutes writing words and phrases in the next layer to describe ‘your' identity. While doing this task, think of the factors that may have shaped your identity, such as family history and culture. Once you have completed this task, turn to another class member and share what you have written.

4. Now have a go at filling in the last two layers of the onion, representing 'community' and, lastly, 'Australian' identity.

5. Look at the website ‘Belonging’ and the History of Australia Day .Would you modify your descriptions in any way?